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 3 — Rajasthan. See more from the series here.
The earth has a deeply symbiotic relationship with the rain, but few places anticipate the monsoon with as much anxiety, or welcome it with as much joy, as the desert. The parched landscape receives the season’s showers with gratitude, and in doing so, is transformed.
In nature and essence, the rain and the desert seem to be exact opposites — one evokes images of abundance, the other, of bleakness. And yet, it is when the thirst is deepest that even the smallest drop of water is treasured.
“In Rajasthan, a sacred relationship is believed to exist between music and the monsoon,” says Mame Khan, the renowned folk and Sufi singer. Is it any surprise then, that the desert state of India has its own heritage of folk songs about the rain?
The Manganiar community — the traditional minstrels of Rajasthan — especially, has a rich repertoire of monsoon music. Says Chugge Khan, virtuoso musician, singer, composer, arranger and teacher: “In the Jaisalmer and Barmer regions, rain is rare and is often a long time coming. Some years, it doesn’t rain at all. The Manganiars were traditionally asked by the Rajput rulers to sing and pray in the temples for rain. An old man would lead the singing, with the dhol, harmonium and khartaal as accompaniments — the dhol being most important, as it is in all ceremonies. If the Manganiars were successful in singing for the monsoons, everyone would be very happy, and money, food and clothes would be distributed to all by the Rajputs.”
The rain songs span numerous ragas. Among the most important, Chugge Khan says, is the Megh Raga, which comprises “six main ragas and 36 raginis”. The noted folk musician Kutle Khan says that most gharanas also compose Raag Malhar — the raga for the rains in the Indian classical music tradition — in their own distinct styles, coming up with many variations. Malhar, of course, is the raga that many believe, when rendered well, can bring down instantaneous showers.
Kutle Khan narrates an anecdote which reaffirms the power of Raag Malhar: “When the emperor Akbar asked Tansen to sing Raag Deepak, Tansen did so, and all the lamps of the darbar lit up. However, Tansen’s body became so hot as a consequence that he felt he would perish of the heat. Then, two sisters — Tana and Riri — began to sing Raag Malhar. This induced rainfall, which cooled Tansen’s body immediately. The story has only strengthened the belief in the power of Raag Malhar to bring the rain,” he says.
Desh, Mallari, Sarang and Sorath are some of the other ragas that relate to the rains in Rajasthan. Explaining the proliferation of ragas pertaining to the monsoon, Ankur Malhotra, co-founder of the indie music label Amarrass Records, says, “The monsoons are an integral part of the annual cycle of being in the rural desert communities of Rajasthan. The rains are the primary source of water for communities for the entire year, replenishing supplies in the lakes and tanks and water-wells that are scattered across the region. Considering most of the folk musicians are also small-scale farmers, the monsoon is critical for the well-being of their crops and animals. The sowing and harvesting of crops is also timed with the monsoons. The importance of the monsoon is underscored by its inclusion in several folk songs which make direct and indirect references to the rains.”
A significant aspect of the folk music tradition for the monsoon in Rajasthan is the sense of community it engendered. Mame Khan recounts that in the days of yore, “all the musicians would live in joint families in one house in the village”. “When there was heavy rain, it was quite common for all of them to come together, and sing and develop these songs. They especially sang these songs for royal patrons — but they also imagined themselves and their beloved ones to be part of the romantic stories (they wove through the lyrics),” he says.
The rain songs in Rajasthan differ from those of other regions in India. Kutle Khan says that the lyrics and compositions for the monsoon songs display the influence of the state’s geography: “Most Manganiar musicians live in the desert. So you won’t find many references in praise of the mountains and rivers in Rajasthani folk songs. One usually notices this in other forms, such as Himachali or Bengali folk music.”
However, the songs do refer to the beauty of nature, and the happiness brought by the onset of the rains. “They also talk about the activities of farmers, birds, animals, and express the sentiments of housewives pining for their husbands who are away for work in this most romantic of seasons. Since my community sings for the royal families, we render bhajans for Lord Shiva in the holy month of Saawan as well,” Kutle Khan says.
Mame Khan adds, “The lyrics of the rain songs in Rajasthan reflect hope, love and longing. Often, the beauty of the season is compared to the beauty of a girl.”
Among the most popular Rajasthani rain songs is ‘Baalam Ji Mhaara’. Chugge Khan points to the multiple levels at which the lyrics operate: The women cry over their husbands who have gone away, promising to return soon. However, the menfolk still haven’t returned, so all the women can do is stay home and watch for the rain and their husbands. When the monsoon does come, they are still alone, and the rain mirrors their tears. Here’s a rendition of the song by Chugge Khan:
The theme is reflected in another well-known Rajasthani rain song, ‘Saawan’. The husband leaves for foreign lands while the wife stays back, alone save for her yearnings. After months of waiting, the monsoon appears in all its beauty, yet the beloved does not. The wife worries over who she will celebrate the festival of Teej with.
Mame Khan recites from the song’s lyrics:
Chanda thhanre hanji chandne jhilwa gayi talab,
Pardesha mai bheege balmo,
Ghar mai bheege thhanri naar…
(In the middle of the night, she goes by the moonlight to the lakeshore to bathe in the rain, wondering if the same rain will touch her beloved wherever he might be.)
As the song draws to a close, the husband returns, and the wife is overwhelmed with joy. The song takes on an ecstatic tone as she sings:
Saawan ayo, saawan ayo, ho mharo saawan ayo...
(The rain has come, the rain has come, oh my rain has come!)
Here’s a rendition of ‘Saawan’ by Mame Khan:
For Kutle Khan, it is the folk song 'Jhirmir Barse Meh' that perfectly evokes not just the theme of separation from the beloved, but also the way the rain is welcomed in the region, with lyrics like:
Raat andhari bijuri chamke,
Piya bin aawe nahi neend re,
Baalam ji mhara jhirmir barse meh...
(The wife is alone at home and is frightened by the sound of thunder. She cannot sleep without her husband.)
The song goes on to say:
Saawan aayo re saawan aayo,
Haanji bhaadwo re aayo re megh-malhar,
aayo nandi to bir runa ghar padharo
(The month of Saawan, the season of the monsoon, is welcomed. The relatives who begin to stream into one’s home during this month are also welcomed by the singer.)
Here’s a rendition of ‘Jhir Mir Barse Meh’ by Kutle Khan:
Tune in to more of Rajasthan's monsoon music, with this playlist courtesy Amarrass Records:
‘Teej’, performed by the Barmer Boys
‘Chomasu’, performed by The Lakha~Madou Project
The master of the sindhi sarangi Lakha Khan performs with virtuoso kora player Madou Sidiki Diabate. Accompanying them on dholak is Dane Khan (Lakha Khan’s son).
'Jhirmir Jhirmir Mehuda Barse', performed by Kheta Khan