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A song for the rains

For classical music practitioners, monsoons mean Malhar-drenched compositions. We played fly on the wall as four artistes welcomed the season’s first showers, reports Sumati Mehrishi.

music Updated: Jul 21, 2010 13:19 IST
Sumati Mehrishi

It’s the best time to enjoy a Malhar concert – when the whiff of coffee mingles with the smell of damp zari and the fragrance of wet earth. In the Hindustani classical music system, Malhar is the family of ragas associated with the rains. Apocryphal or not, we’ve all heard stories about legendary musicians Mian Tansen and Baiju Bawra who could make the heavens open with their divine singing.

We invited four artistes to Delhi’s stunning, tomb-dotted Lodhi Garden on a ‘mad’ rainy evening to get a full Malhar experience: Vocalist brothers Ritesh and Rajnish Mishra from the Benares gharana, sitar player Shubhendra Rao (disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar) and his wife, cellist Saskia Rao De Haas.

As a shower drenches him, Ritesh Mishra laughs and says, “Abhi to Malhar ka naam hee liyaa hai, gaaya bhi nahin. Yeh to naam lene se hee kaam ho gaya.” (We have only been talking about the Malhars, we haven’t even sung them yet. But just talking seems to have done the trick.)

MalharAdds Shubhendra Rao with a smile, "It’s crazy. You think of the Malhars from the heart during this rainy season and it starts raining! Only this morning, Saskia and I were listening to a beautiful track in Miyan ki Malhar by Pandit A Kanan. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but a beautiful one!"



The wet spark

Saskia, who has been in India for a decade, remembers her first experience of the monsoon. She was travelling in an auto rickshaw to Delhi University, and as she recalls, "My cello was with me. It was raining heavily and the roads were flooded. So I picked up the cello and held it high, to shield it from the rain. As my rickshaw lurched along, I saw children playing on the rain-clogged roads and it made me realise how people relate rains with happiness in India. It was a new experience, considering I come from Holland where it rains almost throughout the year. And there is nothing pleasant, enjoyable or romantic about the rains there!"

At the photo shoot, with the domes and arches of Lodhi Gardens in the background, the Mishras – dressed in denims and kurtas, cell phones in hand – start singing the most exquisite Benaras gharana compositions that they have learnt from their gurus. As the drizzle sets in, the characteristic sounds which the Benaras style is known for give way to the melodious set of notes that characterise the rain ragas. Sighs Rajnish Mishra, “You know, we have had the wonderful experience of singing the Malhars on the banks of the Ganga in Benaras during the rainy season.”

Giving the Mishras company is Saskia, the Dutch nayika, holding her skirt as delicately as she would hold the cello bow, as she avoids the puddles. Her husband Shubhendra is oblivious of his drenched kurta – he is already getting immersed in the Malhar madness.

As they sing, bystanders stop in their tracks, stirred by the songs. Maybe not all of them understand the ragas, but they can’t help but listen. It’s the kind of experience they’d never get in a closed, tight, formal concert space.
magic in the garden

Music festivals that mark the rainy season usually follow the conventional concert style -- the artistes present a couple of Malhars or rain-associated ragas, followed by a semi-classical or folk form like the jhoola. At an evening which sees performances by more than one artiste, a raga is traditionally never repeated.

So artistes usually find themselves involved in something of a guessing game, as they wait in the green room but keep a keen eye (ear?) on what is happening on stage, and prepare to sing one of the options left for them.

Delhi has had its own share of Malhar coincidences, when renditions of the rain ragas led to showers, even downpours. A few years ago, a dhrupad recital by Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar saw the season’s first drizzle at the open-air Nehru Park venue.

The romantic images a musician conjures up with his Malhars can sometimes be even richer in expression than a Pahadi school painting. Think midnight blue rain-pregnant clouds, the nayika, her drenched clothing hugging her curves, and doe-eyed Krishna surrounded by peacocks and deer.