A proponent and scholar of traditional music takes pride in Nepal’s rich Traditions and laments its decline.
I, Ramsharan Darnal, am a member of the Damai caste, whose tradition and identity is in music. The caste system itself has a long history in our country, and is a legacy of a division of labour that was carried out during the Vedic age. This categorisation in time came to be linked with religion, and the system was refined with the introduction of customs and laws. Notions such as pure/impure, upper/lower and touchable/untouchable took hold of Nepali society. According to tradition, therefore, I am an untouchable.
In this nation of “four varnas and thirty-six jatis” there are many communities whose identity is music. Kulu, Sarld, Chanaro, Damai, Hudke, Kusule and Kasai are all groups which play various musical instruments, while Kamis make them. The Gaine and Badi are proficient at both …they make and play instruments.
With so many communities traditionally engaged in music-making, one can surmise that this was once a profession respected and patronised. But the fact that all communities engaged in music were relegated to “low caste” status says, to me at least, that at some stage in Nepali history there was a conspiracy against music. The slow demise of Nepali music seems to have begun at the beginning of the 14th century, when King Jayasthiti Malla of Kathmandu regularised the caste system.
Even though there were so many Nepali castes and groups involved in music, the profession slowly lost its ability to provide for economic survival. Each group, therefore, had to adopt a line of work, which is how Damais began to sew cloth as a profession. Today, Damais all over the country are known first as tailors, and they play music almost as a side specialisation. Having a background so steeped in musical tradition, many Damais could have helped in the development of indigenous Nepali music, but the imperatives of livelihood have kept them tied to their sewing machines.
Us artist castes were relegated to the bottom in economic rung, but the society was never able to forget its musical past. Thus, auspicious occasions have always demanded the panche baja or the naumati baja. Even the most conservative “upper-castes” cannot do without the Damais or Kusules. Howsoever much the politics of the day tried to wish them away, the musical castes were never really abandoned by the society itself.
My ancestors came from Pokharithok village in the Gorkha principality of the great King Prithvinarayan Shah. My great-grandfather Santabir arrived in Kathmandu around 1806, as the nagarchi (band leader) in the Bayu Guthi, the religious trust which was established after King Ranabahadur Shah’s assasination to provide solace to his soul.
Of Santabir’s four sons, two joined the army as musicians. One of them was my grandfather, whose son (my father) Satyakumar also served in the army as a musician. When he retired, Satyakumar ordered a set of bachhe baja, western band instruments from a firm in Paris known as Cousinon & Co.
That was the time of Maharaj Juddha Shamsher, and commoners were not allowed to play band music. As a result, the expensive instruments had to be put in storage. My father went to Sri Teen Juddha and made the plea: “Either the Government should buy my instruments, or allow the public to hear them.” The Maharaj considered the matter and allowed Satyakumar to play the band baja before the merchant class, but only during marriages and other such ceremonies. I feel that this decision had significance for both Nepali music and Nepali politics.
Luckily, my own family has had better luck than most others in the musical castes. Since the time of my great-grandfather, we have remained immersed in the world of music. My father’s maternal grandfather, Bakhatbir Budhapirthi, gave the music to Nepal’s national anthem. His sons and grandsons, while in Calcutta, changed their surname from Budhapirthi to “Banks”. Bakhatbir’s son Pushkal Budhapirthi became renowned in the Calcutta music world as a hotel bandmaster, performing under the name George Banks. The famous contemporary jazz musician Louis Banks is his son, whose Nepali name is Dambar Bahadur Budhapirthi. By relation, he is my father’s uncle’s grandson, which makes him my bhai.
Not unnaturally, I have been interested in music since childhood. After a few years at Kathmandu’s Durbar High School, I was enroled in St. Roberts in Darjeeling. But while still at school, I was called over to Calcutta to work with Uncle Pushkal, under whom I learnt to play and perform with the guitar, mandolin and trumpet.
It was in 1957, I came to Kathmandu and began to study traditional Nepali music and instruments. I also became engaged in the recording of songs to which the lyrics were by M.B.B. Shah (late King Mahendra). In 1959, the first anniversary of the Royal Nepal Academy was celebrated with much fanfare, for three days, within the Royal Palace itself. That was when I joined the Academy.
A Country’s Wealth
The Academy allowed me to devote myself to my discipline. I researched music, wrote six books (and have six more yet to be published) and wrote hundreds of articles in the papers. From what I have gathered during my studies, I have come to the conclusion that Nepal has been second to none in its musical traditions.
If one looks at the instrumentation, we have in Nepal instruments to represent all the main groups: chordophones such as the sarangi, pibacha, and tungna; aerophones such as bansuri, sehnai and muhali; percussion instruments such as jhyali, bhusya, mujura, ghanta and murchunga; and membranophones such as chyabrung, madal, dhimay, dhyangro. Even though Nepalis might not be advanced in the use of modern instruments like the xylophone and electronic keyboard, we do have music-makers as ancient as the binayo, which is made from bamboo.
