History & Culture

The meaning of monsoon clouds

IN SYNC WITH SEASON: A miniature painting showing Krishna enjoying Megh Malhar  

The fever of monsoon has captivated the Indian imagination for centuries. From films to a large number of social and cultural gatherings aspire to celebrate the sensuality associated with the meteorological phenomenon. Years ago, while researching the cultural heritage of Varanasi, Ustad Bismillah Khan described the mood of monsoons and ended with playfully singing in my ear,The rain clouds gathered, there was buzz that the famous sail parties (as monsoon stag picnics were called locally) were organised by the merchant elites of Benaras around small waterfalls, ponds and garden homes were on. The ganikas along with their musicians were invited to create the atmosphere of the gatherings. The songstress sat on swings hung from mango trees laden with fruit and sang rain songs (kajrisand jhoolas (swing) in the falling rain). Each composition was overloaded with sensual images of maidens longing for their lovers, the call of birds like chatak, chakor, peacocks and papihas (cuckoo). The mythical birds chatak survives by eating moonbeams and chakor catches raindrops like love longing maidens yearn to quench their thirst in the monsoons. There was special cuisine for the rainy season for these gathering – daal bati, kheer poori.” And he sang, “Barsan lagi badariya haye ram, (O Ram! The rain filled cloud has started pouring).”

Ah! The scorched earth breathes, eyes look up as the monsoon clouds arrive. Captivating is the idea in which the four rainy months called Chaumaasa gives way to the lush green environment, fruiting flowering vegetation indicative of abundance, prosperity and fertility define the earth. Valmiki writes in the Ramayan , “For nine months drawing through sun’s rays, the sky drank the waters of the ocean, and the time now to give birth to a liquid offspring, the elixir of life.” (4.27.3)

The meaning of monsoon clouds

Since ancient times the season is reflected in a world of myths, symbols, metaphors which in turn inspire festivities, rituals, and creative expressions evident in poetry, music, dance, and painting and is perceived to be a cultural cosmic multimedia called Varsha Ritu.

The Parijanya and Aap Sukta (Rigveda verses) are recited to propitiate the rains in an appropriate degree, and the season itself is about rejoicing, retreating, meditating, and fasting. It is time for travellers to come home, for lovers to unite, for mendicants to retreat and traditionally for married women to go to their parent’s home relieving them of domestic duties. The monsoon season has inspired settings of heritage complexes, for example, “The Ajanta Caves were varshavasa (rain retreats) on a vibrant trade route with the Waghora river, multiple waterfalls the spot was ideal for meditation, and imbibing dictates of Buddhism, talking of which is the beautiful tempera in Cave 17 – Buddha as compassionate Vessantara is born at exactly the same moment as Peccaya, the elephant who brought rain,” Late M.N. Deshpande, former DG of ASI, once told me during a class on the caves. Several Mughal buildings have rain pavilions by the Hindu rain months Sawan-Bhadon as ones in Hayat Baksh Bagh, Red Fort in Delhi.

Myriad myths

The meaning of monsoon clouds

“Shravana, the first month of the season gains much importance as it heralds the onset and is indicated by a three-star constellation (nakshatra),” says Indologist Dr. G.C. Tripathi. The month defines number of myths which include the wedding of Shiva with Paravati, the coming of the Vaman (dwarf) incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna as Ghanashyam (like the dark monsoon) is born on a stormy night in this month and among several festivities associated, he together with his consort Radha are perceived to be the icon of the monsoon and archetype thematic lovers for the arts.

Various motifs, themes, and colour schemes gain ground creating an audio-visual theatre of the season. Contrasting themes and images such as – love in union and love in separation, disparate colours – dark and light, fertility, bounty contrast with that of fasting. Low hanging clouds bridge the earth with the sky, ladies with henna on their hands, seated on swings which are hung on fruit-bearing mango trees aspire to gather energies from the sky and evolve as fertility symbols. The cloud emerges as a protagonist in most artistic expressions. This validation is seen in the 16 synonyms in Amarkosha (Sanskrit thesaurus), and 40 names for the cloud in the Thar desert.

Kalidas, the master of Sanskrit poetry, in his masterpieces “Ritu Samhara” (Garland of Seasons) and “Meghadūta” (cloud messenger) captures the ethos of the season. In the latter possibly the most famous poem set in this season bears the message of the hero separated from his wife. The cloud begins the journey with these lines “Áshádha's ending …And mixed his pleasure as a cloud came down, so playfully to hug the summit mist, as elephants in heat will butt the ground.”

Says art historian Parul Pandya Dhar,Clouds, in particular, are a favourite of the sculptors. The flying celestials and musicians, vidyadharas (air spirits) and gandharvas (celestial performers), are often portrayed seated on the clouds or floating in the skies with the breeze.”

In Raigarh province of Chattisgarh, King Chakradhar Singh (reign 1924-47) created a number of compositions capturing the nuances of the rains as audio-visual experiences to be played on percussion and performed in the Kathak dance. In Amritak Dhwani, the composition seeks to catch the feel of moving and thundering clouds, and the composition Dal Baadal (the journey of the Cloud) the use of abstract sounds n gan dhet dhet depict rising clouds, taran - striking lightning, and ta dha children playing and throwing water on each other.

It is fascinating to trace the manner in which Indian texts on arts have visualised, the monsoons as audio-visual experiences which became guidelines for individual artists and community celebrations represented inrepositories of famous compositions.

The classic “Chitrasutra” (the treatise on paintings) provides a description to depict the rains – overcast sky, clouds weighed with water, flashes of lightning, rainbow, animals taking shelter, white cranes flying in rows. This led to famous miniature monsoon paintings centred on Radha and Krishna in the series called Raagmala (garland of ragas) and Baramahsa (12 seasons) commissioned in different courts.

The Raagmala treatise by musicologist Pundarik Vitthal (16th century) classifies ragas into families, and malhar, a series of musical scales specifically to be sung in the monsoons is perceived to be the son of the supreme raga – Natt Narayana. This personification of the musical scales is played out in poetry, paintings, and musical compositions. Nawab Nasiruddin Shah of Lucknow, created a seven-day dance drama on raga Malhar, Ustad Iqbal Khan of the Dilli Gharana says, My grandfather Ustad Chand Khan of Dilli gharana wrote a treatise “Iqsami raga” (variations of the raga) where he described 45 variations of Malhar, but I remember only 35.”

Several compositions in the performing arts related to rain were considered magical and were taught only to special students or were given as dowries. The tabla maestro Kishan Maharaj once told me, Our ancestor Ram Sahay was gifted by his Guru Modu Khan of Lucknow the famous pavan (wind) paran (a composition made of syllables played on percussion) which when played brought rain.” It is believed that Tansen, the musician in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar sang Megh (cloud) Malhar and it rained.

The word Malhar, means cleansing, the rains symbolise rejuvenation through music – Yes, the sounds and forms of art rejoice to recreate one of the finest cultures on a meteorological phenomenon perhaps to balance the modern day man’s determined to dismantle the cosmic rhythm of nature.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 4:14:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-meaning-of-monsoon-clouds/article24410293.ece

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