In India, following the Barahmasa tradition (twelve months) the glory of each month is lovingly celebrated with poetry, music and art. Since the subjects of this tradition are normally lovers, monsoon is the favourite as it lends itself to myriad imageries of passionate love, heart rending longing and a season that signifies plenty. It is a season that has to be felt.
We have all grown up reading Meghaduta by Kalidasa or hearing kajri, the songs of separation that are sung during monsoon or saawan, but there is a whole body of work on the season in India.
For those like me who love art, music, poetry and literature but may not be so well acquainted with every facet of it in relation to monsoons, the book Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain, edited by Imke Rajamani, Margrit Pernau and Katherine Butler Schofield is essential reading.
This volume has contributions by various experts in their fields and together, they make you feel the monsoon.
Rarely have I enjoyed the introduction of a book as much as I did the introduction of Monsoon Feelings written by Imke Rajamani. From its evocative title, ‘Learning How to Feel the Monsoon’ with descriptions of dark heavy clouds, generous quotes from Meghaduta and themes used to denote the rains, the changes that have come in its representation over the years, it creates a visual with words.
As with life itself, things change and the more they change, the more they feel the same. We keep going back to the source. The continuity and the change in the season is reflected in the question asked by Rajamani: “Who experienced the monsoon, at which time, in which place, and through which cultural beliefs and practices?”
So, on one hand we have the yaksha in Meghaduta, sending poetic messages to his wife filled with the ‘intoxicating fragrances of flowers and wet soil’, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is also set in this season, making it ‘the monsoon of fear, suffering and horror’.
So is Lagaan (2001), a film about peasants struggling to pay taxes in colonial India, where ‘monsoon feelings of love and courage become a glue for a nation based on communal harmony’.
The book examines the history of monsoon feelings in South Asia from the 12th century to the present and is divided into essays on poetry, painting, garden architecture, music, relation between people and rainy season in writings on Unani medicine and classical music.
As I read this book, with rain falling sometimes gently, sometimes hard, I could feel the emotions described in the book. It is easy to think of love but hard to imagine war. Sunil Sharma in his essay, ‘The Spring of Hindustan: Love and War in the Monsoon in Indo-Persian Poetry’ does just that. In the poetry of Mas’ud Sa’d, an army of clouds comes to fight the army of summers, commanded by the wind, armed with swords while the thunder beats the war drums. Amir Khusrau’s lyrical compositions explore a range of emotions with the rain clouds not only being the setting for separation of lovers but an active participant in the “emotionally tearful drama”. Indo-Persian poetry also makes one explore monsoon and rain as a metaphor for separation and sorrow, with the poet revelling in his solitary state with despair and hope of seeing his beloved again.
Richard David Williams in his essay ‘A Theology Of Feelings: The Radhavallabhi Monsoon in the Eighteenth Century’ explores the sung poems of the tiny Vaishnav sect known as ‘Radhavallav sampradaya’. These poems soaked in emotions and sensitivity use the language of the monsoon to showcase a transcendent and timeless reality.
Anyone who has grown up in India would be aware of the connection between clouds and cuckoos (papiha) and their call, so I found the essay ‘Clouds, Cuckoos and an Empty Bed: Emotions in Hindi-Urdu Barahmasa’ by Francesca Orsini very evocative.
The monsoon month is particularly romantic and the longing for the absent beloved is intensified by the calls of the cuckoo. A woman’s emotions of separation or union depending on where her beloved is are conveyed through the alliterative guttural sounds of these songs. The essay lovingly describes the stimulants and agents of emotions on the body, which is the receptacle.
My favorite essay in this book, ‘Dark, Overwhelming, yet Joyful: The Monsoon in Rajput Painting’ by Molly Emma Aitken succeeds in painting scenes with words which are almost as effective and evocative as the words. Whether it is the lovers safe in each other’s arms from the thunder and clouds or the heroine venturing out to meet her beloved without fear, each scene is described with the help of iconic paintings and the techniques and devices used by the painters to convey the emotions. In every way, it is a celebration of passion, a celebration of the monsoon. Black and grey for me will forever be the colour of passion not melancholy!
Enjoying the outdoors is an essential part. Anyone who has experienced the rains would have some memories of getting wet in the first rain, or dancing in it with friends. The essay ‘It is a Day for Enjoyment and Revelry: The Monsoon Garden’ by Catherine Asher deals with gardens and landscaping. The Mughals were great builders and lovers of gardens. The memoirs of Babur and Jahangir are full of references to them and of course, monsoon season in them. Even today many visit Mandu, the capital of the Malwa kingdom in the monsoons. It is magical with its ponds, greenery and mist. So it is no surprise that Jahangir never calls “Mandu’s monsoon landscape a garden, but he does seem to think of it as a living carpet much as a ‘woven carpet’”.
