Editor’s note: In India, the monsoon nurtures and devastates; it brings life, and sometimes death; it frightens — and bewitches; it is both anticipated and dreaded; longed for and wished away. It is also inextricably linked with the culture of India. The rains have inspired poets, writers, musicians, artists to create some of their most compelling works. The folk music tradition has been particularly inspired by the monsoon — be it in the North, South, East or West, there’s bound to be a folk song (or several) that speaks of the rain and what it represents. In this series, based on conversations with folk musicians and experts, we examine #MonsoonMusic.
In part 2 — Himachal Pradesh. See more from the series here.
Each of Himachal Pradesh’s 12 districts has its own tradition of folk songs about the rains, defined by the topography.
In the Chamba region for instance, a rich tradition of singing Kunjari Malhar in the presence of devtas has thrived over centuries. (In Himachal, each village has its own devta and an oracle, through which the devta addresses devotees.) In the Kangra and Mandi regions, the treacherous terrain forced the menfolk to migrate in search of employment; this in turn gave birth to an entire genre of birah songs (verses about separation from the beloved), which women would sing while addressing the clouds or the migratory birds. Through these songs, the women would express their yearning for their lovers.
These folk songs were composed at a time when road connectivity in the hills was next to nonexistent. During the rains, the rivers would swell and flood the plains — making the men’s return impossible. At the same time, the season was also marked by the sowing of paddy. The women would sing as they worked in the fields, their songs describing the beauty and fury of rains, the hardships of their life, and of course, sorrow at being separated from their men.
The geographical constraints also meant the people of the hills had little interaction with the outside world. Therefore, the tradition of singing songs was attached to certain superstitions. For example, in the Mandi region, women were told if they sang Chhinje (songs to be sung only in the Chaitra month) misfortunes would befall their brothers. Similarly, Malhar would be sung strictly in the month of Sawan, following certain rituals.
Moreover, specific tribes would be assigned the responsibility of singing these songs: In Mandi region, members of the Hesi tribe would visit households to play Manglachari on the pahadi shehnai at the onset of Sawan. In the Chamba region, Abdals — who hail from Bharya village near Chamba — usually sang Malhar. Many of them migrated to Pakistan after Partition, leaving a vacuum in the tradition.
The singing of the highly melodic Kunjari Malhar in Chamba has a long tradition that combines historical, geographical and cultural elements. A fair is held on the second Sunday of the month of Sawan at Chaugan in Chamba; the ‘Minjar Mela (fair of maize)’ commemorates the large-heartedness of its king, who once accepted the gift of a sheaf of maize from a poor woman. The centuries-old fair also celebrates the victory of the Chamba king over the ruler of Trigarta (now called Kangra) in 935 AD.
People assemble from across the region at the fair, wearing silk tufts as a symbol of minjar; they also carry in their hands a paddy plant, a rupee coin, a coconut and a seasonal fruit – all tied up in a red cloth, meant as an offering to their devta. A huge procession for 200 deities, accompanied by singers and dancers, descends on Chaugan from the neighbouring villages, and the fair commences with the singing of Kunjari Malhar.
The most notable songs of Kunjari Malhar are addressed to kunj, a bird found in the hills around this time. “Jaa meri Kunjariyo, barsat aave mere Rama, udi ke mila, kaiyon udi ke mila, mere preetam, ho Rama…” the singer tells the bird, pleading with it to carry her message to her beloved, promising gifts if the bird does so.
The Kunjari Malhar songs are based on raga Malhar, whereas Gaddi songs (Gaddi is a nomadic tribe of the Chamba and Kangra regions) are based on ragas like Tilak Kamod, Des, Malhar etc. All the songs have a common theme: that of the nayika yearning to be united with her lover. One finds plenty of Brij Bhasha and Urdu words in these songs; this is because the Abdals, who were Muslims, are said to have migrated from Avadh, bringing with them the richness of that region’s compositions.
These songs are well composed and follow a slow rhythmic arrangement. Himachal’s folk songs are noted for being melodic, and are sung with fine tonal variations.
