(backdated from Sept 2)
It is 1 AM in Lajpat Nagar, on a warm night at the end of the monsoon season. All is quiet except for the occasional boom of thunder and the sound of the rain that washes away the last three days of intense heat. There are no rickshaw-wallahs honking their horns, no cyclists sounding their quaint brring-y bells, and the mysterious man who walks by blowing his whistle at exactly 11:30 and midnight has long gone. The dust lining the streets slowly turns to mud, and moves quickly through roadside gullies, carrying away the debris that has accumulated through the day.
I am standing on my balcony alone, looking out at all the other balconies on the street, at the occasional cat running from one sill to another, trying to stay dry, the beautiful tropical trees sandwiched between buildings, thirstily soaking up water. The rain is warm, and even in this torrential storm, the water envelops and caresses everything it touches.
Looking out into the rain, I can’t help but think of the story of the scene from an opera I had begun to write at the beginning of this year, on the life of 15th century saint-poet Meera Bai. Meera believed that she was married to Lord Krishna, and even though her family insisted on her earthly marriage to a prominent member of another royal family to strengthen a political alliance, she was clear from the outset that her heart and body belonged to Krishna. While she is perceived as mad by the people around her, causing them to do everything from berating her to attempting to take her life, it is her belief in Krishna that ends up saving her in most instances.
In the scene I composed, Meera sits outside a temple which has been locked by her husband, Rana, to prevent her from worshipping Krishna. She decides to carry out a hunger strike until the door is opened. It is night, and she is alone in a secluded forest, as she begins to sing a bhajan to Lord Krishna, confirming her faith and love for him. The bhajan is in Raag Malhaar, an incredibly evocative raga that is known for bringing rain. As she sings, enraptured and unaware of her surroundings, the wind begins to pick up and one of the candles she has lit outside the wooden door of the temple causes the door to catch on fire and burn to the ground, opening the temple entrance once again. With her back towards the temple and her mind focused on her lord and love, Meera sings unabashedly as the chaos happens behind her. As she turns to see the temple in flames, and calmly enters the burning structure singing all the while, the wind turns to rain, and puts out the fire behind her.
Standing in the rain at night, I suddenly found myself wanting to sing the bhajan that Meera sings in that moment, “Maara re Giridhar Gopal”. I felt a resonance to the music that I had never felt before. The rain pounding down, the lightning whiting out the sky, the intricate melodic lines weaving together in raag malhaar as the warm water caressed each surface and left it pure. I understood in a very visceral way what my protagonist might have seen through her own eyes and felt in response, five hundred years ago, singing this bhajan in the tropical rain of India.
It is in these moments when all my regular identities fall away, when I am no longer a western classical composer, or a fulbrighter, or any of the usual labels I am quick to identify myself by: I am just one of millions of Indian girls, standing on a balcony in the rain, singing a bhajan. There is nothing separating me from my past or from the culture I know not in my conscious mind, but in my bones.