Cultural erosion, the dying traditional arts and the adulteration of music by outside influences are often regarded as the inevitable maladies of a modern Nepal. But is change always negative or is music merely evolving?
The Kathmandu Valley seems to be no less fertile for music than for rice. From the musical performances witnessed by the 7th-Century envoys of the Chinese Tang empire to the ubiquitous radio and film songs of today, the Valley has vibrated with music. Indeed, it may be as the poet Chittadhar “Hriday” claimed, the raagas arrived in the Valley as soon as they had been created by Mahadev.
Certainly, Inayat Hussein Khan and Haider Khan, the famous khyal singers of the Rampur gharana, imported by the Ranas were not the first to sing raagas in Nepal. 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, probably, 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 that no 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 to support a large-scale communal involvement in music such as that of the Newar culture. Neither can it support musical specialists, such as the classical music ustaads 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 to musical activities.
The guthi system of land endowments has been one method of supporting music. The farmer working the land paid part of his 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 in remote areas of Nepal paid for the fine arts of the Kathmandu darbars.
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 taxpayers 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 Sansthan, 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 to the artistic wares of the Valley.
While the details naturally have 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 back, 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 musical 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 Sangeeta Chandra, a commentary on Bharata’s classic Natya Shastra. The Mallas were deligthted to entertain Indian musicians, singers and scholars in their courts, and the Hanuman Dhoka reportedly was widely known as a musical centre by the 17th century.
Music in more concrete form may have also been imported from the south. The Newar 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 songs broadcast 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 ghazals, 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 traditions 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 working hours 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 total of almost 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 shastriya sangeet, though it is translated here as classical 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. In patis, 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 than half 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 genres have gone on to 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 contributed to providing 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 stage programmes, the signs are clear that the communal involvement in music has lessened. Musical groups have closed down, people have given up performing and many young men never turn up when it is time to learn 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 dapha 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 Kathmandu 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 in which society moves from a bad past to a decent present, towards a golden future, hi contrast, the pessimist sees history as a regression 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 worse than ever before, more prone to violence, 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 forms of music that combine the best of East and West and correspond to the needs of time. Primitive instruments such as the sarangi, the madal or the bansuri will be replaced by better ones, Western ones, or even sophisticated synthesiser keyboards and drum machines. The pessimists, 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 about musical 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.
To his contemporaries, 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, however, 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 artistic music produced by contemporary artistes easily disappear in the massive output of new music.
The media are often seen as chief 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 heard 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 work, 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 the national scene, talented musical artistes in Kirtipur 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 enrichment 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 all the way to the villages ourselves to hear such songs. People go there for us to collect the songs, or 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 forms of 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 parallels in other parts of the world. In Sweden, the folk traditions that a few decades ago seemed bound for extinction have been revitalised by enthusiastic 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 the reper-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 dedicatedly with their own traditions, publishing collections of 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 classical 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 Basanta melodies, and where Krishna Narayan Shrestha playfully presented a jaltarang version of the Newari folk-song “Rajamati“. Incidentally, the sitarist Tarabir Singh Tuladhar has given a 10-minute interpretation of “Rajamati” on an LP disc brought out by a Western label.
Alive and Kicking
To give a hopeful interpretation, it may be that the Newar traditions are not so much on the way to extinction as changing in the way they are maintained. The tradition of musical 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 them 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 gathering 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.
Grandin is the author of Music and media in local life; Music practice in a Newar neighbourhood in Nepal (1969) and is looking at the Nepali music scene since the 1960s for his second book.