While music lovers and musicians may find no difficulty in recognising Nepali music when they hear it, asking them to define it more often than not results in a confused reply. This is not surprising, since a satisfactory definition of Nepali music would have to consider the many sources of musical ideas that are, and have been, available to Nepali composers.
No account of Nepal’s art can fail to acknowledge the debt it owes to the diversity among its 19 million people of some 32 ethnic groups, who speak variants of 56 languages and dialects of Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman and Dravidian origin. In addition, the three primary religions that underlie Nepali thought and ways of life— Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism— are intrinsic to the development of Nepali art forms. The assimilation of themes they have inspired is apparent in stone and wood carvings, metal sculptures, thanka paintings, mandala drawings and architectural designs. Music, dance and drama are Tooted in these religions conceptually, metaphysically and in theft theoretical development. Hinduism´s conceptualisation of sangeet (music) is elaborate, hi its fundamental form, sangeet denotes vocal music, instrumental music and dance. But, conceptually, it further pertains to paintings and sculpture. A passage from the Natya Shasktra, written around the Third Century BC, highlights this interrelationship between the art forms.
A king, wishing to learn how to sculpt likenesses of the gods, consulted a sage for instruction. “You will have to learn the laws of painting before you can understand the laws of sculpture”, the sage advised. “Then”, said the king, “teach me the laws of painting”. “It is not possible to understand the laws of painting”, replied the sage, “without learning the art of dance”. “So teach me the art of dance”, the king requested. “That will be difficult” said the sage, “as you do not know the principles of instrumental music” .The king, by now, was growing impatient. “Then why don’t you teach me instrumental music?”, he demanded hastily. “But you cannot understand instrumental music”, answered the sage, “without a thorough study of vocal music, for vocal music is the source of all Art.
Hindus relate the creation of the very first sound, Nad, to Brahma, the creator of the Universe. Vishnu and Shiva are the two other members of the Hindu holy trinity, personifying the preservative and destructive forces, respectively. Spiritual contemplation of this trinity guides the creativity of artisans and musicians. Swaras (tones) and shrutis (microtones), manifestations of Nad, are described synesthetically as being “pure” or “true”, and musicians hold that their proper execution brings one closer to Brahma.
At the other extreme, Shiva’s frightening dance, Tandavnritya, is associated with the destruction of the universe while Vishnu, the preservative force of the Universe and all art forms. Iconography and illustrations associate certain religious figures with specific musical instruments: the sitar (plucked lute), for example, is associated with Saraswati, the bansuri (transverse flute) with Krishna and the ektara (one-string plucked lute) with Naradmuni. Furthermore, the classification of musical instruments into tata (literally “stretched” or chordophones), susira (“tubular” or aerophones), avanaddha (“covered” or membranophones) and ghana (“solid” or idiophones) is based on principles found in Vedic literature.
Theoretically, all Hindu shashtras (doctrines) trace the origin of raagas to the chantings of the Vedic scriptures, in particular to the Saam Veda. The Vedic chantings are characterised by three tonal divisions called udatta, annudatta and swarita, collectively known as the samaganas. It is believed that samaganas were the basis upon which all swaras, shrutis and, later, raagas were developed. The genre of music that incorporates raagas is dierefore, called shashtriya sangeet, a term virtually unknown in the West.
Although the Buddha himself is thought to have considered music as detracting from the religious life, in many Buddhist Asian nations and communities “Buddhist music” continues to influence culture, and Nepal is no exception.
The Mani Rimdu, a 13-act dance drama performed by Buddhist-lamas of Tibetan ancestry, at Tengboche monastery in Khumbu, is but one example. In this play, the “erroneous teacher of Buddhism” is represented by an eighth-Century Chinese philosopher, named Me-Tshring, a comical character who is ridiculed. By ridiculing Me-Tshring, the masked dancers not only reinforce the idea of superiority of good over evil but also strengthen the common faith that binds people of a displaced culture.
As in Hinduism, some religious teachings can be explained only through music. For example the idea of infinity is expressed by the playing of two cymbals with increasing rapidity; at its fastest, the two cymbals are rubbed together.
