The raga sets the tone for completion through love and nourishment. (Vivek R Nair/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • It is time to celebrate the raga that cleans the dust of the summer and brings in the cleansing rains. Malhar is that most unusual of ragas — it is male, and yet, it invokes the feminine.

It was all breeze until the composition began. Moments into the text of the composition in Raga Miyan Malhar, as renowned Dhrupad maestro Late Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Khan Dagar presented its portrait through the notes, it started raining. This was at a concert back in 2005, at Nehru Park, New Delhi.

To many people in the audience who adored Khan sahib and knew of his reverence for text, the build-up of rain had not gone unnoticed. As it rained, Fahim ji’s voice melted, dipped and vanished for a few seconds. Then emotion took over. He gulped them, eyes shut. He then dissolved the emotion into the two nishads (shuddh ni and komal ni) and continued to sing.

Cut to an evening in 2010. The venue: the basement auditorium at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. A pretty unconventional and small space for a concert dedicated to the rainy season. The artistes performing were Pandit Ritesh and Rajnish Mishra, disciples of legends Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra. Ritesh and Rajnish were singing Miyan Malhar. As they reached a point in the vilambhit (slow) composition that describes the sounds of rain and clouds, something made them retake (not repeat) the phrases.

Ritesh tried it first. Rajnish joined him the second time. Both tried it the third. Choked on swaras, they paused. Ritesh and Rajnish looked at their gurus, Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra. The senior maestros chuckled. And the performing vocalists broke into tears. Ritesh got his voice back first. He said, "These two greats. Only when we sing the Malhar, we realise what level and depths in Malhar our gurus have been able to touch.”

In another evening, renowned sitar artiste and composer Pandit Shubhendra Rao, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, was at Lodhi Gardens for an interaction on Malhar. Also present was renowned cellist Saskia Rao De Haas and the junior Mishra brothers to discuss Malhars with me over an interview. During the interaction, the artistes sang a line or two from the different Malhars. It continued to rain. Pt Shubhendra Rao recalled how his own consciousness of the Malhars evolved when he found his guru immersed in Pandit A Kanan’s Miyan Malhar on a recording.

Rao made a special mention to the response from peacocks at Pandit Ravi Shankar's residence to the playing of Pandit A Kanan’s Miyan Malhar.

What’s so unique in and about Malhars sung by the male vocalists? How much of the male creative genius in ragas-to-rains have we been able to hear, listen, absorb and soak?

Our great women maestros singing Malhar would bring the rains, too. What difference does the male voice make to the singing of Malhars? The coming down of rain on the singing, playing, or performing of Malhars is not the moot point. It’s the depth. Says Pandit Ritesh Mishra, “Malhars sung by male maestros receive the appreciation because Malhars need depth. The male voice has depth. Gamakas and meends (embellishments) come out more. Khilta hai (they blossom more beautifully). Then, some ragas are meant to be sung by the nayak, like others are meant to be sung by the nayika.”

Genius and gender are not the harbinger of rain. The use of the two nishads in Miyan Malhar is. Rasa is. The nayak singing of the nayika, is.

The nishads find the male creative genius and twine themselves around, not letting go, in more force, passion and compassion. Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, renowned Dhrupad maestro, says, “The male voice and the male genius exploring the Malhar, is intense. There is a description of clouds in most Malhar compositions. The cloud is masculine. What does it bring? It brings barish, boondein, varsha — all feminine. These come with the force in the Malhars, but give you the feeling of tenderness.”

Malhar from male vocalists and composers gives the listener more room to wander, more space to get drenched in rasa, to get soaked, drowned, lifted to the surface, take shelter, and wander again. They turn to the composition and get dwarfed by nature, momentarily, to turn towards interiority provided by the rains, clouds, thunder and lightning. “My gurus’ approach to Malhars has touched me. I have liked exploring that. The Megh by the senior Dagar brothers is extremely powerful. So is Surdasi Malhar, from my elders. There is a tribute the Ganga too in Malhars. Hey Gange saral baho, hey tu ab raakh le. The antara: Ghati mein ganga, Ghati mein Yamuna, fir tu kyon vyaakul firaey? It progresses gradually. The sense of urging and pleading comes out dominantly,” Wasif adds.

The nayika and her beloved are not the only source of light, devotion and love in compositions. Some transcend to another world. Karim Naam Tero, the composition in Miyan Malhar is its most magnificent medium. Renowned vocalist Bhuvanesh Komkali says, “It is one of the most important compositions in the raga. Malhar means Karim Naam Tero.”

This year, a personal search for compositions dedicated to goddess Saraswati, a little towards the beginning of vasant, the Indian spring, made me stumble upon two rare ones. Not in Raag Saraswati or Raag Basant. These are in Raag Miyan Malhar from the rich and precious repertoire of Baba Allauddin Khan — one of the greatest among the greats. The soul of Maihar.

