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 Assam, due to the onslaught of the monsoons every year, there is massive destruction — human lives are lost, animals get washed away, lands get eroded, and crops are destroyed. This season, undoubtedly, plays a decisive role in the lives of communities here, in both positive and negative ways.
Assam is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic state. Here, tribes and communities follow their own rituals and customs, so it is natural that different genres of folk music coexist. This diversity is also evident in the variety of folk music that pertains to the monsoons in particular.
Some of the prominent folk genres in Assam are Goalporiya Lokageet, Kaamrupi Lokageet, Bihu geet, Ojapali, songs of the tea garden community, songs of the Char-Chapori people — the list could go on.
In the Goalpara region, women who belong to the indigenous Koch-Rajbonshi community worship a banana tree which they consider to be their rain god. In this community, it is believed that if women got together and performed songs and dance to impress the rain god, the dry season will end and the earth will be blessed with rains. Among the Koch-Rajbongshis, this rain god is known as ‘Hudum’ and its rituals are restricted strictly to women. This practice usually takes place between the months of April and June.
Punam Barua, a Goalporiya folk singer who has contributed to the folk songs of the Koch-Rajbongshis by occasionally performing them for radio, television and other events, says, “Koch-Rajbongshi women worship the rain god by scattering water upwards.” Barua is the niece of the well-known Goalporiya singer, the Late Pratima Pandey Barua, who is known for making Goalporiya folk songs more well-known and appreciated in the country. (The Goalporiya tradition itself is prevalent in the lower Assam districts such as Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon. Barua says most of the songs in the Goalporiya genre are romantic and sung by women.) ‘Hudum’ too is a part of Goalporiya Lokageet, but sung primarily by the Koch-Rajbongshi women. “Hudum has been handed down from one generation to another, and is preserved through oral tradition,” Barua said.
Though it is not the theme in entirety, there are parts of ‘Hudum’ that have direct references to the rain. One particular prayer that Barua presented to us has a line that says, 'Aaai Aaai rey kaala megh, Aai porobot dhaya' (Pour pour, O rain! The dark clouds have arrived and can be seen rolling behind the hills).
Another instance where rain songs are sung is during a ritual called ‘Bhekuli Biya’, which is practised by most Assamese communities. ‘Bhekuli’ means frog and ‘Biya’ means wedding; the ritual centres on a wedding between two frogs to appease the rain gods during summer, to open up the skies and bring rain to ensure a good harvest. During this wedding, certain songs are sung to invite the rains to arrive.
Maitrayee Patar, an independent artist and singer who likes to experiment with indigenous melodies feels that there may be "fragmented references of rain in the folksongs of the tribes residing in the foothills of Assam". She says, “There might be passing references to the rain in the lyrics of a folk song about farming, but it will be hard to find an entire song dedicated to the monsoons." Maitrayee, who is also a PhD research scholar at the Tezpur University, explains this phenomenon further, “In Assam, the monsoon plays a significant role in the lives of those who live near the rivers. For example, the people who live near the Char-Chaporis will sing folk songs about the rain because their livelihoods are associated with the river.”
Char-Chaporis are alluvial sand bars created by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. People of the Char-Chaporis face problems such as river erosion, floods, illiteracy, high population, etc. Shalim M Hussain, an Assam-based writer and researcher, agrees with Patar. “Folk music is tied to the life of the community it comes from. Since the people of the Char-Chaporis live very close to the river, they’re heavily invested in agriculture and associated occupations. There are several references to the river and the change of seasons in their songs.” According to Hussain, when the river swells because of the rains, the people living closest to the river are the first to experience its effects. “Like all communities that are dependent on agriculture, the arrival and retreat of monsoons is a recurring theme in the songs of the Char-Chapori people,” he said.
Hussain speaks about one particular song he grew up listening to:
‘Bristi Ja, Bristi Ja
Kumar para diya
Kumarera boiya ase gag tana diya
Hager modhye maase
Kodal diya chaasi…’
(‘Go rain go, go over the potters’ village,
The potter are sitting
With their goitres hanging out
The goitres are swarming with flies
Scrape them off with a spade…’)
“The song is silly but it was our incantation to persuade the rains to leave our village and go to the next one instead,” he explained. They believed that if it was done right, the downpour would cease.
— The image used depicts Akbar and Tansen visiting Swami Haridas in Vrindavan. Swami Haridas is to the right, playing the lute; Akbar is to the left, dressed as a common man; Tansen is in the middle, listening to Haridas. Jaipur-Kishangarh mixed style, ca. 1750. Via Wikimedia Commons