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Nectar in a rain raga

india Updated: Jul 29, 2006 14:01 IST
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Ustad Amjad Ali Khan reminded us this week in Inner Voice that music is where the One God’s voice may be heard. Indeed, music, according to the Hindus, is said to comprise all ashta seva or eight services to God that win us soul growth.
The Quran Sharief, as Pakistani ghazal king Ghulam Ali told me just last year, contains ragas like Bhairavi, Bhairon and Kalangra  (the Arabic Bhairavi). And how may we sufficiently praise Guru Nanak Dev who invented a religion in which music is the form of worship?

To dive in a bit here, hear how he compares the cosmos to a puja thaal: Gagan mein thaal, rav-chand deepak, bane taarika mandal moti/Dhoop malyaanlo pavan chavro kare, sagal banraye phulat jyoti/Kaisi aarti hoye? (The sky is Your salver, the sun and moon Your lamps, the stars of the firmament Your pearls; All the earth’s sandalwood is Your incense, the winds are Your whisks, the flowers of all creation are heaped before You — what shall I worship You with?)

The Church in the West has brilliant music with composer Johannes Bach famously declaring that the noblest music was that in praise of God while Mozart’s High Mass compositions leave you stunned with their intense, almost unbearable beauty. (Write in to the Maestro Channel on World Space Radio with a request if you’d like to check it out.) However, my favourite western classical music story is about Handel’s opera, Creation.

The composer, a deeply religious man, set the story of Creation to music as found in the first book of the Bible (Genesis), with shades of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The work was premiered in Vienna in the April of 1798. When the chorus sang, “And God said, Let there be Light,” such a divine blast of music ensued that the audience gasped in shock and awe - and collectively burst into tears. Storywise, it is considered a rather straightforward opera with not much action, but the composer is said to have valued it very much as a personal benchmark in evolution and inspiration.

From tears to rain is a natural step in this weather. (Remember Charlie Chaplin’s remark that he liked to walk in the rain so nobody could see him crying?) The first thing that strikes us as rain music naturally, are the Malhar ragas, for we’ve grown up enchanted by tales of how Mian Tansen and Baiju Bawra caused the skies to pour with their singing.

And here’s another beloved story from the Carnatic tradition. As many will know, there are three 18th century composers who are considered the Holy Trinity of Carnatic music: Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. By a curious coincidence, all three overlapped in the temple town of Thirvaroor in Tamil Nadu. It was a lull in political history those days in South India under the enlightened patronage of the Nayak and Bhonsale kings, whereas the North was undergoing a turbulent time. In this calm, pleasant spring, many wonderful things happened in the spiritual and musical life of South India. Muthuswami Dikshitar composed mostly in Sanskrit (so it’s surprising more Hindustani singers haven’t picked up on him). His parents sent him off to Kashi with the yogi, Chidambaranatha, who became his spiritual master and is said to have gifted him the sweet and blessed vina that he was to excel in playing.

What’s so interesting is that while rooted firmly in the ‘Carnatic’, Dikshitar had an open musical mind. As young men, he and his brother Baluswami in the company of their Mudaliar patrons, frequented Fort St George (Madras) where they heard European music played by the English military band. While Baluswami learnt the western violin and pioneered its use in Carnatic music, Dikshitar had fun composing Sanskrit lyrics for 37 western tunes.

The Dishitar rain story is about how he sang the raga Amritavarshini to invoke rain on the drought-stricken village of Sattur in Tamil Nadu. Amritavarshini is like the Hindustani raga Malashree and literally means ‘shower of nectar’. Dikshitar hailed Devi as Ananda amrita karshini, amritavarshini. The story goes that when he sang Salilam varshaya varshaya (Let the rain pour), there was such a torrent from heaven that he had to plead, Sthambaya, sthambaya (stop, stop).

With such inspiring stories, and the history of the world is cached full of them, can we wonder that musicians beg us to stop fighting over externals that God is surely not so paltry as to bother with - and pay heed instead to the hidden Harmony?

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