Certainly, Inayat Hussein Khan and Haider Khan, the famous kliyal singers of the Rampur gharana, imported by the Ranas were notlhefirstlosingraagasinNepal. The earlier Malla kings are believed to have been keen supporters of the fine arts and were sometimes poets and playwrights themselves. Songs sung to various raagas and talas were an important part of dramas that were staged in Malla times. The musical ensemble used for these dramas employed a number of instruments — khi, komcakhi, and dhimay drums, bay flutes and, prob ably, pvamga trumpets—now recognised as part of the rich musical heritage of the Newars. This heritage also includes numerous songs of various kinds: devotional, narrative, seasonal, love songs, as well as the percussion ensembles thatno one can avoid hearing during festivals and the devotional ensembles which need a little more effort to find.
The quality of the Valley´s soil is far from unrelated to its musical artistry. Musical artistes can not live from music alone; they need food, clothes and a place to live, and these have to be provided for them in some way. A culture close to bare subsistence cannot spare the large number of working hours needed tp support a large-scale communal involvement in music such as that of the Newar culture. Neither can it support musical specialists, suchas the classicalmusicMStatfds or the modern radio composers. Music needs a surplus of wealth to live from. In various ways, including agriculture, trade and taxes, the inhabitants of the Valley generated such a surplus, part of which was allocated tomusical activities.
The guthi system of land endowments has been one method of supporting music. The farmer working the land paid p art of hi s produce to the guthi, which could then be spent on, among other things, employing musicians for its community events. The Ranas could maintain their ustaads by means of their very comprehensive taxation system, implying that villagers inremote areas of Nepal paid for the fine arts of the Kathmandu darbars.
|Music as Message
A good tune echoes in the mind. That is why, perhaps, governments the world over try to reinforce their ideologies by finding the "right" words for the tune.
One day in August last year, tourists sipping Coca Cola and eating curd at Bhaktapur´s Nyatapola Cafe found a new target for their telephoto lenses. At the base of the famous Nyatapola temple, singers and dancers were taking part in a cultural programme. But this was not just another performance of the Peacock Dance. The tourists were incidental spectators of a show targeted at the Bhaktapur citizen. The songs were about poverty, inequality and development and the show — which was performed in several other places — was presented by Rastriya Janasanskrhik Manch Nepal (National People´s Cultural Forum Nepal) which is the cultural wing of the UML, the main opposition party in Nepal.
Music with political messages has long been a tradition in Nepal. The various leftist parties have cultural units of their own, which began operating during Panchayat times. Many composers, song writers, singers and musicians have supported one or the other ideology by putting their artistic capabilities to political use. Among renowned musical artistes of this brand, we find Dharma Raj Thapa, whose early songs were said to be overtly political; the late comrade Gokul Joshi who travelled widely inNepal´s villages; the group Ralpha and the many groups subsequently set up by its founding members—BedanaPariwar,SankalpaPariwar,Aasthaa Pariwar, fndreni Sanskritik Samaj.
Like the banners carried at political procession, some political songs are simple and propagandistic, and are sung to simple melodies that are easy to remember. Apparently, such songs were produced on the direct request of party leaders, who probably thought music an effective tool for propaganda. Other artistes preferred to elaborate their songs. Though they carry a political message, some couched it in metaphor. Allusions to a high-altitude landscape, tormented by landslides etc, for example, presented no problem for those used to reading between the lines.
These political, or progressive, songs were, of course, not broadcast by Radio Nepal during Panchayat times, nor have they been taken up after the 1990 movement. Nepal TV, on the other hand, seems bent On ´more independent programming and has featured progressive songs in its musical programmes. Radio Nepal has now relegated many patriotic songs, and even some folk songs, to its store rooms; they are not broadcast anymore as they were too explicit in praise of the Panchayat system.
Musical political propaganda certainly did not begin in the
Panchayat times, however. For instance, the songs of the Gaine minstrels could be overtly political, commenting upon political events in a way that makes one suspect that the words had been provided by some political actor rather than by the minstrel himself.
But the political use of music goes beyond propagandistic songs. The love songs making up the bulk of Radio Nepal broadcasts during Panchayat times were hardly political, but probably that was exactly the point. Artistes with political inclinations either had to keep them out of their songs, or sing them outside the government-supported institutions. This was a hard decision, for most of the musical opportunities in Panchayat Nepal were tied to such institutions.