The Baki Wanegu, (blowing of horns), is an example of a ritual that has survived from the earlier, indigenous form of Buddhism practised by the Newar communities of the Kathmandu Valley. The performance, which takes place during the holy month of gunla, July-August, lasts for eight days and ends with the Mataya festival. It is believed that blowing of horns around the monasteries and chortens will bring peace and salvation to the souls of deceased family members. Although BakiWanegu is a Buddhist ritual, the statues mounted on dha and damkhin (two-headed drums) are those of the Hindu deities, Mahalaxmi and Mahakali, indicating a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist cultural elements.
Between 1715 and 1768, there were Christian missions in Kathmandu Valley but no influence of Western liturgical music has been observed from that period. The promulgation of Western music in Nepal seems to have followed neither in the footsteps of missionaries nor in those of the European colonisers and traders who had so much influence in other parts of Asia. Instead, Western music saw its initial institutionalisation in the military bands of the Nepali Army, during the second half of the 19th century.
While they continued the policy of isolation, the Ranas imported certain Western ideas that had profound influence on music. The Ranas´ political strategy halted colonial aggression and formalised the recruitment of Gorkhas into the Colonial army. This, in part, led to Jang Bahadur´s much publicised tour of Europe in 1850, which was the most important encounter between the cultures of Europe and Nepal until that time.
During his stay in England and France, between 25 May to 12 October 1850, Jang Bahadur attended more than a dozen operas, ballets, plays and recitals. The Nepali strongman’s visit to England was commemorated by various compositions written in his honour such as Kunwar Ranaji Polka, Long Live Jang Bahadur, The Nepalese Prince and The Highland Chief. There is an apocryphal story about Jang Bahadur’s appreciation of Western music. It is said that during an enthusiastic curtain call, Queen Victoria inquired (through an interpreter) whether the Maharajah had understood the opera, to which he replied that one need not know the language of the bird to enjoy its singing.
Among the prized objects owned by Jang Bahadur in his residence was a piano. The Ranas who followed, and emulated, Jang Bahadur not only owned pianos but learned to play them as well. That the imported pianos were carried by hand, some 200 kilometres between the plains at the Indian border over the hills into Kathmandu, gives some idea of the fascination with which these instruments were once held. The published piano music and books on Western Music imported during the Rana period are still to be found in the collection of the Keshar Library in Kathmandu.
One direct result of Jang Bahadur’s exposure to European grandeur and protocol was his borrowing of the British anthem God Save the King (at that time “Queen”) as the official anthem of Nepal. But, upon complaint by the British Resident, the Ranas decided to replace it with the present anthem of Nepal, Shreeman Gambhira Nepali, which was originally an instrumental piece. It was only in 1925 that a text was set to it by Chakrapani Chalise. The anthem presents itself in a Western musical idiom of four-part harmony (a polyphonic texture of four simultaneous voice parts). This runs contrary to Nepali music, which is characteristically monophonic.
Many questions related to the birth of the anthem remain unanswered. The composer and the date of the composition are unknown. By the time the score was sent to be printed in England, some years had elapsed and the name of the composer was missing from the manuscript. Today, the printed score bears only the name of Chakrapani Chalise. Oral accounts credit A. M. Pathan, Director of Music in the Royal Nepal Army around the turn of the century, as composer. Other names that appear are Ketty and Geye, but much more scholarly scrutiny, devoid of sentimental or political bias, is needed. Based merely on the musical notation alone (voice movements, harmony, cadences and other melodic elements), and not on historical accounts, one can speculate that the anthem was most likely composed by an outsider and not by a Nepali.
In the absence of schools that teach Western music, the demand for musicians who can play Western instruments is partially fulfilled by army musicians. The primary demand for such musicians is in modem songs, or aadhunik sangeet.
The term aadhunik sangeet refers to a genre of secular vocal music developed in the 20th century. It is primarily performed in a isthayi-antara (verse-chorus) form with text in Nepali. Although embedded in romanticism, aadhunik sangeet also expresses the sentiments of patriotism and national unity as rastriya geet. Another significant development in aadhunik sangeet has been the adaptation of narrative poems into musical productions called geeti natya.
