Monsoon tradition: Going with the flow

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This Ragamala painting depicts a woman travelling to meet her lover at night as clouds hover in the sky. (Corbis via Getty Images)
This Ragamala painting depicts a woman travelling to meet her lover at night as clouds hover in the sky. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Given the importance of rain in a primarily rain-fed agrarian system such as India’s, it is little wonder that literature and popular culture have dwelt extensively on the monsoon rain. Be it the ancient Vedas or classical Sanskrit texts such as Kalidasa’s Meghdoot and Ritusamhar, there are ample references to Varsha Ritu, ‘the season of rains’: the first chaste encounter of cool water and hot earth, grey sky and parched land, preceded by damp masses of moisture-laden clouds scudding across the skies, bringing darkness at noon and followed by days upon days of uninterrupted deluge are described in myriad ways.

The Harivamsha in the Mahabharata, for instance, contains virtually all the totemic images associated with the rains: dancing peacocks, croaking frogs, the fragrance of the Kadamba, and yes, desire, that strikes like lightning and courses through the human body more strongly than at any other time!

The virahini of the medieval baramasa (‘songs for the 12 months of the years’) feels the pain of separation most keenly in the month of saawan for it is during the rains that men traditionally stayed home or came back as business was slack possibly because roads became un-passable.

Tradition also demanded that a young bride would be called to her parents’ home when her brother would be sent to fetch her at the beginning of the season; shortly after a token visit, she would return to her husband’s home and resume her conjugal life. When there is a departure from this time-honoured way of life, when the woman finds herself alone and bereft during the months of the rains (traditionally said to last for a chuamasa, or four months), then the dark clouds, the call of the koel, the darts of rain, the smell of damp earth, blades of grass bursting through fertile earth, the blood-red birbahuti insects, remind her that all other women are with their husbands while she is not; she is reminded of seasons past when she had enjoyed the plentiful rains with her beloved and is tormented by the thought of his dalliances elsewhere.

Influenced by ancient and medieval texts, Urdu and Hindi writers continue to write of the magic of the rains. Intizar Husain evokes the tremulous beauty of freshly-bathed trees and a life that was once more attuned to the seasons: the songs and rituals, mostly among women: of cooking pakwan, singing kajri and saawani. However, for me nothing can beat Chitra and Jagjit Singh’s evocation of bachpan ka sawan in the words of Sudarshan Faakir:

Woh kagaz ki kashti woh barish ka pani…

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian.

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