The rich and diverse musical lives of the Malla kingdoms was one way of making clear to their subjects what a glorious society they were living in. In these kingdoms — extrapolating from today´s organisation of Newar musical activities — musical tasks were distributed according to caste and locality, and festivals showed that, despite all the differentiation, society was still an integrated whole. This was one way of telling the subjects how to interpret their society, and to show them their own particular place in it. Similarly, the Rana import of famous classical musicians from India was a way of demonstrating to both their subjects and visitors from abroad that they were indeed maharajahs, part of the subcontinental brotherhood of illustrious princes, and that national borders merely delineated the boundaries of taxation and not of culture.
The Ranas chose a music well suited to their ends. Classical music is equally pan-Subcontinental and has very little to say about ethnic or national cultural differences. With the downfall of the Ranas, objectives were reversed entirely, and cultural differences came to the fore. Post-Rana Nepal has established and supported a large number of institutions that promote music. The policies governing these institutions such as ´he National Communication Service Plan of 1971 overtly stress national unity, prestige and dignity. All together, these institutions, which together may be thought of as a national stage for music, have promoted Nepali musical artistes and created new musical genres, above all the (modernised) folk-song and the modern song, while classical music has become relegated to obscurity.
Call of the Valley
This surplus wealth of the Valley created an array of resources and opportunities that musical artistes drew upon. But the supporters of present-day radio singers include not only the Nepali tax-payers who, through governmental budgets, fund various music-related institutions such as the Royal Nepal Academy, the Sanskritik Sansthan, Radio Nepal and others, but also the Japanese tax¬payers who provided development aid for the construction of one of Radio Nepal´s recording studios. Thus, the modern-day darbars and guthis and the musical patrons are the Radio Nepal, the Royal Nepal Academy, Sanskritik S ansthan, cultural groups, schools and colleges and recording studios.
Many musical artistes earn additional income from these institutions, and some artistes even land full-time jobs in them. In addition, an artist can earn income from his musical abilities by creating jingles for advertisements (common on Radio Nepal), performing ghazals at restaurants, giving classical music recitals at hotels, appearing on stage, giving private tuitions, or walking down the streets in Thamel selling sarangi fiddles to tourists. For a prospective musical artist, then, it makes economic sense to set up shop in Kathmandu.
But musical opportunities do not end with earning money. Kathmandu is where artistes can earn their reputation, get their music disseminated, tie themselves into networks of artistes and others, etc. This is where an artist can find good musicians to perform with, where the composer finds a good songwriter, the singer a composer, and all of them a musical studio in which to record.
However good the material conditions for musical creativity, the musical artist also needs musical material to work from. There are classical artistes from whom they may learn the basics of raaga and tala, instrumental and vocal skills. Other teachers, whether at "light music institutes" or in their homes, offer tuitions in guitar, harmony and even drumming. The influx of people from Nepal´s villages may also try their talent for a voice-test at Radio Nepal and take part in the Chautari programme — or in a folk song competition. Besides all this, Kathmandu-based collectors of folk songs visit villages, and musical artistes of the Valley sometimes give programmes in various regions of Nepal, often returning with some new songs. Through migration, networking, the media, institutions and excursions back to the villages, Kathmandu has indeed become a national stage for music, a switchboard connecting different geographical and cultural areas and diverse musical traditions including north Indian classical music, Western music, Indian popular and light classical music, various Nepali regional traditions and, of course, the traditions of the Valley itself. No wonder then that so many musical artistes born outside the Valley gravitate towards Kathmandu and, in doing so, give further momentum totheartisticw ares of the Valley.
While the detail s naturally ha ve changed, this picture of Kathmandu Valley as a hub of musical networks and a switchboard For the Flow of musical ideas was probably equally true as far b&ck, at least, as the Malla kings. Many of the forms of music cultivated by the Newars hark back to Malla times, and they can hardly have evolved from nothing. The well-calculated almost architectural drum compositions and the delicate melodies of the old songs testify to the artistic creativity of their originators. Throughout, there seems to have been intense musica! contact with the south. During Malla times, Indian musical treatises were copied and translated and commentaries were written. King Jagatjyotir Malla himself wrote a voluminous work called
classic Natya Shastra. The Mallas were deligthted to entertain Indian musicians, singers and scholars in their courts, and the Hanuman Dhofca reportedly was widely known as a musical centre by the 17th century.