Typically, vocal melodies are accompanied on the Western harmonium, introduced to South Asia by Christian missionaries. The harmonium imitates the vocal melody but the sustained notes are harmonised by either a major or a minor triad. The rhythmic accompaniment is provided by tabla (drum). The taalas, mnemonic rhythmic cycles, are of equal measure and, generally, in duple or triple meter. The melodic inspirations are particular to each composer, although melodies occasionally arise from lok sangeet, folk songs, or raagas. One popular source has been Raaga Yemen, a heptatonic scale (for example, a seven-note scale using the white keys on the piano keyboard) in which the fourth note is raised a semitone in pitch.
Although the harmonium and tabla function as the primary instruments for both the composers and the singers, in a recorded version the instrumentation is expanded by including such traditional instruments as sitar, bansuri, madal (drum), dholak (another type of drum) and Western instruments such as the violin, piano-accordion, guitar, mandolin, bass guitar and saxophone. The assimilation of traditional and non-traditional instruments gives aadhunik sangeet a unique timbre that now characterises the genre.
The development of aadhunik sangeet changed course after the revolution of 1951. The Rana government had enforced strict control and censorship on all publications, including newspapers and even literary works. Immediately following the Revolution, Radio Nepal was established, promising freedom of, at least, artistic expression. As Radio Nepal’s broadcasting capacity increased with the installation of more powerful transmitters in 1954, its reach encompassed not only most of Nepal but also Darjeeling and parts of Sikkim and Bhutan, where the major linguistic groups are ethnic Nepalis. This was a significant development. At the hands of the finest composers, singers and poets aadhunik sangeet manifests contemporary Nepali thought and experience, transcending ethnic, linguistic and political barriers. Unlike lok sangeet, the genre is free of specific ethnic and regional ties thus enabling it to be adapted for the expression of patriotic sentiments in the form of rastriya geet. Given Nepal’s poly-ethnic character and the fundamentally religious orientation of its folk and classical music, only aadhunik sangeet is able to rapidly absorb changes and adapt itself accordingly. Today, the horizons of aadhunik sangeet has stretched even further to include “rock songs” and “rap”, of Afro-European origins.
Roots in the Soil
Nepal’s wide-ranging ethnic diversity is reflected in its folk music, making it impossible to describe lok sangeet as a homogeneous entity. Judging by the stock on the music-shop shelves alone, it would seem that lok sangeet is most commonly linked with song-forms such as chutke geet or jhyaure geet, generally sung by Gaines, a minstrel caste group, and Tamang selo sung in Nepali. This association not only falsely suggests that lok sangeet is culturally narrow but also obscures the social, ritual and even agroeconomic ties of lok sangeet with its people. An example, among the Gurung and Magar communities, would be the congregation of male and/or female groups at night to sing and dance in the institution known as the Rodighar. This is an integral part of huripurma, a system of reciprocal exchange of agricultural labour.
Although the ethnomusicological research of Nepali music has already begun, there still remains a large corpus of music unstudied, which makes it difficult to discuss musical characteristics in detail. Generally, northern music uses anhemitonic pentatonic scales (five-note scales whose intervals are the same as, for example, the black notes on a piano keyboard) and circular breathing or overlapping of voices without breaking the continuity of melodies. In addition, texts are set melismatically, such that the pitch may vary within the same syllable. Although the use of pentatonic scales are also found in raagas, it is the performance practice that differentiates the two. Generally, southern melodies are based on heptatonic, rather than pentatonic, scales. A few songs with shamanic chant-like melodies have been released but, in general, no shamanic influence is observed in Nepali music. A glimpse at the repertoire of lok sangeet suggests its vastness.
Chutke geet and jhyaure geet are generally associated with the mendicant Gaines, who travel extensively, reaching as far as Assam in India, Darjeeling, Bhutan and Sikkim. In rural areas, cut off by lack of modern communication technology, Gaines function as “living newspapers.” A jhyaure geet can include political satires or crime stories. A major dfference between a chutke geet and jhyaure geet seems to be in the expression of happiness in the former and sadness in the latter. A unique musical characteristic of Gaine performances is the imitation of taala by the sarangi, which otherwise accompanies the singer’s melody. The effect is achieved by plucking the strings with the left-hand little finger while bouncing the bow on the strings. The ghunghur (tiny bells), hung at the end of the bow, complement the taala.
