Krishna Narayan Shrestha is one of the finest living musicians in the Nepali Hindustani classical music tradition. Since in his early twenties, the 67-year-old maestro has won prizes in different Radio Nepal competitions and has been awarded the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu IV. In 1950, he joined the newly established Radio Nepal and rose to the post of musical director before his retirement at the age of 60, in 1987.
Among the more well known of his former students are the harmonium player Govinda Kipu, the dilruba player Uttam K.C., and the singers Bhakta Raj Acharya and Sunita Subba. He took some time off teaching to talk to Himal in his small room, crowded with instruments, at his family home in Patan Sundhara.
It was my father’s wish that I learn music. He was inspired after hearing an Indian ustaad who could play many different instruments, like jaltarang and tablatarang. He came to Nepal to play at Chandra Shamsher’s palace. My father went with my Guru-to-be, Shri Ganesh Lal, to hear him. He was so taken with the ustaad’s playing that he told Guruji that my mother was expecting and that, if she gave birth to a boy, the boy would be totally under his instruction.
When I was old enough, my father took me to Guruji — not to learn music for my living, but purely because of his interest in music. I stayed with Guruji until he died, at the age of 72. Even though music was my father’s interest, it eventually became my profession, because I spent so Jong at it and had so little chance to study anything else.
If I say that Guruji was my greatest influence, people assume I mention him simply because he was my teacher. But he was actually the only person to influence me in Nepal. The reason I say this is because there was no one in Nepal like him. There was no one who could play jaltarang and tablatarang. (Jaltarang is a range of china bowls tuned by filling them with different amounts of water. When hit, they produce a pure-sounding chime. Tablatarang is a semicircular range of tablas tuned to different pitches such that it is possible to play melodies on them). But whatever instrument you gave him, even if he had never seen it before, he could play it well after an hour of experimenting with it.
I began when I was very young, about nine or so. Guruji always made me sing with him, usually in the morning for half-an-hour to two hours. That continued for two years. After that he introduced the jaltarang, perhaps once or twice a week. Guruji used to say that, whatever instrument you play, whether it is tabla, sitar, sarod, anything, without a background in vocal music there will be no mithaas (sweetness). It seems he was right. If you look at our sitar players today, they have no vocal training and so their playing sounds a little crude. There was none of that crudity in the late Asha Gopal´s playing, though. He was Narayan Gopal´s father and he played sitar and sang beautifully. Others here don´t even know how to play thumri (a light classical vocal style). But it is wrong to criticise an artist. When you criticise an artist it is like kicking yourself.
At that time I was often accompanied by Guruji’s brother, Digamber dai, on harmonium. Sometimes Guruji would play tablatarang, and I would sing. Digamber dai used to practise constantly, four to five hours at a stretch, to the extent that he did not eat enough. In the end he died of TB because he did not eat proper food. In those days, musicians strove to be better players than others around them. Today, shastriya sangeet (Hindustani classical music) is vanishing.
Everything has its time. Different eras bring different custom and different tastes. I believe it would be difficult for a person who has not learned shastriya sangeet to understand it. I don´t know if there is shastriya sangeet in the hills but, in die valley, the Newars practise their own kind of shastriya sangeet. Here it relates to the changing seasons and festivals. Indian shastriya sangeet now heard in Nepal sounds as if it were composed whereas I feel that our traditional shastriya sangeetr has been influenced by our folk music. This gives it its Nepali flavour.
Tunes are developed from words and sounds. So, according to the environment, sounds and words are chosen to match and the Tesult is music that is proper for different times of day and for the changing seasons. This music is named accordingly. It seems to me that our branch of shastriya sangeet was composed giving more emphasis to matching words to the environment whereas Indian shastriya sangeet gave more emphasis to matching sounds. But despite these differences, some of the Indian and Nepali raags fall into the same category.
Shastriya sangeet is on a much higher level than aadhunik sangeet (modern songs). To enjoy it, listeners have to make more effort to go into it and investigate iL Once people do that, they will sink into its depths and cease to care for aadhunik sangeet. Aadhunik sangeet is outwardly exciting, whereas shastriya sangeet is tranquil at its centre. Since aadhunik sangeet does not have the same depth, listeners can enjoy it quickly and easily. What my soul says, if you ask someone listening to light music what they think about it, without thinking they can say “good” or “bad”, because it doesn´t have substance. But they cannot make the same judgement on first listening to shaslriya sangeet, because shastriya sangeet has substance.
