Malhar A lyrical exposition

Malhar A lyrical exposition

Chhavi Jain

August 2020

Garaj, baras, kali ghata..barkha, bijuri, piya kahan..

Quintessential compositions in raga Malhar see a cluster of such colourful signifiers around monsoon. While they capture the idiomatic sensibility of this raga, its essence is contained in the depth of its high notes, rhythmic gamaks (where a singer forcefully oscillates from one note to another, as a method of ornamentation), and a generous use of alliteration.

Within the realm of Indian mythology and legend, Malhar is one of the most ancient ragas in Hindustani classical music, that when sung is believed to cause torrential rainfall. In medieval history, stories of the legendary maestro Mian Tansen, one of the navratnas (nine jewels) in the Mughal court of Akbar, is believed to have affected the nuances of the existing Megha Malhar to compile an altogether new, Mian Malhar. The beauty of Hindustani classical music is in its inclusivity and adaptability to newer innovations and legible ways of rendition,of what causes a deep psychological effect and more often than not, impact the course of nature itself.

‘Malhar’ is a family of ragas with over eighteen members. Amongst these are, Gaud Malhar, Nat Malhar, Shuddha Malhar, Dhulia Malhar, but the more prominent ones today are Megha Malhar and Mian Malhar. Individual interpretations of saint musicians like, Surdas, Ramdasi and Meerabai, are songs of devotion and not essentially harbingers of rainfall.

In Indian lore and mythology, magic realism manifests itself in the peculiar power of invocation, mediated by a purity of heart and determination. Raga, the word in Sanskrit means, ‘colour’. Each raga is associated with a particular rasa or emotion, wherein its structure evokes a certain mood aligned with a season and pahar (time of the day).

Malhar is a raga of night time. It is usually depicted with a passionate intensity, and commonly visualised in hues of blue and deep purple.

It is plausible to believe that rainfall metaphorically alludes to a state of mind brought about by its recital. An association with monsoon brings a pronounced theatricality and exaggeration to the raga. Various forms of bandish (musical compositions) follow this trend. From a fear of uncontrollable storm to a sense of creation, wonderment and tranquillity, Malhar has been variously interpreted by vocalists and performers. In its very nature lie, positivity, happiness, fragrance and creative powers and follows a free verse.

Before the rain

Before the Rain by Abhijit Saikia

A journey into Malhar fashions as an attempt to interlace classical theories with contemporary visual forms. The exhibition brings to light each artist’s interpretation of ‘Mann ka Malhar’, a state of being (of mind and emotions), with a range of internal/ external scapes to engage with. Ten artists from across the country come together to reinterpret and elucidate its nuances on paper.

The story

Raga Mian Malhar was brought to fame when Tansen was challenged to present raga Deepak in the court by Emperor Akbar, who wanted to witness the power of the raga. Raga Deepak is known to agitate heat in the body of the singer and his surroundings. Even today, only interpretational compositions of this raga are in existence and not many ancient compositions have survived. Tansen, knowing its implications, requested his daughters, Tana and Riri, to sing raga Malhar. On the eventful day, this came to his rescue.The power of this raga is witnessed in the congregation of sky and earth, effectuated actively by air and water, nowadays such a spectacle is a rarity, if at all.

A Romantic idea?

Like the nineteenth-century Romantic celebration of the ‘aesthetics of obscure’ and poetic genius, contemporary Hindustani vocalists and maestros look back at the ancient Before the Rain by Abhijit Saikia and medieval times when compositions and renditions in Malhar were so pure that they could move the skies. Nowadays, such occurrences are unheard of. Tejashree Amonkar, the musical heir of Kishori Amonkar, during an interview said, the meaning of Malhar essentially is, ‘Mal ka har’, or ‘to get rid of dirt’. The effect of rainfall is infact a sweeping, cleansing one. Romance is intertwined with ‘Mann ka Malhar’ in terms of the emotional state and perception of the singer which in turn affects the audience, to feel lighter and calmer.

Finding a way out II

Finding a way out II by Laxmipriya Panigrahi

The intonations of this raga are easy on the ears and very soothing. In raga therapy, Malhar is believed to alleviate sleeplessness and cure sun stroke. It is also effective in the treatment of asthma, alluding to its long-term purifying and cleansing capacity. Pandit Ravi Shankar talked about how rains offer respite in the subcontinent. This however, could be debated.The various terrains and occupations in India witness rainfall variably. The cohabitation of the homeless and the privileged, reeks grim outcomes in the lives of the former, thereby making the experience of it different for each.

Visual interpretation

Various interpretations culminating into dialogues have shaped the curation and creation of this show. Each artist contributing from their homes with unique and diverse ideas, enter into a tryst with Malhar.

Khandakar Ohida’s audio/visual work, ‘Rain is Falling’, was conceived in the rustic fringes of Kelepada in West Bengal, India. While away from the city, her works show a deep impact of changed realities and added complexities during the pandemic. A lullaby, symbolic of the comfort of motherhood, posits itself as an ironical occurrence in the background. The combined energies of music and nature is reinforced by the melodious, backdrop, projecting a feeling, an emotion- of comfort, safety, freedom to be and express oneself. Ohida relocates the horizon of ‘Mann ka Malhar’ with nostalgia, in an attempt to reconnect with her roots and emotional depths. The work itself assumes atherapeutic role.

Nur Mahammad employs the medium of gouache to articulate his thoughts. One can see both literal and metaphorical elements of innocence, the child and the bubbles, within a setting of isolated despair here. The works unfurl a range of emotions vis-a-vis border politics, the exodus of marginalised, loss of home and identity. “I incorporate the implicit expression of ‘Malhar’ in my works as a psychological terrain, from agony to the ecstasy of optimism,” he says.

