Sunday, October 10, 2010

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.

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