It would perhaps be inopportune to celebrate the rains with music given the havoc that the intemperate weather conditions have caused in Mumbai and the floods in many Indian states. In fact, many have often jokingly blamed such tragedies on the excessive number of Malhar utsavs or festivals of music dedicated to the Malhar family of raags, or more pointedly, on bad renditions of Malhars. But given the fact that the monsoons are the only time in the year that Hindustani music lovers really soak themselves in the Malhars, I might just hazard another episode to discuss yet another Malhar.
This week, we listen to renditions of Meerabai ki Malhar, a variety from the Malhar group that is not as popular as
Mia ki Malhar, Gaud Malhar or Sur Malhar. Despite the association of her name with the raag, there seems to be no documentary evidence of the latter’s connection with Meerabai, the 16th-century saint-poet. But vocalist Shubha Mudgal informs me of a myth that indicates Meerabai’s association with Malhar. The myth describes the moment when the cup of poison sent by the Rana to Meerabai proves to be ineffective on her. Enraged at the turn of events, the Rana orders the bearer of the cup to consume a few drops to check if the poison was indeed effective. The bearer consumes a few drops and dies instantly. When Meerabai hears of this, she sits near his body and sings the Malhar. Her singing ushers in torrential rains and the man comes to life miraculously.
Open to interpretation
A rare raag is often not performed across gharanas, and those that choose to do so often have varying interpretations. For diehard followers of one or the other gharana, the interpretation that they adhere to appears to be the correct, pure or authentic one. Clearly, these adjectives are irrelevant in the context of a system of music like Hindustani music that is highly interpretative and constantly evolving. Musicians and aficionados would therefore need to bear in mind this important caveat while listening to Hindustani music in general, and to rare raags in particular.
According to scholar-musician Ram Ashreya Jha’s analysis, as encapsulated in his disciple Dr Geeta Bannerjee’s book Raag Malhar Darshan, Meerabai ki Malhar has elements of other raags like Mia ki Malhar, Gaud, Sarang, Adana, among others. In fact, this book also refers to an interpretation that has a marked inclusion of Raag Khamaj.
Khadim Hussein Khan (1904/05-1993), the doyen of the Agra gharana, presents a profile of the raag that includes phrases characteristic of the Kanada group of raags. He sings a composition in a medium-paced 10-matra Jhaptaal.
The next three tracks include renditions by exponents of the Jaipur-Atrauli style. They sing the same composition in the raag Meerabai ki Malhar, but interpret it quite differently, illustrating that Hindustani music has great scope for individuality and diversity of interpretations.
Dhondutai Kulkarni (1927-2014) sings the composition in vilambit or slow Jhaptaal, incorporating phrases of Mia ki Malhar and Sur Malhar and a phrase from Nayaki Kanada in her interpretation of the raag.
Mallikarjun Mansur (1910-1992) interprets the raag with phrases of Mia ki Malhar, Gaud Malhar and Sur Malhar. He sings the composition in vilambit Teentaal.
The final track features Kishori Amonkar (1932-2017), who sings the composition in the seven-matra Rupak. Her interpretation employs phrases of Mia ki Malhar, Gaud Malhar, Sur Malhar and the Kanada group.
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