Malhar: The Many Legends of a Monsoon Soaked Melody

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    In Indian classical tradition, music is as much a science as an art. It is also a pulsating being - with moods and tones and colour. The Monsoons for instance is the time for Raga Malhar - resonant of the first rain and the flushed countryside. This raga is also steeped in history and traces its origins to the Court of Mughal Emperor Akbar, as Nikhil Inamdar explains

    The otherwise liberal musical tradition of northern India is modulated by a stubbornly sanctified, but sophisticated theory of time. Specific melodic forms (or ragas) are performed only during apportioned stretches of the day called the prahars. Subtle aesthetic nuances, such as the underlying tonal skin of a raga, or the mood it evokes, decide time of the day it is sung. Adherence to this ritual is expected, and it is believed, a performer can truly discover the pinnacle of a raga's melodic splendor, if the time tradition is practiced scrupulously.

    Ragas are performed only during apportioned stretches of the day called the prahars

    A bulk of the raga universe is codified by this time theory. But a select few have an alliance also, with the changing cycle of seasons. The melodic scales of Basant and Bahar for instance are associated with the bloom in early spring. Deepak is sung at the time of the blazing hot summer, and Hemant when the early winter chill begins to set in. The myriad Malhars meanwhile, invoke the countless moods of the monsoon, when empty, listless skies across the Indian peninsula get swallowed by exploding gray clouds, flashes of lightning and raging tempests, drenching the desiccated earth.

    Historians have traced the beginnings and development of Malhar and its derivatives (there are at least 30 variants, if not more in the family, named after its various creators or formed as combinations with other ragas) all the way back to the early 15th century. But it was Mian Tansen, the legendary musician in Emperor Akbar's court who gave it the exalted stature that it commands today.

    The enduring legend has it that Tansen, one of the nine crowning jewels (navratnas) of the court of Akbar was deeply despised by the other courtiers, for the great friendship that he shared with the emperor. So, when word got to them that Tansen could set his surroundings ablaze in a towering inferno with his rendition of Raga Deepak, they planned to destroy him in his own musical prowess, ensuring that the emperor ordered Tansen to accomplish the feat before his own eyes.

    Unable to disregard his master's command, Tansen as the myth goes, taught his daughter to sing a melody beckoning the dark clouds to come down in torrents, and douse the flame that would burn him to ashes. That melody, was the raga Megh Malhar.

    Symbolic of the romance and rejuvenating power of the first showers, as a long sweltering summer beats a sluggish retreat, this powerful allegory has over the years, come to be interpreted literally rather than as a metaphor. One can find it depicted on ancient Mughal miniatures, hear it from the excitable tourist guide showing credulous visitors around Fatehpur Sikri, or watch it as a torrid drama unfold on celluloid in films such as the eponymous Tansen (1943) or Baiju Bawra (1952).

    It was Mian Tansen, the legendary musician in Emperor Akbar’s court who gave raga Megh Malhar its exalted stature

    It would be a hard task to get a modern day musician to attest to the magical facility of a raga in influencing natural meteorological phenomenon. But Mian Tansen's passing hasn't left the legend of Malhar completely bereft of a living legacy.

    When in 1948, a famine struck the region of Surat in South Gujarat, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, one of the greats of the Gwalior gharana was summoned to appeal to the rain gods. "A stage was set up at Killa Maidan - outside the Surat Castle... For three days, the town was soaked in the stalwart's voice. On the evening of the third day, it started drizzling. Finally, Surat experienced monsoon," reported the country's leading newspaper Times of India.

    The Pandit dismissed it saying it was god answering to the farmers' prayers. But the story is reflective in some sense of the abiding belief Indians have in the divine, transcendental power of music.

    A skeptic may rightly scoff at the idea, but for anyone with a keen ear, it is hard to dismiss the astounding virtuosity and strength of Hindustani classical music and its ragas in manifesting the diverse moods of nature. An excerpt from B. R. Deodhar's book Pillars of Hindustani Music, reproduced by Rajan Parrikar, on his website recounts how a turbulent sea and pouring rain got Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan so charged up, that he got out of a taxi in the middle of Marine Drive in Mumbai to do his riyaz. He writes

    "Whenever a particularly massive wave broke and water spouted up, Khansaheb’s tana rose in synchronization and descended when water cascaded down. Water rose in a single massive column but split at the top and fell in broken slivers; so did Khansaheb’s tana in raga Miyan Malhar. Sometimes, if his ascending notes failed to keep pace with the surging water, he was angry with himself but tried again till it synchronized perfectly with the surging water."

    The story depicts how the fury and drama of the rain is interpreted through the abstractions of a raga. If the tanas characterize the crashing rain, Chanchal Uberoi, a musician and physicist writes, that the use of "two positions of the note ga both flat and sharp, consecutively in a swinging, heavy tone", make Mian Ki Malhar reminiscent of thunder. The interplay between the natural and flattened ni meanwhile is said to evoke running water.

    In the land of the mystical, the question of Malhar's rain bringing abilities is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. But no one can deny the sublime capacity of our great music in depicting the essence and atmospherics of a beloved season with such vividness and creative imagination.


    Nikhil Inamdar is a multimedia journalist with a decade of experience across mediums such as online, magazine and television. He regularly contributes to leading digital publications and television news channels. His first book Rokda: How Baniyas Do Business was brought out by Random House India in 2014.

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