The first bandish, set in jhaptaal: “Maihar ki Mata Sharada Devi, nita nita sada vrat poojan houta.” I ran my voice through the swar lipis (notations) found in a book. Running the voice over the swar lipi is as good as throwing a stone into a pond and claiming that your ripple touched the lotus blooming several feet away. But, Baba's universe of imagination, creation and devotion to Ma Saraswati revealed itself in the notation too.

Baba’s composition reflects a son’s tribute to Goddess Saraswati. It attributes, in lyrical sweetness, a home to the goddess. A faint sense of ownership, perhaps. Maihar is the home to music, its thought and expression. Maihar represents the home tradition and school of thought to a great musician and guru and his luminous disciples. The sthai (first two lines of bandish) mentions the worship and fasts that mark Maihar’s reverence and dedication to the goddess. The antara (concluding set of next two lines in text) goes on to reveal people’s faith in the goddess. "Nara naari manava sada pujan karata. Joo jaaki mana ichcha pooran houta.” Noteworthy here is the mention of fulfilling of wishes. There are a few questions that come to mind.

How would Saraswati fulfil wishes? What “poojan” would the devotee be in to see the goddess of wisdom, knowledge and the arts fulfil his wish?
The answer to these questions lies in sadhana, dedication to the art, riyaz, which in itself is considered worship to Saraswati. In Maihar have many questions been answered, wishes seeded and blossomed and fulfilled, and musical journeys born and reborn. In Malhars of Maihar, Baba’s world opens up, even if in a glimpse.

The approach of our male maestros to compositions in Malhar, the popular, prevalent and the lesser sung Malhars is multi-dimensional, enveloping and overpowering.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is to Malhars what a cloud is to the monsoon. He remains at the heights, roaring and pouring, musing over the rain-drenched celebration. In his singing of Megh and Malhars, a collision of genius, technique and voice leaves the listener spiralling.

His gamakas are the strongest celebration of the season, the concept of rain-inspired and rain-nourished ragas. Pt Bhimsen Joshi took Karim Naam Tero with thick, decisive and long brush strokes. His approach was that of a rain-laden cloud to the earth and sky. Somewhere between two worlds. Hanging in there, delaying, and reluctant to merge with either.

Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s Nayo nayo meha in Desh Malhar distills the dhaivat (dha) beautifully. There are no edges and corners to his singing of this bandish — roundness and curves as seen in the grey cotton clouds. A sharp contrast to this bandish is Bole re papaiyahra (papeehara), where the maestro flies faster than the bird, from taan to taan in the drut (fast) bandish. There are three narrators and three narrations rolled into one. How? The nayika speaks and tells about what the papaiyahra (the celebrated bird) sings and tells about what the nayika’s beloved wants to say.

This bandish is a fountain of sringar rasa. Bole re papaiyahra ab moraey pihu ki baat. Kumar ji sets “papaiyahra” and “baat” and “bole re” in repetitive bejewelled embellishments, assigning the honey-dipped stress to the aspect of communication during the season meant for love.

One of the many precious aspects of Kumar ji’s Malhars in his renditions of Miya Malhar, Shuddh, Ramdasi, Megh, Gaud Malhar and other Malhars is that his singing never tilts in favour of any part of the bandish — nature or nayika, or his beloved, or the poet, or self. His is an approach of a swan to all aspects present in the composition. In the midst of the smooth progression, he does spare moments for looking at his own reflection in the water, but even that is natural. Not staged, not curated, not cultivated. “Gana ek alag cheez, aur sunana ek alag cheez (to sing and to tell are different things in music),” he declares in one of the records where he has performed some types of Malhars.

Bhuvanesh Komkali has soaked a number of compositions from Malhars. These were part of his riyaz under his grandfather Pandit Kumar Gandharva, and now, they make his musical repertoire. He says, “To me, Gaud Malhar is as dear as Miyan Malhar. I have even tried to learn Nat Malhar and Jayant Malhar and Ramdasi Malhar. I have learned many compositions in these ragas. I work on them from time to time. It is all about working constantly on these melodies. You never know where you need what you have learned.”

Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra’s Umad ghan ghumad barse (in Miyan Malhar) takes the form of rain itself. Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki’s Miya Malhar spreads itself on the canvas, and sprawls on it with the help of breezy meends. Rishabh is visible as the bindu (dot) in the cesspools of meends and madhyam in the circuitous edges. In his bandish, he turns the focus on “badariya” as the dominant protagonist, in all its form. The phrase “Garaje barasan ko” and his stress on it sums up the story — of the build-up before the shedding, which could be open for several interpretations. The bandish is intoxicating. Pandit Ji’s arrival at the sam adds sugar to the drowning petrichor.

Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur paints a picture through a raga. He delves into all dimensions in lyrics and text. He has a lot to say, to convey, to sing. He has a lot to tell, a lot to keep within himself, only to give it away to the listener the next moment. For all this, he dwells as he sings on his own memory. A good evidence of this aspect in his singing of and for the rains is found in compositions heard in recordings. His thought stems from one improvisation into another. The improvisations are meant to bloom for short moments in the avartan (the beat cycle). The improvisations peak in fragrance, like the parijat (jasmine). The mind registers them, absorbs them, saving them as carefully as the fading fragrance of jasmine, until the next bloom.

What happens when drops of rain falls on a touch-me-not plant? It curls. Leaf after leaf withdraws. Then, it takes its own time and breath to straighten to a pause in rain or sunshine. Pandit Mukul Shivputra's singing of Malhar reminds this ardent fan of a touch-me-not awakened by rain.

No sound, music, drop or grain of the rainy season has been able to escape the throats and repertoire of Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra. The duality in their singing of Malhars is unique. It deviates from what listeners have heard in other duets. It is a splitting image of the season itself. The imagery of the monsoons comes alive in the sounds and scenes that make the season, in their singing. Madhya (middle), mandra (lower), ati mandra, taar (high), ati taar, (saptak is octave) and sometimes, even beyond the two ends of the range spectrum, the brothers weave magic between themselves. “We are continuously trying to imbibe some of the values that guide their singing. The motive has been to be guided by instinct, melody and mood to that point where we can give the listeners a glimpse of the rainy season. It requires deep study,” says their disciple Pt Ritesh Mishra.

They play around with alliteration and words in Malhars with the same ease as children born near the Ganga in Benaras, who plunge into the monsoon ebb of the river in careful carelessness. Says Pt Ritesh Mishra, “Our khayal gayaki involves chaaron patt ka gana (the singing that involves four aspects). It bears the khayal ang (aspect), dhrupad ang, thumri and tappa ang. There is a confluence of these four styles in khayal. We have to know where to use each. It comes gradually and very slowly. We observe our gurus and gurus from other gharanas. It requires humility.”

There is more to the Malhars than mere love for a season. Ramdasi, Nat, Chhaya, Jayant, Bilawal, Des, Sorath, Nayaki, Kandha, Mirabai, Charju, Roopmanajari, Chanchalsas, Pat, Kolu, Basanti, Tribhuvan, Khamaji, Sohan and Bahar were not composed to make the clouds burst into rain. These are not the harbingers of rain, but, of rasa. Among themselves, Megh, Shuddh Malhar, Miyan Malhar and Megh Malhar seem sufficient for a musical tribute to the rainy season.

All other types of Malhars are derivatives and accommodate a couple or more ragas. They give the human mind and imagination an extended canvas for creating room for more and more moods, emotions and emotional response.

Who knows? Tomorrow, the genius on his own path, Pandit Mukul Shivputra may even consider borrowing Bahar Malhar for a small meet-up with Bahar and Basant Malhar in the Indian spring. Or, rain during the Indian spring.

Malhars provide more than two dozen melodies for expression. An enormous share of the narrative in these compositions is centred on love, on woman, the nayika. These compositions render a role to the male vocalist — of being a listener to the nayika, the mode of communication between her and nature, her and the beloved. The vocalists undertake the responsibility with great sensitivity; they have to be true feminists. “For complete music, you need the power of male and grace of the female. Music and arts are complete because of this aspect. Beauty has to carry itself, along with power. Only then is it complete beauty. There is a hidden power behind it,” Wasif ji adds.

In today's dwindling concert scene and the concert-duration claustrophobia listeners and organisers settle for, the entire gamut of Malhars remains largely unexplored. Malhars are India’s celebration of a season with no parallel in tonal subtleties, depth, study and performance. They are heritage, documentation of narratives and music and composition treasures, evolved by the male maestros and their rich perspectives.

The voices of male maestros and their singing of Malhars accept, envelop and embrace the listener. It is very comforting. Anything short of this would be a musical calamity for the listener, especially the woman listener and lovers of the Malhars. “In Malhar compositions, there is a feeling of fear, of wonder, of happiness. The peacocks are happy, other birds are happy. These compositions bring an entire world of descriptions. In one bandish, there is an immense power in the description of how Indra has brought the rains and clouds,” adds Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar.

I run my voice over the text Baba Ustad Allauddin Khan composed in Miyan Malhar. For “his” Ma Saraswati.

"Allauddin ki Mata Sharada, nishadhina ratata Sura Sharadeshwari."

Return to the Malhars. Own them. They could bring you closer to Saraswati, in the season of rains. Of Malhars.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Be a Partner, Reader.
Support a media platform that will bring you ground reports that other platforms will try every bit to avoid.
Partner with us, be a patron. Your backing is important to us.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber