Pitter patter…rim jhim…isn’t it safe to claim that the monsoon is the most musical season? And, the most sensual too. The piyu of the cuckoo, the honey-laced aroma of the wet soil and the rain-drenched streets, the visual delight of the blue sky and the green of the landscape, the roar of the thunderous clouds, the shivering sparkle of lightning – how seamlessly they combine to ignite smiles within our hearts. Now, imagine how would it be to acquire a book that traces the historical journey of monsoon feelings in South Asia from the 12th century to the present? A monsoon lover’s favorite dream.
Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain, published by Niyogi Books, is not an ordinary compendium of 12 essays but a bouquet of gems – scattered across as poems, paintings, musical notes, anecdotes on the pleasure gardens in palaces of Mughal emperors, the secret of the perennial motifs of two lovers under one umbrella in Hindi cinema, writings on Unani medicine and much more.
In an exclusive conversation with India Currents, Dr. Katherine Butler Schofield, senior lecturer, King’s College London and a historian of music and listening in Mughal India, and Trisha De Niyogi, COO, Niyogi Books, tell us what went into the making of this exquisite production. Dr. Schofield shares interesting insights into discovering the forgotten and almost extinct, the oldest monsoon raga – Rag Gaund – and its incredible journey that began in the court of Shah ‘Alam II (1759-1806).
Given the mood and thematic relevance, the title of the book was, perhaps, the (only) easiest task. Trisha De Niyogi concurs, “Despite the fact that many other auxiliary issues have been treated in the book, our major focus was emotion and feeling.” However,
in this age, when we are battling environmental concerns like global warming and irregular monsoons with life-threatening consequences, do we still romanticize the rains or are we wary? “This question was always there in our minds when the book was being planned, but we ultimately decided that a mixed bag of sociological analysis and history of emotions may not go well with the readers. Within the parameter of expression in literature and painting, we wanted a different trajectory of delving into the emotions evoked by the monsoons. We are not focused only on the romantic side of the monsoon but also its darker side and that’s why we have essays like, The Most Dangerous Season of All: Monsoon in Unani Medical Writings and Dark Overwhelming Yet Joyful: The Monsoon in Rajput Painting,” she says.
Romancing the monsoons: From Gaund to Malhar
Speaking of the romantic and dark side of the monsoon, we ask Dr. Schofield about the evolution of Rag Gaund from the 17th century and how it was
transformed from its earlier imagination as a ‘dark, tantric figure’ in peacock feathers to a ‘nayika (heroine), seated on a bed of lotus flowers’. Was this ‘sanitized version created to wipe out the historical traces of Rag Gaund? “No, it happened earlier, and to many ragas, in the 17th century when the ragamala was standardised and an ideal of aesthetic beauty – of courtly power – took over from earlier understandings of the ragamala icons as supernaturally powerful,” says Dr. Schofield, whose essay Delight, Devotion and the Music of the Monsoon at the Court of Emperor Shah ‘Alam II, co-written with David Lunn (scholar of Hindi and Urdu literature), is a homage to an emperor whose verses and songs opened up doors to a world which the modern society recognizes as and associates with the more ‘popular’ Rag Malhar. Essentially, it was Rag Gaund that paved the way for Rag Malhar. Is it a paradox that for a raga to be accepted by the ‘modern’ society, Rag Gaund had to shed its peacock feathers and be clothed in lotus petals? Is the creation of ‘Miyan ki Malhar’ therefore, a regression because, obviously, the ‘dark’ was considered ‘evil’ and the ‘tantric’ a ‘bad influence’, perhaps? “I don’t think this is why the ragas lost their tantric power. Rather, the power behind the visual image was ‘lost in translation’ when Mughal viewers enthusiastically took up the earlier Rajput and Deccani tradition. But the Mughals and Rajputs alike nonetheless believed in and wielded the ragas’ supernatural powers, including their powers of destruction.
“The renaming, or perhaps the merging, of Gaund into Miyan ki Malhar is about reclaiming Indian sovereignty in the period of British political domination; a subtle form of resistance through a raga that had once had power to soak the land with blessing, and make the lover return,” argues Dr. Schofield.
The Emperor’s favorite raga
The essay introduces Shah Alam II as, ‘one of the least-studied members of the Mughal dynasty’ whose favorite raga was Gaund. How did the quest for the emperor and his music begin?
“David and I had been working together on a major project funded by the European Research Council on the ways in which North Indian music and dance were transformed during the tumultuous and violent transition from the Mughal Empire to British rule c.1748-1858. The reign of Shah Alam II takes up much of the early parts of that time frame – although for most of his reign he was controlled by either the Marathas or the British, he was on the throne for a really long time, 1759-1806. We were mainly interested in looking at this world through Indian sources, not English ones, so what happened under Shah Alam’s auspices was already key for us.
“We’d also started writing together on the life of the ghazal as a song (and dance) form. David had come across the Rampur Raza Library’s 1944 facsimile edition of Shah Alam’s 1797 ‘choicest pieces or Nadirat-i Shahi, which was obviously of interest – not only were these verses in Brajbhasha, Urdu and Persian, but they were in both Devanagari and Nastaliq scripts, and they were all songs – all of them were set in specific ragas and talas.
“It was only when we went to look at the remaining letters of James and William Fraser in the Scottish Highlands that we had the time to sit down and work out what a treasure store they really were. William Fraser was resident in Delhi in the very last years of Shah Alam’s life. He also wrote back to his father with excitement and nostalgia about hearing Indian courtesans sing ghazals for the first time, whose tunes he knew because they’d been published as Hindustani Airs for the harpsichord, and his mother had played them by her fireside in Scotland.
“So we sat in the evenings in the long low sunlight of a Scottish summer and read Shah Alam’s songs and suddenly realized three things: his lyrics were very beautiful; the songs were ordered according to the purely musical relationships between their ragas; and that one of Shah Alam’s favorite ragas, in which he composed exquisite monsoon songs, was a raga we didn’t know – Rag Gaund,” recounts Dr. Schofield.
Gender bias in music too?
As far as the paradigm of ‘male ragas’ and the Malhar family of monsoon ragas are concerned, has there been a tradition of gender hierarchy in music?
“There have been various kinds of gender hierarchies in Indian music – the music theorist Qazi Hasan bin Khwaja Tahir got very cross with his fellow Mughal connoisseurs in 1664 for not singing the raginis with their correct ragas – he said, by allowing such things they were forcing the raginis to commit adultery! In more recent times, it has become common to position thumri as feminine in comparison with khayal’s masculinity. But a lot of that has to do with the submerged history of thumri as an art practiced primarily by courtesans,” she explains.
But, did a woman ever sing in Rag Gaund? Was there ever a nayika voicing her emotions through this raga? “The great tawaifs of Shah Alam II’s time sang khayal, tappa, kavita, the Persian and Urdu ghazal, and many other forms, in all the ragas and raginis, and danced them too,” she quips. The two famous courtesans of the period were “Khanum Jan in Lucknow, and Mahlaqa Bai Chanda in Hyderabad. Their songs are the same forms as Shah Alam’s. His courtesans almost certainly performed his compositions. It would be marvelous to reconstruct some of them,” explains Dr. Schofield, who is currently working on a free podcast series, Histories of the Ephemeral, which looks at the life stories of six largely unknown musicians (1748-1858), as a way of exploring the late Mughal world.
Seeing versus hearing
The sonic, phonic and iconic forms of the Gaund have a synergy of their own. Over the years, the visual has somehow overshadowed the phonetic aesthetics. Probably, we are not doing enough to preserve our sound system. In her short introduction to the book, Dr. Schofield talks about the diacritical markings and the specificity of retroflex consonants, long vowels, etc. The sound ‘Ph’ for instance, has been fatally replaced by ‘F’ (it’s definitely on the verge of going extinct) and that is a sad truth. Are we lacking in preserving our sounds in our growing obsession with the visual alone? “We’re certainly living in a visual century. But I find grounds for optimism in the fact that although the ragas may be interpreted differently now – Hindustani music is thriving not just in India but all around the globe. It has survived and thrived through many great geopolitical upheavals. I am sure people will still be falling in love to romantic ragas for many decades to come,” shares Dr. Schofield.
Monsoon Feelings, a season’s bildungsroman, was born as a sketchy thought during a conference in Berlin in June 2015. Today, it has assumed an enviable shape and a form.
Ipshita Mitra is a Delhi based independent writer and editor.