Music in more concrete form may have also been importedfrom the south. TheNewar scholar Thakurlal Manandhar has, for example, suggested that the dapha was borrowed from Mithila in the north Indian kingdom of Tirhut, with which the early Mai las had regular contact. The Nepal-India musical connections came to a temporary end in the early Shah period with Prithvi Narayan´s decree that no Indian musician be encouraged in his country, under the Ranas, prominent Indian classical musicians were again invited to the palaces.
The more recent modern s ongs bro adcas t by Radio Nepal during the past few decades have obvious Indian connections. There are songs based on raagas but, more importantly, the whole genre draws upon its Indian counterparts — film songs, light-classical ghazah, and the like. Though there has been a steady influx of musical ideas from India over the centuries, these have mostly become "Nepalised" when utilised by the musical artistes of the Kathmandu Valley. In the case of modern songs, the Indian influences have been combined with musical ideas from Nepal´s own regional folk traditi ons to produce a genre distinct from its Indian counterpart. Although the boundaries are by no means precise, the voices, manner of singing, orchestration, the melodies, the way different instruments are played and, of course, the fact that the singers, composers and songwriters are Nepalis (disregarding the most obvious sign, the language of the lyrics) all contribute to our recognition of Nepali music. Indeed, this distinctness is part of the modern songs´ ideological reason for being. It is almost as if the whole genre is there to say: "this is not India, this is Nepal!".
In contrast to this classical music resisted "Nepalisation". This may account for the somewhat ambigous treatment of classical music in post-Rana Nepal. At Radio Nepal in the mid-1980s, classical musicians had better status, commanded higher pay and had fewer
all, NRs 2X5.
workinghours than their colleagues in the folk song department, but still, the actual broadcast time was restricted to 1 hour 45 minutes per week for classical music — as compared to a totaj of ajmost 26 hours per week for Nepali folk and modern songs! Too much classical music on Radio Nepal and the message may be interpreted: "this is (part of) India".
Undoubtedly, classical music has high status and is seen as serious music and a source of musical knowledge and competence. But, outside a small circle of performers and connoisseurs, it is not taken seriously as a genre. Composers, singers and instrumentalists learn from ustaads and turn to the raagas and talas as bases for musical composition, to develop their practical artistic capabilities and for a better knowledge of music. In this way, classical music takes on a significance that goes far beyond the admittedly restricted popularity of elaborate raaga recitals. And, after all, this is expected given that shasir´rya tf<wige£f,thoughitis translated here asclassical music, actually means "music based on knowledge".
The musical artistry of the Kathmandu Valley is not confined to palaces, big stage events or recording studios. Inpalls, at temples, in the streets and on local stages not only in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, but also in the small towns throughout the Valley, local musical artistes go on with their art. For instance, in Kirtipur, with its 10,000 inhabitants, there were in the mid 1980s, 10 dapha groups, six groups singing bhajan hymns to the accompaniment of harmonium and tabla, seven dhimaybaja percussion ensembles, and three wedding orchestras of the modem brass band variety. In one of Kirtipur´s neighbourhoods, more thanhalf the men had learned to perform in one or other of these musical traditions. This is a sign of the pervasiveness of Newar communal music-making which has ensured that no part of the Valley would be without its own local musicians. In addition, the town has seen a more recent upsurge in a more specialised musical activity. Musicians who have gained their musical competence in traditional Newari genreshavegoneonto make stage programmes of their own, where modern songs composed by themselves or borrowed from more renowned Kathmandu colleagues and traditional Newari songs (which have been given new texts) are presented along with dances and short dramas. Along with this, new local patrons of music — such as libraries and cultural organisations funded by local householders—have c ontribu ted to prov iding new resources and opportunities for musical artistes.
However, as musical artistes-and maybe especially the most dedicated ones - devote more and more of their time to these slage programmes, the signs are clear that the communal involvement inmusic has lessened. Musical groups have closed down, people have given up performing and many young men never lurrt up when it is time to leam the traditional genres. As people shift from agriculture to modem occupations, it becomes increasingly difficult to take part in, for instance, regular morning singing in a dapfui group. And the young man who spends his morning hours in a college may find it impossible to take part in the tuition session organised by a traditional ensemble.