Asarey geet and chaitey geet are seasonal songs, sung during the months of June-July and March-April. Sorathi, performed by the Gurungs, is an epic song form. The Rateuli is sung by women during a wedding. The text in a Rateuli performance can include obscene and sexual allusions. Another form of performance, also exclusive to women is Teej geet, sung during the primarily Brahmin festival of Teej. A form of song, which has enjoyed a national appeal in recent years through recordings and live performances is Dohari geet in which texts are improved to a fixed folk melody called Bhaka. Dohari geet is a sort of musical contest between a man and a woman (with or without groups). The loser has to acquiesce to the winner, and demands can include even marriage. The repertoire mentioned here is the tip of the iceberg; the vast majority of lok sangeet, especially those sung in the vernacular languages, remain unknown outside of their communities.
The instruments used in lok sangeet include the murchunga (Jaw’s harp) of metal body and bamboo, damphu (frame drum), bansuri (flute), tungna (plucked lutes), chyabrung, dholak (two-headed drums, madal), and sarangi, to name but a few. Those of particular interest include madal and sarangi which have assumed a nationalistic character and are commonly held to be of Nepali origin. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The madal is found throughout central India and in Bangladesh, where it is called modal or mondal, and the sarangi is of pan-Islamic origin and exists in many other countries. The concept of Nepaliness in lok sangeet should be determined by the inner performance details or musical characteristics and not merely by the musical instruments used.
Crisis of Identity
Nepal began to uplift the performing arts after the political watershed of the 1950s. The patronage of King Mahendra, who reigned from 1955 to 1972, was particularly important. The establishment of Radio Nepal in 1951 was followed by that of the Royal Nepal Academy in 1957, the Rastriya Nachghar (now called Sanskritik Sansthan, the cultural institute) in 1961, the Ratna Recording Corporation in 1962, the Royal Nepal Film Corporation in 1971, and Nepal TV in 1984. Tribhuvan University has since added a degree course in shastriya sangeet. All these institutions are funded by the Government but, as Nepal strives for its place in the modern world after nearly two centuries of self-imposed isolation, her musical development faces several challenges.
While there has been official promotion of the arts, however, the country strives to find a balance between its diversity and the need for a “nationalist” unified identity. It is said that it is this fear of inciting ethnic divisions which led to the ban on the broadcasting of ethnic i songs with texts in languages other than the lingua franca, Nepali Bhasha. Although there has been some relaxation, in that Radio Nepal has introduced some regional songs in a program called Phulbari (garden), the systematic inclusion of songs representing all ethnic groups is yet to be accomplished. Nepal Television, too, has introduced a similar program (also called Phulbari) but the production lacks authenticity, scholarly scrutiny and technical layout. In fact, the programme shows a lack of sensibility and even respect to cultural diversity which is made the worse by the directness and power of the visual medium.
The official broadcasting policy, which seeks to establish cultural homogeneity (and, through it, national unity) prevents acknowledgement of Nepal´s own cultural products. Paradoxically, while there is a restraint in the broadcasting of vernacular ethnic songs, Radio Nepal regularly broadcasts Hindi film songs and Indian and Pakistani ghazats, sung in Urdu. The political view that came into force during the Panchayat era (1951-1990) of avoiding the incitement of ethnic tensions by banning vernacular music, seems to persist.
Aadhunik sangeet, on the other hand, faces a different challenge with its penchant for incorporating Western elements to the jeopardy of ils further development. Although aadhunik sangeet, incorporates aspects of Western music in its use of polyphony (harmony), theory and instrumentation, there are no institutions where one may systematically learn Western music. There is a genera] resistance to institutionalising Western systems, which is best summed up by the scholar and diplomat, Rishikesh Shah, in his observance of modernisation in Nepal:
On the one hand, there is an intellectual acceptance…of the technological, scientific and intellectual aspects of Western culture…. On the other hand, there is an emotional resistance against the slavish imitation of the West because the Nepalis are conscious of their own ancient heritage of civilisation and values, and also because the West is very much associated in Nepali consciousness with colonial war and exploitation.