It has substance because it comprises the efforts of generations and generations of master musicians. Of the four Vedas, music came from the Saam Veda. From Saam Veda, the old masters developed shastriya sangeet. But it is different with lok sangeet (folk music). I believe that lok sangeet, developed naturally. It is the original music of the people which gave the Basis to develop shastriya sangeet. But aadhunik sangeet is all mixed up. It is sometimes sweet and sometimes sour, …it is all mixed up. It doesn´t stand the test of time, whereas lok sangeet and shastriya sangeet were with us from the very beginning and will continue for all time.
Good things need a long time to develop. If there is not enough time, then I believe that good things will not be produced. Today, nobody has time to learn. Time and fashion are always changing; sometimes dhrupad is very popular, sometimes khayal is more popular. Nowadays, ghazal is the most popular. These styles were developed by people over lifetimes. Today there are some who continue to sing in these styles but most people believe that life is too short, so they cannot afford to devote 20 to 25 years to developing themselves as artists.
I had been studying with Guruji for about four years when we started travelling in India to give concerts. He took me to many places, wherever he went. I admired the Indian santur player, Omprakash Chaurasia, whom I met and played with. I was also influenced by the vocalist Omkarnath Thakur, and the tabla player, Anokhi Lal, after hearing and meeting them. But, to this day, I have never heard anyone play like Guruji did, even in India. His special feat was to play five harmoniums at once. We students used to pump the harmoniums while he had a hand and elbow on each of four harmoniums. The fifth, in the middle, he played with his nose! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Five harmoniums? He demonstrated this feat only once, at Singha Shamsher’s palace at Thapathali, where the Rastra Bank is now.
Once, in Jhaansi, a friend of Guruji’s let us stay with him for one week before asking him to play. Our host would play a piece and then Guruji would reply. But when it was Guruji’s turn, he played a string of off-beat pieces. Pieces with rhythms of 27 beats or 81 beats. It was very difficult, so our host had to stop playing! We travelled to most of the major cities of India. Indians would greet foreign musicians with disregard at first. They would scrutinise the playing for mistakes. The smallest error would lose you any standing. If you made none, and showed that you had something they didn´t have, then they would come, touch your feet and beg to become your students.
But my most memorable concert was in Russia, in Tashkent. A group of us was sent there by the Nepali government. I was the only one versed in shastriya sangeet among them. None of the group knew that I had taken my jaltarang in my baggage. One day, while I was practising jaltarang alone in my room, the manager heard me and came up. He saw me surrounded by bowls which, at first, looked just like soup bowls to him. He liked my playing and asked whether I would give a public performance. I agreed and he managed to get me on TV! In that performance I played jaltarang and Nepali sarangi. I think that was my happiest moment. After that TV appearance I was invited to play in many other places. I went to fourteen different states playing my jaltarang. Unfortunately there was no tabla accompanying.
Revive the Classics
We should champion the cause of reviving shastriya sangeet in its many different forms. People are different and have different tastes, so they should be exposed to different forms. To like shastriya sangeet you have to understand it, so there should be education also. Students have to be taught well, and in detail. Then each student must teach others. TV and radio people should know about music and try to find good music to broadcast. They should follow die musicians. But, in Nepal, it is not like that. Musicians follow the broadcasters!
Campuses are good but cannot teach to the full extent, unless you have some kind of system like guru and shishya. Campus students will know about music but they won´t be able to make it. In the campus, students cannot practice enough. In order to practice properly you have to be with the teacher. Many students from the campus come to me to learn because they say they do not get enough time from the campus teachers.
I would really like to teach my children music. I have my books and my instruments here. If I could teach one of my children, I hope they could look after them. I have taught my daughter, Lochana, a little. She likes to sing, and that is good.
This article is from a free translation of K.N. Shrestha’s interview by Mohan Gopal Nyachhyon