Progress versus Regress
Will the Katliraandu Valley continue to be a centre for musical art and creativity? The two common ways of interpreting historical processes, the optimistic and the pessimistic, predict radically different futures. The optimist sees history as progress i n wh ich society moves from a bad past to a decent present, towards a golden future, hi contrast, the pessimist sees history as aregression from a golden past to a deplorable present, where we move towards a future in which things will be still worse. The optimistic view is often encountered among people working in development while the pessimists are found among, for instance, environmentalists (who see the number of species ever declining and pollution ever increasing) or those who worry about problems with young people ("the youth of today is w orse th an ever before, more prone toviolence, drinking, and loose sexual morals").
The optimist would say that the Tough and rustic traditional music of the Kathmandu Valley, as well as the over-complicated classical music, is increasingly giving place to carefully worked-out modem foims of music that combine the best of East and West and correspond to the needs of time. Primitive instruments such as the sarangi, the modal or
the bansuri will be replaced by better ones, Western ones, oreven sophisticated synthesiser keyboardsanddrumrnachines.Thepessimists, of course, disagree. According to them, the valuable traditions of the past are dying out and, in the future, the music of the Kathmandu Valley will just be local versions of Michael Jackson and Madonna. But is there, perhaps, a better way of looking at change?
It was the great German musicologist, Curt Sachs, who said that musical development is never really a development in terms of aesthetic value—itis just change. And, to put the argument in terms of European classical music, no sensible person could possibly argue that the music of Beethoven is better than that of Bach (as the optimist would have it), nor that Beethoven should be better than Bartok (as the pessimist might mistakenly think). Sachs´s view captures the truth aboutmusical development better than either the pessimist or the optimist The optimists are often found among people attracted by novelty for its own sake, and among those who instinctively feel that change is always development for the better. Pessimists, on the other hand, seem to base their views on objective facts: this or that tradition is vanishing, the level of artistic quality in a particular tradition has clearly deteriorated. The pessimist, though, convinces by comparing past and present on unequal terms.
Tohiscontemporaries,for example, Bach was just one of many composers. To us, he is one of the greatest of all times while his contemporary colleagues, perhaps seen by his time as greater than he, are long forgotten. Along the way, from then to now, the river of time has cleared away all the mud to reveal the pearls. The music of the present, howeveT, is a confusing and ambiguous mixture of mud and mud-covered pearls. No sifting has yet been done.
Comparing the shining pearls of the past with the muddy present, one may have the impression that we are sliding downwards towards a gloomy future. The sum total of music produced today appears not quite inspiring and this is as true for the music of Kathmandu Valley. The anistic music produced by contemporary artistes easily disappear in the massive output of new music. Themediaare often seen aschief culprits behind the vulgar commercialism and cheap popularity which, according to the pessimistic view, is the most salient feature of the music of today. (This way of describing things, of course, is by no means confined to the
Kathmandu Valley but has been heaTd everywhere.) But it is precisely this national stage, created by the media, that has enabled artistic music, such as songs by Amber Gurung and sung by Aruna Lama "Sabaile bhanthe layalu phul bhai", Rameesh and Manjuls´ "Mero sano Muralima" etc. (not to mention the many other fine songs by other musical artistes). Through their musical woTk, radio recordings, discs, cassettes and stage shows both artistes, neither of whom is a Kathmanduite by birth, were attracted by the musical opportunities the city could provide for them and have themselves joined this national stage for music.
The musical creativity promoted by the national stage affects also the local musical artistes of the Kathmandu Valley. Inspired by their Kathmandu counterparts, and drawing upon the musical ideas current in th&national
scene, talented musical artistes inKirtipur and other small towns compose their own songs. While there may seem to be a risk of musical impoverishment considering that the Newari traditional music of the Valley is not maintained, the Valley´s musical arts have simultaneously become enriched by what the national stage has brought about. This enrich-ment does not end with the modem songs.
