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 1 — Punjab.See more from the series here.

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Grey clouds amass over green fields. Raindrops begin to splatter — in ones and twos, at first — then increasing steadily in frequency until the downpour is in earnest. The earth soaks up the torrent until her thirst is quenched; then the water flows swiftly away, carried into many rivers and streams. The monsoon has come to Punjab.

The land of the bhangra and giddha celebrates ‘Teeyan’ (Teej) in the month of Sawan. For an agrarian economy, the rains are essential — for a good crop, and as a symbol of fecundity. Is it any wonder then, that the season is celebrated in Punjab — through festivals, rituals and of course, song?

The folk music tradition of Punjab includes several songs dedicated to the rains; most of these are composed and sung by women. Traditionally, married women were sent back to their parents’ homes during Sawan. The separation was thought to ignite passion amid the lovelorn couples. So the songs sung during Sawan didn’t just celebrate the beauty of the season, or the rhythm of the falling raindrops — they also expressed the longing for one’s lover, and pent-up anguish against the in-laws. Once in their parents’ home, the women would reminisce over shared memories with the friends of their childhood, while also swapping anecdotes about their married lives.

In an agrarian economy, the rains are a symbol of fecundity

They would also sing of being reunited with their siblings, only to be separated again when they returned to their marital home. “Sawan veer ikkatthiyan kare, Bhadon chandri vichhode paave (The month of Sawan is blessed because it unites us with our brothers, but the cursed Bhadon separates us again),” state the lyrics of one particular song for the monsoon, depicting the women’s mixed feelings towards this time in their lives.

The women developed their own melodies — usually simple and rhythmic, easily sung by a group — and expressed their feelings through songs. Swings would be tied to the branches of trees, and the women would gather here, to sing their songs and dance during the month of Sawan. The songs are rendered in traditional boliyan, accompanied by the giddha dance.

The celebration of Teeyan is related to the giddha, because it is the women who sing and dance, whereas bhangra relates to Baisakhi. Since most of the folk songs for Sawan pertain to Teeyan, you won’t find men singing or composing these songs.

Punjab’s tradition of folk music for the rain also has a foundation in the ‘viraha’ (parting/separation/nostalgia) songs of the ‘Barah Masa’ ( a form of folk poetry in which the emotions and yearnings of the human heart are expressed in terms of the changing moods of nature over the 12 months of the year). Here, the season of the rains is given a spiritual import through songs composed by the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev; the lyrics express a yearning to meet the Creator. ‘Barah Masa’ compositions are also ascribed to Guru Arjan Dev.

Noted Punjabi folk singer Sukhi Brar says urbanisation has changed a lot of the established traditions, although monsoon folk songs continue to be associated with Teeyan. Most of these songs have been passed down orally, and the boliyan have changed over time.

“Gurmeet Bawa’s Teeyan songs are still sung by generations of women,” Brar says. “Miss Pooja’s songs from (the film) Teeyan Teej Diyan are also very popular. Two young girls from the Moga district — Pawandeep Kaur and Veerpal Kaur — have collected old folk songs; they conduct workshops on the right manner of singing (these) in the traditional way. I have a rich repertoire of Teej songs, from the very old to the new.”

In Punjab, songs about the monsoon also speak of a woman's yearning for her lover

Punjab’s songs for the monsoon are an ode to the beauty of the season. They wax lyrical about the rains, birdsong, and nature. They also speak of the women’s yearning for their lovers, as evinced in these lyrics shared by Sukhi Brar —

“Sawan aya ni/ral auo sahio ni/sabh tian khedan jaiye/hun aya sawan ni/pinghan piplin ja ke paiye/Pai ku ku kardi ni/sahio koel hanju dolhe/Papiha wekho ni/Bherha pee-pee kar ke bole/Paye pailan pande ni/bagi moran shor machaya/arhio khil khil phaulan ne/sanu mahia yad kariya.”

The dark clouds become a reminder of the eyes of the lover, and the women’s songs contain metaphors influenced from the Sufi culture of Punjab — "Aya sond (Sawan) da maheena aa, tun menu rab lagda naleh naleh Makka te Madina aa".

The lyrics also speak of the women’s feelings towards their sasural and maayka: "Sase teri mahen marh jaye, mere veer nu sukhi khand payee".

Punjab’s folk songs for the rains also contain many references to the swings that form such an essential part of Sawan (and Teeyan): “Uchay tahne peeng pa de/ jithey aap hulara aavey”. They speak of the women’s desire to swing higher and higher — until they touch the sky… Until they touch the grey, rain-laden clouds.

Listen to folk songs about Sawan here, and here.

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