The descriptions of the imperial garden pavilions and events in them via paintings bring back memories of those days.
The Mughals were great patrons of music and the essay, ‘Delight, Devotion and the Music of the Monsoon at the court of Emperor Shah Alam II’ by David Lunn and Katherine Butler Schofield is a treat for the senses. I wonder if anyone outside academic or musical circles knew that Shah Alam II was an accomplished poet and lyricist. He composed verses in the genre of ghazals, kabitt, dohas, taranas and hori in a near forgotten Rag Gaund a rag specifically deeply connected with the monsoons. An important aspect of this essay is the distinction that the authors draw between the “importance and serious purpose of these moments of pleasure in the life of the Mughal court” and the British misunderstanding of it. The British painted the “Mughal pleasure as decadence and despotism” as an excessive devotion to pleasure and a threat to political order in order to portray their rule as a welcome relief for Indian people. It is research such as this that is much needed as the roles of the Mughals are sought to be re-examined.
‘The Cuckoo’s Song: Imagery and Movement in Monsoon Ragas’ by Laura Leante makes for a very detailed study through her observation of present day musicians using imagery in Raga Megh and Raga Miyan Malhar.
In the present time, when classical music does not have royal patronage, we are mostly restricted to singing film songs in the rains. Rachel Dwyer’s essay, ‘Rimjhim ke Taraane Leke Aayi Barsaat: Songs of Love and Longing in the Bombay Rains’ should be universally appealing. I am sure all of us have our own favorite film rain songs. Mine is from Shree 420 with Nargis and Raj Kapoor huddled under an umbrella and singing the romantic ‘Pyaar hua iqraar hua‘. Dwyer describes how rain was translated into emotions in the rain songs either via its lyrics or picturisation and visuals.
Imke Rajmani in her essay on ‘Hindi Cinema’s Rainmaking Formula: Thoda sa Roomani Ho Jaayen and Lagaan’ on how rain plays a central character in the two films named above and its political implications.
The sheer scope of this book is amazing and so amidst all music, poetry and paintings comes a essay on Unani medicine. Of course, it makes complete sense since this is also the season of many diseases. ‘The Most Dangerous Season of All: Monsoon in Unani Medical Writings’ by Claudia Preckel. The medieval kings and nobles all had their own hakims and vaids and were in constant attendance of their employers, supervising their food, health and love life. Apart from aphrodisiacs, which were routinely given to their noble employers, their job was also to contain cholera, dysentery and other diseases common during monsoons. This essay thus becomes an important documentation of those prescriptions.
Though today, the phoolwalon ki Sair (procession of the florists) is no longer held in the months of sawan and bhadon (names for monsoon in the Hindi calendar), it was in these months that the last two Mughal emperors celebrated it. It is one of my favorite festivals as it denotes the syncretic nature of the Mughal court. The essay by Margrit Pernau ‘Celebrating Monsoon Feelings: The Flower-Sellers’ Festival of Delhi’ captures the contrast in its character from the reign of Akbar Shah II – when it started – to the politics of today. Much has changed in the intervening years, including the month in which it was celebrated, the message and the emotions. The coming together of Hindu and Muslim symbols and forms of devotion remains unchanged, so does its message of piety and pluralism.
‘A meeting of Earth and Sky: The Monsoon in the Repertoire of Thumri’ by Vidya Rao wraps up the essays on the monsoon. Thumri-gayaki is particularly suitable for monsoons with its emotional quotient as singer describes complex feelings of love, joy, longing and separation. It is a very evocative essay and I could feel arc of the swing as the heroine of the song, Sita sails through the air, with her snake like plait swinging behind her, on the banks of the river Saryu. Like Rao, I could feel the meeting of the earth and sky along with the swing.
The book succeeds in its aim of trying to understand how artists and writers throughout history conceptualised the season. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the essays but I do feel the aim of the book should also have been to reach more readers. The book is too long at 479 pages and too detailed and will probably become mainly a reference book instead of one that could bring joy and information to many. It should have been a handy book to read over a cup of steaming tea or coffee and piping hot pakoras or samosas with rain falling on the windowpanes. Its bulk prevents that. It has to be read in a more formal setting instead of being felt.
Rana Safvi is a writer and author of Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, First City of Delhi.