As a musical switchboard, the Kathmandu Valley has access to various local folk traditions. Consider a folk song such as "Simle mathi ban". We do not need to go ali the way to the villages ourselves to hear such songs. People go there for us to collect the songs, OT people come from the villages to Kathmandu to sing for us. Once here, these songs may take on a new life in Kathmandu circles, outside their place of origin: they are circulated among Kathmandu musical artistes, performed on stage as well as in gatherings of friends, maybe also brought out on a cassette. In the process, Simle mathi ban which has its origins in the Pokhara region and was a part of the local musical heritage, becomes part of the musical heritage of the Kathmandu Valley.
It is indeed true that many traditional formsof music in the Kathmandu Valley show signs of vanishing. The Valley may continue to nurture musical artistry and creativity without the Newari musical traditions, but, just as the loss of any species represents an irreplaceable loss to the world´s genetic pool, the loss of a musical tradition is a loss to the world´s cultural pool. But it may be too early for despair for it is a tradition´s stock of musical ideas, its distinctive contribution to the musical pool, rather than the way it is maintained that matters. Music will just as surely die if preserved in a museum.
While traditional Newari music such as dapha and dhimay are no longer performed in each neighbourhood, this music may live on, entertained by dedicated musicians who keep the traditions alive. This has many paraileis in other parts of the world. In Sweden, the folk traditions that a few decades ago seemed bound for extinction have been revitalised by enthu-, siastic young musicians who have made folk music the most dynamic and creative of all Swedish musical scenes today. Very actively, they seek out melodies and tradition-bearers, but they also contribute to theTeper-toire with new compositions, try new instruments, new ways of group performances, and so on. This revitalisation inevitably brings about change.
There are signs that something similar is happening in the Kathmandu Valley. Several musical artistes work dedjcatedly with their own traditions, publishing collectionsof drum
compositions, working with performances in hotels, or travelling over the Valley to enrich their repertoire of Newari songs, to be used in their own performances. Also here, artistes may continue the tradition by composing new songs. Among these artistes, Ram Krishna Duwal has written a large number of new songs in which the music is based on traditional Newari melodies and retain a distinctly Newari musical flavour, and whose lyrics draw upon Newar culture. And the repertoires of traditional Newari genres have a life outside the traditional ensembles. You can hear the melodies of Newari folk and seasonal songs from the stage in the setting of a modern, mixed cultural program or, of course, when there is a classica! music recital.
In one classical music sammelan in Kirtipur, the sarod master, Mohan Sundar Shrestha, concluded his raaga recital with an enthusiastic rendering of one of the Newari fiostfttfa melodies, and where Krishna Narayan Shrestha playfully presented a jaltarang version of the Newari folk-song "¦Rajamati". Incidentally, the si taristTarabir Singh Tuladhar has given a 10-minutc interpretation of "Rajamatt" on an LP disc brought out by a Western label.
Alive and Kicking
To give ahopeful interpretation, itmay be that the Newar traditions are not so much on the way to extinction as changing in the way they are maintained. The tradidonofmusical artistry in the Kathmandu Valley has been around for a long time and, as yet, it seems alive and well. Throughout the distinct phases of musical development, musical artistes have drawn up on the opportunities open to them and worked creatively and artistically upon the musical ideas provided to diem by tradition and borrowing. After all, the most important thing about Beethoven is not whether he composed better music than Bach or Bartok, but that he was given the opportunity to be a composer, rather than to be, say, a chartered accountant. The conditions that made Beethoven possible are the same that have created the musical artistry of the Kathmandu Valley: scope for musical artistes, musical traditions to build upon, an influx of new musical ideas, a gadiering of musical personalities, and that part of the surplus of wealth is allocated to intensive music-making. The future of the Kathmandu Valley as a centre for musical creativity depends upon the maintenance of
these conditions. k
I. Grandin is the author ol Music and media in local fife; Music practice in a Newar neighbourhood in Nepal (1969) and is looking al thss Nepali music scene since the 1960s lor his second book.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
From our archive:
Subel Bhandari looks at the Strategic Partnership Agreement, noting its avoidance of contentious issues. (April 2012)
Vijay Prashad reviews Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, discussing Taliban strategy in the context of NATO withdrawal. (October 2011)
Aunohita Mojumdar explores questions of accountability in relation to the West’s “hasty exit strategy”. (February 2011)