The same traditionalism, which in the 18th century resisted Christianity and through it prevented the influence of Western music, is today slowing down the further development of Nepali music by ignoring the scientific and intellectual approach. The view shared by most composers is to adapt aspects of the Western system to local needs. The dilemma faced by aadhunik sangeet in this regard is best illustrated by the challenges faced by the Nepali film industry.
Films are a major source of entertainment throughout the Subcontinent and Nepali films, too, on average include five or six songs. But, despite the existence of various musical institutions, Kathmandu lacks technological facility for soundtrack recording, and also the type of orchestra desired. Thus, the recording of Nepali films takes place in Bombay, utilising the orchestras there. This is not without its own implications. First, the orchestral timbre results in what is recognised as “Bombay type”, similar to that heard in Hindi films. Secondly, all financial benefits of production accrue to the Indian industry. Finally, such a trend not only hinders the aspiration of Nepali artistes but also prevents the possible innovation in the use of native instruments in orchestral settings.
While the new Government´s policy of discouraging acculturation in film music is welcome — totally domestic productions enjoy a certain percent tax break — there are simply not enough trained musicians to supply the industry. This is not to mention the shortsightedness of some directors and producers who would probably still favour recordings in Bombay even if they were not forced to. So, the trend of recording film music in Bombay continues, denying self-reliance in music.
Most composers believe that native instruments are incapable of meeting the demands of polyphonic orchestral composition. Some feel that native instruments are inadequate in compass and sonority compared to Western instruments. Others argue that the Nepalipana (Nepaliness) rests in the compositional tools and not in the instrumentation alone. But recent trends in aadhunik sangeet contradict the latter view. There is a growing influence, or even emulation, of Hindi film songs which has not gone unnoticed. In describing the music of Nepal Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980) notes that”… a continuing Indianization of Himalayan popular and folk music may be assumed”. The conscientious effort to retain Nepalipana, which prevailed in the post-Revolution era in aadhunik sangeet, is today overwhelmed by outside influences.
Nor has shastriya sangeet escaped the pressure to change, as the adaptation of Western violin and harmonium illustrates. The violin originated from the eastern rabab and the harmonium was invented in France in the mid-18th Century. The violin, called bela in shashtriya sangeet, is played sitting down such that the tuning pegs rest on the player’s feet, allowing easier execution of gamak (glissando or slide) and shrutis. However, the harmonium, being a mechanical reed instrument that uses a tempered scale, lacks the pitch variants characteristic of shashtriya sangeet and lok sangeet. The point is this: the tempered scale and the limitations of pitch that it imposes, force inner musical characters to adjust. However, this complication is not faced by aadhunik sangeet in its adaptation of the harmonium, because aadhunik sangeet incorporates Western elements in its theory and instrumentation.
Shashtriya sangeet, which shares common roots with the North Indian musical tradition, also faces a musical “identity crisis”. In the West, this genre of music is generally known as “Indian Music” or Hindustani Music. Although the use of these terms is justifiable on a geographical basis, as in describing the music within India or in differentiating stylistic approaches, problems arise when defining music within Nepal. The Nepali view is that these terms evidently exclude the Nepali tradition. The term Hindustani Music, for example, will mean the tradition prevalent in North India. And even if one stretches the term to the “Hindustani Music of Nepal” (as distinct from that of Pakistan and Bangladesh) some conceptual complications persist. The word Hindustan originally denoted the earlier formational stage of the country of India, which included Pakistan and Bangladesh, but of which Nepal was never a part. Perhaps the term that more appropriately describes the musical format, without being regionally or religiously biased, is Raaga Music.
Nepali music, thus, is identifiable in its musical structure and the ethnic, philosophical and religious ideas it draws upon. All genres are subject to some change yet they remain identifiable as Nepali music; The crucial issue for musical development in Nepal is the infrastructure of music education. The inclusion of shashtriya sangeet by TribhuvanUniversity is a welcome gesture, but it needs further expansion because shashtriya sangeet is essentially performance oriented. A musical education should include both performance training and intellectual study. This will better equip people to understand and conserve Nepali music as well as to cope with that change. Without a well-conceived long-term plan for musical education, efforts to uplift music will be fruitless.
Gurung is an ethnomusicologist. He is presently involved in setting up a recording studio, House of Music.