If you haven’t been up at dawn during the season of Basant, felt the cool breeze wafting through a mango tree, heard a koel singing on one of its branches and watched the sunlight grow dappled, you haven’t lived. So the musicians of Banaras will tell you.
Basant is a season of happiness and hope, when winter finally gives way to the greenery of spring. It ends with Holi, which begins Chait, the first month of summer.
All kinds of weather come together during Basant, both exterior and interior. During a typical Basant day, you feel hot during the day, chilly at night and wonder if it might rain, all at once. The sun blazes and clouds over dreamily, a breeze trickles over your skin, making your hair stand on end, and sometimes thunderstorms startle you awake at night. Basant is the only time of the year when all the winter and summer fruits and vegetables are available together, as people say. It is the most whimsical, unpredictable, strange and joyous time of the year.
Because Basant is the end of all seasons and heralds the start of the new year, it brings everything together and wipes out old diseases and enmities. It is a season of recklessness and abandon, as captured by the festival of Holi, but also one of gravity and drama. The joy of Basant is not light and frivolous, but deep.
And so, Basant is the only raga that uses, amazingly, all 12 notes of the scale. A melodic pattern that captures its character is this:
m d r’ S’, r’ N d P, [P] mG m->G, m G r S (an explanation of this notation follows this article)*
Basant is an utrang – pradhan raga or a raga that emphasises the ascending scale. In particular, it is the m-d-r’ chalan or sequence, with the jump from d to the tar saptak or higher octave, r’, that creates the magnificence of Basant – that makes seeds sprout, buds open and the entire forest fill with colour in a single sunlit sweep. Basant’s drama, its gambhir prakriti or grave nature, is achieved through the use of meend, or smooth, elongated notes and phrases.
If you add a N to m-d-r’, turning the phrase into m-d-N-S, you get a different raga, called Paraj. Paraj is a chanchal prakriti raga. That is, if you make Basant restless and take away its meend, it can become Paraj. The two ragas ‘sit next to each together’ (‘bagal me baithe hai’) and an inexperienced performer may slip from Basant into Paraj if not careful.
Basant belongs to Purvi that, or the Purvi family of ragas, which includes raga Purvi itself and other well-known ragas such as Puriya, Puriya Dhanashri and Shri, as well as, of course, Paraj. In the melodic pattern given above, the first two phrases take from Shri. But Shri differs from Basant in its emphasis on rishabh, the second note of the ascending scale, and its r-P coupling.
Another melodic pattern that captures Basant goes: G m d N m, G, m d G m G, m G r S.
These phrases are reminiscent of Puriya, except with the difference of the komal dhaivat in Basant.
Ashish Mishra, a young vocalist from Banaras, sings Raga Basant.
The khayal bandish or composition that he sings goes:
Saras rang phool rahi, bagiyan phulvari ayi,
Ritu basant ayo sakhi, bol rahi koyaliya.
Ramdas sajan bina, jiyara nahi dharat dhir,
Ayo sakhi beg mohe, daras tu dikha jao.
A girl says to her girlfriend, Basant has arrived: yellow flowers blossom, filling the garden, and a Koel sings. Ramdas says, without your beloved, the heart is afraid. Go, friend, tell your beloved to show his face.
The composition is by Ramdas, one of the great singers of the Banaras gharana.
There are many varieties of Raga Basant. One of them uses a shudh or natural dhaivat, the sixth note in the ascending scale, instead of a komal or flat dhaivat and is called Shudh Dhaivat Basant.
Here, Mishra sings a composition in Shudh Dhaivat Basant by Sajile, who was Ramdas’s disciple and the court singer at the Ramnagar fort across the Ganga from Banaras, from where the kings of Banaras traditionally ruled over the city. In his famous book Sajile Sangrah, he records many of the thumris, dadras and chaitis of Banaras – all romantic, playful genres of songs special to the season of Chait and the festival of Holi.
The words of the song are:
Ayo ritu basant sab mil ban bahar
Amva bauri ban, lata lalit lasant.
Praphulit sara somahi, pit rang rajit
Gunijan Sajile gun gavat
(The season of Basant has come.
The mango trees are sprouting in the forest, the vines are blossoming red.
The world is filled with nectar, yellow reigns everywhere.
All the wise people sing the praises of Sajile.)
Yet another variety of Basant is Basant Bahar, which combines two ragas, Basant and Bahar.
The composition that Mishra sings next, in Raga Basant Bahar, refers to Basant as ‘Ma’, because Saraswati is also worshipped during Basant, on the festival of Basant Panchami, also called Sarawati Puja.
Ma basant ayo sakhi,
Sab ban amva boran lage, bolan lage koyaliya.
Sab ragini shringar kar ayi, nayak ko man bas karveko,
Ramdas man bhayo re.
The bandish says:
Basant has come! In the whole forest, all the mango trees have begun to blossom, the koels have begun to sing. The raginis adorn themselves and present themselves to the nayak, the hero. Ramdas, seeing this, is filled with pleasure.
Perhaps if we all sing and listen to Basant together, we can become closer to the sun, the wind, the clouds, the birds, the trees. And then we can begin to transform inside and out, and make a truly new beginning, in harmony with ourselves and the living world around us.
Explanation of notation: Capitalised letters stand for shuddh (natural) notes and lower-case letters stand for teevr (sharp) notes. An apostrophe after a letter denotes a komal (flat) note. The arrow denotes meend or a slip from one note to another. The square parenthesis denotes murki or a wavered note.