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 in Nepal’s villages; the group Ralpha and the many groups subsequently set up by its founding members—Bedana Pariwar, Sankalpa Pariwar, Aasthaa Pariwar, Indreni 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 the 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.