Laxmipriya Panigrahi is gripped by a dual inspiration as she intersperses her artwork with poetry, creating a lyrical rendition in watercolours. Her works see an active transliteration of elements from her life, experiences and engagements. A background of urban cacophony emulates the realism of her surroundings, as opposed to that of her childhood days in the village, revealing a conscience capable of resounding layers and layers of thoughts, while one is absorbed in a primary task.

A background score

A background score by Malavika Rajnarayan

Malavika Rajnarayan plays with origami, which posit as exemplars of poetic expression and help her process existing complexities. Female figures also find a constant presence in her works, enabling her to articulate feminine discourses. The knowledge of Carnatic music helps Malavika to resituate her works, to reflect, improvise, imagine, understand and experience Malhar through her artworks.

Inverted motifs of flora and fallow lands skirt Digbijayee Khatua’s works, subtly portraying a longing to recover that what is lost. This disposition of the artist exists at the cusp of a rural/urban dichotomy, spawned by experience of altered realities. A verse of fragility and unpredictability- of existence and relationships, these works are an outcome of the liminal subjectivity of Khatua’s art and practice.

In the works of Abhijit Saikia one witnesses real life human subjects take shape. He absorbs them into a scenery from his imagination and encapsulates in a vein of longing. Displaced thus, he carefully chooses various elements that do not essentially belong. He does this carefully and with intricacy, employing the miniature technique to perpetuate the existential in ‘Malhar’.

Inspired by Salvador Dali’s surrealism, Tanaya Sharma’s digital works are imaginative and thoughtful. Owing to her training in Hindustani classical music, her artworks have helped her realign and revisit her experiential engagements. Her keen ability to find, absorb and reflect optimism breathes a fresh air of positivity. She talks about the three phases of rain- ‘before rain’, a synchronised sense of co-existence of nature and humans; ‘during rain’, where natures blossoms and showers equality; ‘after rain’, that comes with a clarity in the minds and hearts, towards a new beginning.

Ganesh Das’ works reflect natural forms mutating into man-made objects, with a diligent methodology and gripping motifs. A bespoke displacement and a shift from the roots cause the grotesque in his motifs. Alternatively, these forms are also symbolic of evolution and are better adapted to the scenarios prevailing in his works.While the background sticks to a strict image of monsoon, he depicts a ‘Malhar’ of sustainability and sensibilities.

A season popularly longed for after the scorching torment, Rajib Chowdhury intrigues into the lanes of Malhar to celebrate a promise of renewal. He chooses, ‘Even the rain’ and ‘Storm’, by the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali, to slant across his canvas, like rain drops, colouring it with a striking, imaginative pallette. “To me, monsoon is magic,” he says.

Dance like a peacock

Dance like a peacock before you get drenched by Rajib Chowdhury

Indrapramit Roy’s ongoing series, ‘Quarantine Diaries’, directly address the absurdities and contradictions of life. The question of the lives of urban poor laying low in the priorities of the governing bodies weigh heavily in his works. “Most city dwellers do not necessarily experience rains with an equal romance. This year has brought an added dimension of anxieties, and that is the backdrop of all my works in the show,”he says.

Forms of representation

Like a plot rises and culminates into climax, engagements with Malhar are met Dance like a peacock before you get drenched by Rajib Chowdhury with in a similar vein. In India, monsoon arrives in midst of two seasons. In music too, compositions on Malhar begin with softer intonations or alaap, and gently get infused with lyrics, reaching anemotional apex, where the sonic waves impact the nimbostratus to burst. Such a pattern is adapted in the plots of mainstream cinema as well.

Satyajit Ray’s Jalsagar, set in the times of decaying feudalism entails a famous composition in raga Malhar by the sitar maestro Vilayat Khan. A recent series, Bandish Bandits, attributes primary importance to a composition in Malhar that eventually decides the fate of the gharana (genre). Here too, the importance of focus and dedication in classical music is evident in the character of the vocal maestro, played by Naseeruddin Shah, who devoted himself to the riyaz (practice) of one raga, Malhar, for 17 years.

Malhar comes across as an extremely powerful raga. But could it have any connection with ‘Malhari’ (or Shiva)? According to a local tale in Maharashtra, lord Shiva took the form of Khandoba, to kill the demon ‘Malah’. Although, its association with raga Malhar, is not heard of or common in the knowledge systems of Hindustani classical artforms, the power of rudra, is similar to the raging rains brought about by the recital of Malhar.

Like percussion gives laya-taal for music and dance, rainfall too, based on its intensity, sets the tone for human emotions. The acoustics of monsoonal melodies bring to mind a season of transformation. Entangled with shifting materialities of the monsoon: dust entangled with wetness, dense clouds that give no rain, bursts accompanied by silence, and toxicity that manipulates the future of aerosols that become clouds, resonates with the contemporary unpredictabilities that surround us. A unique blend of science, philosophy and myth, classical music celebrates the spirit of evolution, devotion, surrender, gestation and fruition. Malhar and monsoon, co-inspire and co-exist with the other, manifesting in this relationship the sublime intensities and capabilites of nature.

Khatua traces his artistic sojourn from his native place, Mahulia in Odisha to his current place of practice in Delhi. A shift from rural to urban, Odia to Hindi, the home and the world, the artist’s mundane realities changed enormously and to this he credits most of his conceptual development and modified techniques. Cityscapes and elements of urbanity are eminent in his works. He expresses with watercolours in a layered dialogue to accentuate existential depths within the city. Interestingly, his works do not lose aesthetic pleasure in the otherwise grim realities, thereby retaining a subtle yet striking visual allegory.

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