Monday, January 11, 2010

The musical power of rain: the Malhar ragas

4:44 am in Bhopal, awakening to the sound of unseasonable rain. It is extremely rare in central and norther India for rain to occur outside the monsoon season, yet tonight I awakened to--can it be, through the closed glass windows and the brick-and-concrete walls surrounding us that I seem to hear, lifting me gently from my sleep--the unmistakable misting sound of rain?

Fumbling for the flashlight--no bedside lamp in our current digs--I get up to open the door to the veranda outside, to find myself experiencing a mystical and miraculous sound, feeling the soft moisture against my face, seeing a faint blurring in the space between me and the few lights burning out here in the countryside: rain in the central plains of India in January!

No thunder yet--that came some minutes later. But I have a fierce urge to sit down with my sitar, and play Mian ki Malhar, one of the magically evocative ragas of India's rainy season. The emotional effect of rain, of the monsoon, in this part of the world cannot be imagined by those for whom rain is a sporadic but at least relatively regular phenomenon that may be dramatic in its intensity--thunderstorm alerts, flood warnings; gut-wrenching thunder explosions unnervingly near, and of course, the drama of lightning--but rarely, at least in most of America, a culmination of months of anticipation.

In India, the monsoon and its rains counterbalances the long dry spells, with inexorably rising temperatures in most of northern and landlocked India, towards the definitively hellish summer heat, which in some places can reach a relentless 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The gradual buildup of the heat as summer moves in has, always, at its heart the anticipation of the late summer monsoon, bursting for the first time like a dam breaking, both emotionally as well as physically. Suspense, along with debilitating heat fatigue, increases over the early and midsummer weeks to a pitch incomprehensible to those outside the monsoon area. And when that most welcome of seasons does break, it is as though the whole of a nation, or more, the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of a multinational region, are freed to engage in a collective Dionysian celebration.

It's late, and I should not disturb those sleeping nearby with the piercing sounds of my sitar. And I should wait until the monsoon arrives in the forthcoming summer to engage in a specifically musical discussion of the attributes of the Malhar family of ragas--those of the rainy season.

But I am moved now to share my own experience in my first home city of Washington (Bhopal having become already a second home), some years ago, when an evening thunderstorm burst a truly monsoon intensity; I ask the readers' indulgence, with a poem on the most wondrous phenomenon of rain that overtook me one summer night. . . .

miyan ki malhar – a monsoon raga
first summer
thunderstorm tonight
ah, the anticipation, the ominous clouds gathering
hours together, darkness looming, closing in
ecstasy silent electric cloud god laughter
finally flashing
across the entire sky
a long, hanging moment until
thunder, deepest of the deep
raking the very belly of us all

slowly at first, misting, occasional splatter, then
surges of blowing rain, then
the drench of ancient downpours

so many lost memoried India monsoon madnesses misting here now

just now
rain, raining down
glittering in streetlights splashing diamonds
onto asphalt streets of oh my, now, just now,
my own

the rain of grace--rehmatullah--softening the ghetto
smokedark nightlights radiant somehow in every rowhouse
shimmering in the windwaters
next door Thyra’s jewelled theft-proof
and waterproof
happy lights
strung in eternal uncelebrated holiday after holiday
cheerlessly festive
yet shining in determination to prevail
swaying in the storm wind
her windchimes swaying too, sounding in the
wind, the wind, the wind
as sweet subtle windspray whisps our faces, cool and fine
and the periodic cars hiss along the payment
then the lull of only the rain
raining down,
washing our caustic minds
our jaded souls
a deep breath of freshness tosses my forehead
teases my yet clamped nostrils
the trees singing in the gusts

oh would that Krishna were dancing here in his blueness
his calm ecstasy
with his ghostly gopis
giving us all, all of us
just now in this blowing, cleansing rain
on these magical Washington streets
the streets of oh this city of my heart

Brian Q. Silver
June 2001

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