Where is Shastriya Sangeet?

Classical music managed to escape the court boundaries of the ruling Nawabs and Maharajas in India to delight mass audiences of concerts, television and radio. But in Nepal, both classical music and its players are on their last legs.


Prominent musicians from India's centres of excellence had for centuries been coveted guests at the darbars of Nepali kings. Mahindra Simha Malla is known to have invited Muslim ustaads in the early 18th Century to play for him at his palace, and his successors followed his example. By the Rana period, Kathmandu was recognised as an important centre for shastriya sangeet, the classical Hindostani music that is the main subject of this article. There were frequent exchanges with other centres in the Subcontinent including those at Benaras, Darbhanga, Lucknow, Rampur and Calcutta. Ekraj Shamsher, for example, was an accomplished dhrupad singer who, in later years when his voice began to fail, went on to master the rudra veena. Bir Shamsher, a great lover of music and patron to the great Taj Khan and Dunnee Khan, invited India's best musicians to play at a huge music conference at Bagadi, in the Tarai, in 1900. The conference is said to have helped in in the revival of classical music then sweeping the Subcontinent.

The latter half of the 20th Century, though, has been less kind to music and its artistes in Nepal. Indian masters who had settled here returned to India during the last years of the Ranas and during the Panchayat system, shastriya sangeet was pushed into the doldrums. Good classical musicians, today, have either left the country or are scraping a living together by doing other jobs as well as making music. The standard of teaching is low and Nepal's most promising students are once more forced to head south for likely gurus. Meanwhile, potential students of shastriya sangeet are being discouraged from studying the genre through anti-Indian feeling and the notion that Nepal has less claim to shastriya sangeet than does India. Yet, while shastriya sangeet is declining in Nepal, it continues to flourish in India. Indian musicians travel the world to play to audiences that are increasingly knowledgeable about the Hindostani classical music tradition. While musicians themselves are partly to blame for the demise of shastriya sangeet in Nepal – through seeking only patronage as a means of survival – its roots lie in the enormous political and economic changes the Subcontinent has undergone since the end of the 19th Century.

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Himal Southasian