The High Himalayan communities, influenced by Tibetan culture, have their own variety of musical instruments for social and religious occasions. These include the ngaha (a drum that is hung), Kangling (sehnai), lawabaja (6 to 12 foot long trumpet), buksyal (cymbal), chyot (drum), damphu, tungna, dongchhen, and so on. The Kangling is a wind instrument made from the human thigh bone, and damarus can be made from the human skull.
The instrument known in Newari as the kwata is one instrument that is today indigenous to Nepal. The kwata is referred to in Indian dance literature as the Tripuskar — it is a madal with three faces. While in the Ellora caves of Maharashtra, there is a statue seen playing three madals together, the kwata is found not even there. In Kathmandu Valley, Shakya monks rever the kwata, and bring it out only during the Gaijatra and Janai Purnima festivals to call the protective deities. When Lord Buddha was born, according to the holy book Lalit Bistar, this was one of the instruments in the orchestra which played from heaven.
A country so rich in instruments will be rich in music as well. We have raagas and tunes for every temple, every deity, every occasion, and celebration. During the Rana years, renowned Indian ustaads such as Taj Khan and Dunde Khan were resident in the palaces of Kathmandu. In 1900, during the reign of Bir Shamsher, a seven-day music festival held in Bagedi in the Tarai achieved musical fame for Nepal. The Bagedi Sammelan, as it came to be known, had established ten modes of music which was much more complex than the ten modes prevalent in the (Bhatkhande) classical Indian music (sangeet) of the day. Unfortunately, this Nepali innovation was lost in the ensuing years. Had the tradition of Hindu classical music remained strong here, there is no saying what height Nepal would have scaled in the South Asian music world by now.
Made in Nepal
Music is a part of culture. Today, like Nepali culture, Nepali music too has succumbed to limitations and exigencies. All our traditions look weak when made to stand up against the razzle dazzle of the “modern”. It used to be said that one never changes one’s humi (the Bahun who does the hom) and dumi (the musician Damai). But today, at a time when the very traditions of humi and dumi are fast disappearing, the question of changing one does not even arise. Even the panche baja, the five instruments ensemble which represents the five elements, which is mentioned in the Vedas, is in swift decline. How can we expect our traditional musicians—poor, uneducated and not respected—to compete against today’s electronic instruments and commercialisation?
The lack of a market for good music in contemporary Nepal is such that even the makers of traditional instruments have had to give up their trade. Thus, the descendants of Patan’s Krishnabilas, who gained fame during the Rana times manufacturing three sitars, today prefer to work in the more lucrative trade of carpentry. Of the three sitars that Krishnabilas made, one is in the Royal Palace, another is with the family of the late Bhupalsingh Pradhan, and the third has not yet been traced.
Nepali artists and craftsmen have even developed new instruments, but lacking a market they were stillborn. One such instrument is the Chaturang Baja, which was a combination of three different instruments — the harmonium, tungna and swar petika. It was developed by Patan’s Mohanlal Bahari. Another instrument, developed by Ramchandra Bharati, was the Manarangi, which joins the sarangi and the piwacha. This instrument can be found only as part of the Royal Nepal Academy’s orchestra. Another instrument which did not receive just appreciation was the brick xylophone developed by Music Laurate Yagyaraj Sharma Aryal. The same was the fate of the Dhirj Baja, a sort of a congo drum developed by Dhirjlal Kulu. Mohanlal Barahi and Ramchandra Bharati continue to work on their trade. They are also master tuners of instruments. But when they depart, there will be no one to take their place.
Babulal Darshandhari, who played the muhali in the Nawabaja orchestra in Patan died a couple of years ago, and now there is no one to play the instrument like he used to. Even though his sons have tried to follow in Babulal’s footsteps, they have not been able to attain their father’s sublime artistry. This might be because they are not into music fulltime.
Actually, the problem with classical music in Nepal is not only a matter of lack of market and patronage. The Kulus, drum-makers of Bhaktapur, are in a quandary because they cannot even find the right wood that their instruments demand. They are forced to make dhimey bajas of recycled tin, but then the drums do not have the same resonance of wood. The kulus have now taken to repairing old drums rather than make new ones. Meanwhile, the Shakyas, who excel in making metal instruments, are turning to the more lucrative business of making silver and gold ornaments.
To develop music, we need a national effort, an institutional effort and the effort of families and individuals. Unfortunately, there is little in the form of governmental or institutional involvement, and even the traditions that exist among musician families arc today fast eroding. Even what is there is hidden away — for example the musical collection of the Academy is in storage in the NAFA building. There is, finally, an effort to set up a Department of Musicology under Tribhuvan University which is to be located in Bhaktapur. If this succeeds, we will, at last have an institution dedicated to the promotion and study of Nepali music.
But how can I complain about the state of Nepali music when even my own legacy is questionable? Despite my family´s traditions, my own children are not in the musical line. When I see one son an engineer, another an archaeologist, and my college-going son, daughter and daughter-in-law, sometimes I think that perhaps I have done right. But when they complain to me that I have kept them away from music, I feel bad. Perhaps everyone is in a quandary like me. Perhaps the whole nation is in quandary.
Darnal is presently in charge of the Nepali Musical Instruments in the Royal Nepal Academy. K. Sharma edits the annual Nepali Himal This article was translated from the original in Nepali.