Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, by musician, academic and novelist Amit Chaudhuri, is an account of his discovery of North Indian music. The work traces the development of the genre over the years and dwells on its most distinctive and mysterious characteristics. Peppered with personal anecdotes as well as academic observations, the book is both a memoir as well as a cultural study. It was published by Penguin Random House India in March this year.
Here is a chapter from the book.
Despite the deadness surrounding the twenty-fifth-storey flat, music made me notice the universe: the sun, diffuse, on the left, and automobiles advancing on the right, on Marine Drive. Early evening. I’d think of words I’d picked up from khayal compositions: ‘bhavsagar’ – ‘the ocean of earthly existence’. It was a new idea to me, but it made sense in Cuffe Parade, where featureless water extended endlessly on the left. The line from the drut khayal I’d heard my teacher sing was ‘bhavsagar dukha apare’ – ‘the ocean of earthly existence is sorrow without a shore’. In the midst of the journey, you sing, according to the lyric, Hari’s name: ‘gao re Hari ke bhajan’. The thought was a bit terrifying at seventeen: that life has no solid foundation; that, like an expanse of water, it has no clear ending or outline – you’re simply adrift.
During the monsoons, when lines of rain marched towards our building, I’d sing raga Miyan ki Malhar. There was little beauty to the rains in Cuffe Parade, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
During the monsoons, when lines of rain marched towards our building, I’d sing raga Miyan ki Malhar. There was little beauty to the rains in Cuffe Parade, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I had in mind the legend of Miyan Tansen, Akbar’s principal court musician, lighting lamps in the darbar through the heat produced by his rendition of raga Deepak (no one sings this raga now; it literally means ‘lamp’ or ‘light’), and then bringing relief by singing raga Megh Malhar, making it rain. There’s more than one version of this story, but there’s always a downpour at the end. The word ‘Malhar’ is synonymous with ‘monsoon raga’. Raga Malhar isn’t performed today – one isn’t even sure what it is – but all monsoon ragas except Megh are largely variations of Malhar: Gaud Malhar, Megh Malhar, Sur Malhar, Meerabai Malhar, Jayant Malhar, Ramdasi Malhar, Nat Malhar, and Tansen’s own Miyan ki Malhar. These variations point to an aesthetic of constant reinterpretation. The monsoons appear to provoke reworking: as if extant ragas must be inevitably transformed by the rains.
I thought it would be fun to see if I could make it rain. So, at the end of June (the official inaugural date for the monsoon being 10 June), or in July or August, I’d pick up my tanpura and go to the drawing room and start singing Sadarang’s vilambit composition in Miyan ki Malhar, ‘Kareem naam tero’ – ‘Kareem is your name.’ If it was raining when I started, I’d notice it stopped a few minutes later. If it was overcast, the rains refused to come during the length of the exposition. Sometimes it rained in a burst when I sang a non-monsoon raga like Bhupali. My experiences with Malhar were non-mythic, non-miraculous.
Despite the legend, I find the culture – musical, spiritual – is less interested in miracles than in life. The rains are an outburst of existence. You acknowledge them by singing a Malhar; and, by acknowledging them, you add another dimension of veracity to them: as D. H. Lawrence said of Cézanne’s apples, they aren’t true to life, they’re ‘more true to life’. This is what one means by ‘making it rain’: a bringing to existence, rather than a miracle in the conventional sense.
The rains are an outburst of existence. You acknowledge them by singing a Malhar; and, by acknowledging them, you add another dimension of veracity to them.
I recall having a conversation with Hazarilalji about the devotional poets. We turned to the question ‘Where is God most likely to be found?’ Hazarilalji said, ‘God is wherever he’s discussed’ – ‘bhagwan hai jaha uska charcha hai’. Let me call this form of discourse – in which I’ll include the singing of raga Miyan ki Malhar – ‘praise’. ‘Praise’ is naming, mentioning, or ‘discussing’, in Hazarilalji’s sense. When we name or even state something, whether it’s to do with a god, or an object, or a moment – if we say, ‘It rains,’ as Edward Thomas did in a poem – we make possible that moment or object or person. Praise presumes no prior existence – it makes present, as if for the first time, through naming. It creates, makes real. This is how Miyan ki Malhar makes the rains happen.
Govindji taught me a khayal in an afternoon raga called Gaud Sarang. It was set to rupak tala, a seven-beat (3–2 2) time signature. Hazarilalji said it was a composition by Baiju Bawra, according to legend a contemporary and rival of Tansen’s in the sixteenth century. Here are the words:
Mahadeva Shiva Shankare
jatajuta trayi nayna
Mahadeva, Shiva, Shankar
clutching trident and bowl
the sacred mark resting on the forehead
I was struck by the words – in enumerating his features, they made a powerful case for Shiva. They did so not through proselytising, but by naming the god and his accoutrements: the lyric is a cluster of nouns, beginning with three of Shiva’s many names. In my translation, I’ve had to turn nouns like ‘neelkanthe’ (literally, ‘blue throated’) into adjective and noun – ‘blue-throated one’ – for the line to make sense in English; and to add verbs – ‘clutching trident and bowl’ – where only nouns are mentioned: ‘trishul khappar’. The syntax of Avadhi poetry makes such immediacy possible. As a result, there’s less of a sense of a pre-existing object being reported after the fact; instead, there’s a bringing into being, so that Shiva springs to life for the duration of the composition in the manner Hazarilalji had described (‘God is wherever he’s discussed’). Barthes, in his essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, says that ‘for Mallarmé . . . it is language that speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a pre existing impersonality . . . that point where language alone acts, “performs”, and not “oneself”’. So too, I think, with the words of the khayal in Gaud Sarang – it’s language that performs; language is inseparable from Shiva’s coming into existence. Comparably, the Malhars create rain.