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.