The rainy month of Sawan now seems to reinforce the age-old saying, "Na Sawan hare/Na Bhadon sookhe (Neither is this season green nor is the succeeding one actually dry)". Delhi has been starved for rain many times in the past too. There was a big famine in Shah Jahan’s reign when as a prince in 1630-31, Aurangzeb had to provide relief to the parched Deccan, falling in the rain shadow.
Sher Shah, Akbar and Jahangir also had to cope with famines and earlier Mohd bin Tughlak. Shah Alam II couldn’t do much when Delhi suffered drought as he was virtually a puppet of the Marathas. Akbar Shah II’s reign saw the fields across the Yamuna drying up in the absence of good rains. Afterwards, Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose kingdom had shrunk to the Red Fort side of the river, pleaded his helplessness to woebegone farmers. After the 1857 revolt also, scanty rainfall made the lot of the peasants miserable in Delhi. However, the Gazetteer for 1883-84 reported Sawan once again living up to its reputation. Like in the days when Akbar enjoyed it with his Rajput wives and Salim (Jahangir) with Anarkali under shady trees at Fatehpur Sikri, though Shah Jahan (who built the Sawan-Bhadon pavilion in the Red Fort) toned down the revelry after Mumtaz’s death and Aurangzeb’s ardour cooled following the untimely demise of sweetheart Hira Bai Zainabadi.
In the late 19th century, the villages were green as green can be, the Jats of the countryside making merry with folk songs and dancing in the fields, much like in Bollywood films, sans of course the fanciful dresses — women in blue saris and men in green clothes to merge with the verdant surroundings. The zamindars were happy (said one British land revenue official) and so were their tenants, the ryots.
It is pertinent to point out that no one was aware of the E1 Nino effect then and poor monsoons were attributed to either the sins of the ruler or the praja (subjects). If the monsoon failed, the luckier farmers were employed in famine relief works, Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad being the best examples. According to Francois Bernier, writing about the time of Aurangzeb, the emperor was initially interested in the welfare of the peasants but in the latter part of his reign (due to war in the Deccan) their condition grew worse and many of them had to work as coolies and camp labourers while lawlessness increased and Sawan songs were lost in lamentations.
After Aurangzeb’s death the Marathas levied higher land tax. The excuse was that it was being fixed as at the time of Raja Todarmal in Akbar’s reign or Malik Ambar in Shah Jahan’s time. As the Mughal Empire declined, agriculture suffered, yet Mohammad Shah Rangila (like Jahandar Shah before him and Zafar later) continued to celebrate the "glories of Sawan" with great zest. No wonder the dancing girls of Chawri Bazar made good money, for the raindrops were akin to pearls being scattered by the Mast (heady) Sawan right up to the royal swings at Mehrauli that wafted princes and princesses into a veritable fairyland, till Bhadon’s badaria (small mass of dark cloud) had deposited its naughty load of pent-up moisture on lovers’ hideouts.
One was reminded of this as late as the 1960s, when dancing girls were particularly active in the Walled City. They found many customers while Sawan showered its bounty. There were two prominent ones in Macchliwalan, both plump and attractive. Those were the days when the song, "Sawan ka mahina/Pawan kare sor (not shor)", was heard all over. Those two, who addressed each other as Lata (to hide their identity), would sing it with such verve that customers would just fall for their wiles. One afternoon, after a sultry week, it began to rain heavily and the two "Latas" (green bangles in chubby hands, gunghroos on their feet) danced with gusto in the courtyard of a hotel to cries of "Sawan aiyo jhoom ke", while their dupattas rippled in the balmy breeze. Now no Latas presumably sing to welcome the romantic season, for the rains get scarcer and scarcer every year because of the truancy of "sawan-ke-badal" (rain-clouds) in these increasingly mundane times. Blame it on El Nino if it helps, though the year 2016 seems to have been an exception.
One chanced to meet the dancing girls again at a wedding in Daryaganj, where they danced both for the purdah women inside the nuse and for the male assembly outside. But both left the city soon after for greener pastures in the Gulf region. Others follow them to Dubai and Oman, where NRIs turned out to be good patrons. Sanju, who used to be their agent in Delhi, was spotted at a biryani shop in Nizamuddin one day. He was not too well off as the "Lata sisters" had stopped sending money to him after they got married to two widowers and settled down as housewives.
Now, when it rains in the Walled City, the new generation finds it more convenient to entertain their girlfriends in places like the Red Fort or at the restaurants in Fatehpuri. The dancing girls are out as far as they are concerned. Boys not in relationships prefer to watch the dancing scenes on TV, sitting safe in their homes rather than courting controversy by flirting outside. However, some old men still visit the kothas, particularly in the rainy season as Sawan in believed to make both old and young "Mast" (bitten by the love-bug). In earlier times, it was supposed to be Cupid’s, Eros’ or Kamdev’s arrow that aroused love not only in men but also women. But now, with changing times, amours are no longer considered to be the gift of the god of love (Indian, Greek or Roman).
One more thing about Sawan and Bhadon (the present month) worth mentioning is that besides romance, they also bring disease in their wake. Earlier, it used to be malaria and body sores ("Sawan aiya, phunsi-phore laya," cautioned mothers and grandmothers). But now we have more deadly infections like viral fever, dengue and chikunguniya, attacks of which in some cases can be fatal. One often wonders why the rainy season was more celebratory when people lived in dingy houses with mud walls and thatched roofs that collapsed in the rain.
The reason may have been that virulent disease were not rampant then and when kutcha houses fell they did not usually kill people. As the 18 century Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi mentioned in one of his poems, when a house fell in a downpour mohalla-wallahs rushed to extricate the entrapped family. As their injuries were not serious, the aftermath ended with some fun. The neighbours clapped and danced in the rain at the lucky escape of those whom they had rescued. Incidentally, there was no Fire Brigade in those days to do this job — and no heavily-fabricated iron, steel, cement and concrete houses or nobles like Mirza Elahi Bux, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s kinsman, would not have survived the collapse of Chandi Mahal one monsoon near the Jama Masjid.