Here’s a snippet of one of the popular folks songs about the rain from the Chamba region, in which the nayika addresses a cloud, disclosing that since being separated from her lover, she has lost all interest in daily chores:
O re badra, mera piya gayo pardes/ sawan aayo, aayo re sainya, tora laiyan, badra mera piya pardes/ na main nhati na main dhoti, na main kita singar/ na main sej chadhke suti/ve mera saiya gayo pardes, sawan aayo re…
In another song, also addressed to the clouds, the nayika speaks of the heaviness in her heart at the enforced separation from her beloved:
The lyrics of one song are rendered as a duet between mother and daughter. The mother is concerned as to why her daughter looks so emaciated, to which, the latter responds that the screams of a peacock have been keeping her awake all night. The mother then proposes to have the bird killed, but the daughter insists that she wishes to keep it, in a cage:
Sun dhiye meri ho, tugdi tu kiyan kari hoi ho, pavdi adiyan mor jo bole ho ammaji, inne meri need gavai ho…
In a Gaddi song, a girl requests a tailor to stitch a smart coat for her so that she can visit the Minjar Mela.
In the Mandi region, it is mostly women who sing the songs, since the men would be working in distant lands to keep the home fires burning. A popular verse decries this need to be parted:
“Chalyo mhada sawan, mere ghar na aan, jal thal ho rahi,” the woman sings. “Piya mhare pardes, sawana re…”
Notes on the text–The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Satish Sharma, a scholar who has written several books on Himachali folk music; Rupeshwari Devi, a collector of folk songs from Mandi; and Vijay Sharma, a miniature artist from Chamba. This article would not have been possible without the insights shared by these experts.
Notes on the art – All artwork courtesy Kangra Arts Promotion Society. Details for each, in order of appearance in this post:
Tile: Sheltering from Rain | Theme: Bihari Satsai | Medium: Mineral pigments and pure gold on hand made paper
Among the most delightful paintings by the master artist of the paintings of the Bhagavad Purana series. Krishna, the other cowherds and the gopis take refuge under a pair of trees during a sudden shower. Krishna and his favourite gopi shelter beneath a shawl. The cows provide a cover to the lovers. A liana embraces the tamala tree in its coils; the trees themselves seem locked in embrace. On the crown of a tree, a peacock – the lover of the cloud – shouts exultantly. Snow-white saras cranes soar into the sky. Meanwhile, two gopis carrying pitchers say to each other (as expressed in the following verses by the poet Bahadur; translated into English):
Title: Tryst in the Forest | Theme: Bihari Satsai | Medium: Mineral pigments and pure gold on hand made paper
Radha and Krishna tryst on the outskirts of the village. As they stand on a bed of leaves, there is a flash of lightning among the dark clouds and it begins to drizzle. Krishna raises his blanket to protect Radha from the rain. This is a painting of rare beauty expressive of the tenderness of love.
Title: Month of Shravana | Theme: Baramasa | Medium: Mineral pigments and pure gold on hand made paper
From the Baramasa series of Kangra paintings depicting the month of Shravana (July-August). The rainy month of Shravana is a month of lovers – amorous and passionate. The lovers are seated on a chauki and the lady points to the lightning flashing across the sky; she urges her lover not to leave her alone in the month of Shravana. The painting is inspired by the following verse from Keshavdas’ Kavipriya, translated into English:
“The streams look so lovely, as they rush to meet the sea.The creepers enchant the eye embracing young trees lovingly. The lightning flashes restlessly as she sports with rolling clouds. The peacocks, with their shrill cries, announce the mating of earth and sky. All lovers meet in this month of Shravana , why forsake me then, my love?”
Title: Month of Bhadon | Theme: Baramasa | Medium: Mineral pigments and pure gold on hand made paper
From the Baramasa series of Kangra paintings depicting the month of Bhadon (August-September). The lovers are seated in a balcony of a garden-house watching cranes in flight. On hearing a clap of thunder, the woman clings to her lover. The dark clouds, lightning, and peacock depict the ambience of Bhadon. The painting is inspired by the following verses from Keshavdas’ Kavipriya, translated into English:
“The purple clouds are gathering, the thunder rolls and rain pours in torrents. The wind blows fiercely, the cicadas chirp continuously, tigers and lions roar and herds of elephants fell the trees. The day is dark like the night. Living at home is like nectar and separation is like poison. So I pray, leave me not in this month of Bhadon.”