Sunday, October 10, 2010

Living with sarangi

Himalayan News Service
KATHMANDU: They are seen on the streets of Thamel, the main tourist hub in Kathmandu, playing soothing tunes on sarangi, at times influencing foreigners with their sonorous sound. Sometimes they receive respect as great musicians and other times they are treated in a rude manner. Despite many difficulties, it is their obligation to play the sarangi on roads so as to fight for their own survival and the survival of traditional Nepali music.

Heartbeat of Nepali
Amaile sodhlin ni khai chhhoro bhanlin rana ma parya vandiyes
(Mother might ask where my son his, tell her he is in the battlefield)

The song of the legendary sarangi player Jhalkman Gandharva reflects agony of Nepali soldier fighting in foreign land. Like him Gandharvas, the nomadic musicians of Nepal, move from place to place with an objective to entertain people with their self composed music and songs narrating the predicament of people, society and themselves, intricately mingled with music.

Radio, television or even restaurants of Kathmandu provide plenty of chance for people to get a taste of Western and Bollywood music. However it is quite difficult for Nepali people as well as foreigners to find places to listen to traditional Nepali music. Gandharvas even at present time sing songs that every Nepali can relate to. “The sarangi and music of Gandharvas existed even before there were any means of mass communication. Our ancestors used to travel carrying messages and news of different events in the form of songs”, said Netra Gandharva, from Gorkha.

Spreading Nepali music
These sarangi players add charm to the chaotic streets of Thamel where the wandering foreigners often stop to listen to their music. In the unsettling noises of Thamel, Gandharvas struggle hard to make their folk music reach the ears of music enthusiasts. Besides listening to the sarangi, they even buy it. “Some are so much fascinated that they even take training with us to play the musical instrument”, added Netra Gandharva who has been playing this instrument in the roads of Thamel for the last 14 years.

Social message through music
Sampatima kahi chhaina
hamro dhan
Garnuparchha pariwar niyojan

(We don’t have wealth so it’s important we do family planning)
“I had sang this song to inspire people for family planning”, recalled 50 years old Krishna Bahadur Gandharva. A native of Lamgunj, he had sang this song for a project of Save the Children said, “People have used us in campaigning for social causes like — climate change, HIV/AIDS, sanitation and many other issues because people listen to our songs more attentively in comparison to the speeches”.

Organisational effort
To unify all scattered Gandharvas and to make a unity among themselves, Gandharva Culture and Art Organisation was formed in 1992. “Besides providing organisational support to our members, we organise a concert everyday at our office in Thamel where we play sarangi, drum and flute”, informed Kedar Gandhari, secretary of the organisation and a music therapist. The organisation sells sarangi as well as provides training to those interested to learn sarangi.

Social discrimination
In the past people listened attentively to Gandharvas, also called gaines and repaid their service with food, clothes and other necessities. But these days not only are they ignored but even humiliated by some people. “Compared to Nepali people foreigners have done lot of things for us — as they respect us and our music and help us economically by buying our sarangi”, shared Krishna Bahadur Gandharva who despised those Nepali people who discourage the foreigners to buy things with them. “Compared to the past, tourists are less attracted towards our art as many Nepalis themselves are de-motivating them to reach us”.

Gandharva gen-next
Nineteen years old Anil Gandharva, a rather enthusiastic sarangi player and also a trainer started playing instrument at the age of nine in his village in Tanahun. “I have started to work professionally as sarangi player and my aim is to continue in this field”, he shared. He has also performed in concert with Kutumba.
But everyone from this generations doesn’t seem happy to be in this field. Though Suresh Gandhari, 24 from Gorkha is happy to be able to follow his ancestral footsteps he expressed his dissatisfaction saying “I have to wander on the streets playing sarangi but people here do not respect us. People still are unaware of our identity”. He further expressed, “We are marginalised group deprived of good education, health, employment and are
economically backward. Sarangi is the only thing that has made it
possible for us to exist in this world. Besides it is the oldest and the
traditional folk instrument of our nation which is on the verge of
extinction. And our demand is to declare it as the national musical
instrument”, he demanded

Living the blues—the curse of the Nepali artist castes

The updated repertoire

The songs of these Nepali bards (who for centuries, have aptly portrayed the Nepali ethos like no other homebred musicians) have undergone transitions to accommodate the changing realities in the Valley. Before, they sang about the lahara that fluttered across a young man’s heart on seeing a Radha bloom; today their songs include lines like: Mugling narayan ghat/ Bhet bhayo mayalu samau dainay haat to convey more contemporary romance-situations. Modern day Gandharvas like Khadka Bahadur Gandharva, have produced albums with names like New Road Pipal Bot, Mugling Narayan Ghat and Banepama ma Parkhi Basyo and have adapted their lyrics to reflect the urbanization of the country.

The vanishing art of Gandharva originals

On the one hand, their ability to evolve with the changing times bodes well for these sensitive artists and may assure their future survival as musicians, but on the other hand, their willingness to cater to an audience that would rather hear renditions of radio-formatted folk songs has led to a decline in the output of original song compositions. In earlier times, the Gandharvas were as renowned for the poetic structure of their songs as well as their passionate singing. Today their lyricism is a dying art.

