I woke up today as usual to step out for my usual Saturday morning coffee and noticed my neighbor’s almond tree was in full bloom.

It’s springtime! (No, East Coasters, this is not meant to rub it in.)

Growing up in Mumbai, spring was no big deal. Mumbai has basically three seasons – very hot, less hot and heavy rain. Spring marked transition from less hot to very hot season, so I had no idea why it was such a big deal.

I liked the song sung by Bhimsen Joshi and Manna De which depicts a legendary dual between Tansen and Baiju Bawra in the court of emperor Akbar in 15th century. The song describes full glory of spring –

Ketaki Gulab Juhi Champakban Phoole

While I really loved the tune, I did not quite have any way to relate to it’s poetry. I also did not understand why Baiju Bawra (Manna De) wins the dual just by hitting a random high note, in spite of Tansen (Bhimsen Joshi) singing it much much better. That was my first lesson about differentiating reality from Bollywood. Recently, I came across this Films Division documentary where both Bhimsen Joshi and Manna De talk about the experience of recording the song –

It took me a couple of years spent in Lucknow to appreciate what spring really is. After bitter winters of North India (and absence of central heating), you can’t but feel festive with arrival of spring – the time of rebirth and rejuvenation.

Indian Classical Music has it’s evolution based in depiction of moods and life of people of the subcontinent. This time of the year is marked by festivals to celebrate spring – such as Pongal and Holi. Indian Classical Music celebrates the season through traditional Ragas associated with it. Three main ragas come to mind are – Basant (which literally means Spring), Bahar (which literally means Blossom) and Kafi ( which literally means nothing – certainly not coffee).

Listen to this beautiful composition (sung here by Pandit Jasraj). The poetry of it is –

Aur Raag Sab Ban Baraati (All the ragas are participating in the wedding procession (of))
Dulha Raag Basant (the groom – Basant (spring))
MadanMahotsav Aaj Biraaje (festivities and romance is in the air)
Bida Bhayo Hemant (but the Raag which is not around is Hemant (winter))

Bahar is another spring Raga. It’s movement is mainly in the higher side of octave. Bahar is often mixed with many other established Ragas to create mixed Ragas like Bageshri Bahar, Hindol Bahar etc. Listen to this wonderful rendition set to very stunning visual depiction by my friend Nachiketa Sharma.

The Holy Grail of Spring ragas is the combination of these two major ragas – Basant Bahar. The mixed Raga is very difficult to sing because it employs all twelve notes in the octave and transitions from Basant to Bahar and back have to be managed very carefully. In other words, there is a very specific way to use these twelve notes. I had the opportunity of listening to Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar sing this wonderful raga here in Bay Area. Ulhasji was accompanied by Pandit Suresh Talwalkar on tabla for that concert. Subsequently, I found this vintage video of Pandit Ram Marathe – Ulhasji’s Guru, who is also accompanied by a much younger Suresh Talwalkar. The composition is credited to Pandit Ram Marathe himself –

Basant Ki Bahar Aayi (Full Blossom of Spring is here!)

This video is exquisite. Enjoy!

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