Today, there are around one hundred and fifty Gandharvas living in cheap rented rooms in Kathmandu. Some ply the roads singing for live audiences, some sell sarangis to tourists in Thamel, and a few record albums when possible. Most have been relegated to moonlighting as accompaniment musicians at dohori joints around town. Because they are not economically well-off, the Gandharvas cannot afford to set up shops to market musical instruments in expensive financial districts like Thamel—where most of their sarangi buyers hang out. Unfortunately, the government has done nothing to help these brilliant musicians considered Dalits or untouchables by our society.

The changing of the Gandharva guards

The Gandharvas, just like other migrant groups, have started to trickle into the Kathmandu valley from the villages of Nepal to make a better living. These minstrels, who have been wandering Nepal’s hills since pre-Prithvi Naryan Shah times, are now a visible sect in the city. Initially, they toured the neighboring villages around the valley, but in the last twenty years or so, some have started living in the Valley itself. Just like most new-comers to Kathmandu, they have had to adapt their working styles to the urban culture in order to survive.

Gandharva playing music for surviving .

Gandharva and sarangi

Gandharvas, since time immemorial, have been recognised as the musician caste of Nepalese society. Long before television and radio came into existence, these people would travel around the villages playing music and spreading news, much in common to Europe’s wandering minstrels.

You’ve seen them on the busy streets of Thamel, playing this musical instrument that looks vaguely similar to a violin, following tourists through the crowd hoping that one of them would buy their instrument. And some of you probably have been influenced by them and at times even been irritated by their presence. But behind that simple facade is a man desperately fighting for survival, not only of his own against poverty but that of the Nepalese musical tradition against the influence of increasing western musical culture. Competing with the blaring Bob Marley on the stereo being played in the restaurants, these nomadic musicians of Nepal sing songs that belong to every heartbeat of the Nepalese. He is a Gandharva with his Sarangi.

Gandharvas, since time immemorial, have been recognised as the musician c aste of Nepalese society. Long before television and radio came into existence, these people would travel around the villages playing music and spreading news, much in common to Europe’s wandering minstrels. Intricately mingled with music, these Gandharvas would relate stories ranging from accounts of battles fought long these Gandharvas would relate stories ranging from accounts of battles fought long ago to passing on of local gossip. In a land where education was the prerogative of the favoured few, the Gandharvas had played an immense role in the preservation and propagation of Nepali folklore. Their contribution in matters of historical issues has also been significant.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who unified the various scattered kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Nepal, employed Gandharvas to sing the glory of the Shah Dynasty. They were used as a means of propaganda during the unification period and were sent to villages to sing in favour of a unified Nepal.

The Gandharvas learn to sing their unique songs and play the Sarangi in a traditional way – elders pass on their skills to younger generations. The Sarangi is a true Nepalese musical instrument. The name SARANGI is a combination of two words. ‘SA’ - the first note of music (parallel to DO as in DO, RE, ME ... ) and RANGI meaning colourful. So the instrument that colours up notes of music is called the Sarangi. Similar musical instrument can be found in other parts of the world. For example, the western violin. Sarinda, the Indian musical instrument probably is the closest in resemblance to the Sarangi. The method of making the Sarangi is unique to itself.

The Sarangi, a one-piece instrument having a neck and hollowed out body, is carved out from a very light wood, locally known as Khiro. The wood is cut into a length of about a foot. The body is carved into a hollow frame with two openings. The lower opening is then covered up with dried sheep-skin. The origin al strings were made out of sheep intestine. The village people allotted intestines of sheep, sacrificed during major festivals like Dasain, to the Gandharvas. The Gandharvas left the intestine in a pot for some days. Once the meat was fully rotten, it was pulled out, leaving behind the fine nerves of the intestine which were then woven to get the strings, which produced fine quality sound. However these days, readily available nylon and steel strings are more popular with Sarangi players as they do not have the time to prepare the traditional variety of strings. Wedge like keys are hammered on to the neck of the Sarangi to serve as screws for tightening the strings. Horse-tail hair was originally used for the bowstring of the Sarangi but these days nylon strings are preferred.

As a result of the wide exposure of our Nepalese society to the outside world and vice versa, over the past few decades, we have lost a lot of our traditional culture. The dominant western culture has slowly trickled into our society and hence everyday we seem to lose a little bit of our identity. For example, Harbaja, an instrument once popular among most of the old Gandharvas is not played anymore. The elders among the new generation Gandharvas recall the time ‘when fairies danced to the tune of the songs and the Harbaja played by the Gandharvas’.

The Sarangi could encounter the same fate as the Harbaja if nothing is done to preserve the tradition. Sadly, nothing is being done.

There is an organization started by a few of the Gandharvas themselves. It is here that these musicians by birth, spend their time playing the Sarangi, when they are not walking around the streets of Thamel trying to sell their Sarangis to foreigners who have been attracted to the sweet sound of the traditional Nepalese music.

Sad as it may seem, not many people, neither the tourists nor the Nepalese themselves, are aware of the plight of the Gandharvas and their Sarangi. As Nepal advances into the technological world, the Gandharvas appear to be losing the essence of their existence i.e,s their job of relating contemporary stories and news. The attractions of TV and radio appears to have made the Gandharvas more or less redundant.

Losing one’s culture doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years and years. One by one a little of what one has is lost and we don’t realize the value of what we had till it’s all gone. The existence of the Gandharvas dates back to the same time as the origins of Nepalese culture. Should they vanish, Nepal will be losing a big part of its culture and suffering a big dent in the national identity.