Last weekend, Kathmandu hosted to the Kathmandu LitJatra the nation’s first international literary festival. One goal of the festival was to “take Nepali literature to the global stage”, in part by demonstrating the multiplicity of narratives and voices that make up literary works in this country.Five artists, all currently based in Kathmandu, performed in Sunday night’s show: Bharat Nepali, who also teaches at Kathmandu University’s School of Ethnomusicology; Barta Gandharva, who is one of Nepal’s only female Gandharva performers; Rubin Gandharva, whose voice and political lyrics have earned him a name throughout Nepal; Bhim Gandharva, a musician whose talent often leaves listeners mistaking him for another, older and more famous, sarangi player; and Binod Gaunle, a talented new artist for whom this was a maiden sarangi concert.
And how did the Gandharva artistes come to perform at the Litjatra? The organizers went to the Music on the Move concert in May, and were won over by the performers and their music. Hri’s music festival held in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur was centred entirely on Gandharva music. Surabhi Pudasaini and Lochan Rijal , two of the lead members of the research team, set out to highlight the skills and variety of musical talents of the Gandharva musicians. They also wanted to bring together Gandharva from throughout Nepal to meet one another. One attendee described it as both entertaining and enlightening, to see the variety of musical and linguistic styles on display from what is sometimes considered a singular musical sound. Another took pleasure from the performances by those players who had not previously played before ‘such audiences’. [Forthcoming: links to the Kathmandu event.]
Since the concert, it has been energizing to see how some in the audience have invited the
musicians to play in other, diverse, venues. For example, a slam poetry/spoken word competition earlier this year juxtaposed lyrical pieces by the folk musicians with those performing a different type of composition. It would be an easy mistake to present these as opposing art forms in both origin and practice. But while the slam poetry of New York, for example, is obviously not identical to the public performances of early 20th Century Nepal, both have been ways of expressing political sentiments through a verbal art form. The positioning of the two is unusual more because of who listens/relies – or listened/relied – on each. You could easily argue that the performances of the poets, both today and historically, have been tied to cities, whereas the Gandharva provided a similar ‘service’ in rural areas.
But that is an aside. Now to return to the performance on 18 September at the Gokarna resort…
On the evening-of, the lead up to the show was a bit rocky (no earthquake-related pun intended). A forty-five minute traffic jam delayed our arrival at the dinner site. Once we got there, some event organizers were greatly distressed at the realization that our performers were not all dressed in matching outfits. (Had we been informed of the “necessity” of this beforehand, we could have averted the “crisis”…) As it was, a mad rush for identical Nepali-dress ensued. The artistes were kind enough to not hold this against Hri, and took the costume changes well in stride. For this, and their performance that night, they have our tremendous gratitude and respect.
Although the show was only 45 minutes long, the music highlighted the distinctive style of each of the performers. Bharat Nepali’s original compositions drew from Bhaktapur traditions, and exuded tranquility. Barta’s compositions fused traditional Gandharva melodies with Newar influences, both in music and lyrics. The theme of the latter and the emotion of the former melded seamlessly.
All three of Bhim’s songs were fully instrumental numbers, one traditional Dasain song [note: this is not Bhim, but Tilak Gandharva from Dang] and two Kaundas, the musical accompaniment to a Gurung-Magar dance. (Bharat Nepali had not heard Bhim play since he was very young, and was taken aback by the beauty and clarity of his music. The look on his face when Bhim started playing made for much laughter among the others.)
Like Barta, both of Rubin’s compositions were original ones. Rubin has a formidable ability to create brilliant music that is also highly politically conscious. Kati pachi paaryau hamilai is one such song. Composed some eighteen months ago, the song points at the hypocrisy of caste-based discrimination in Nepal. One poignant verse asks how a society that relies on a metalworker to fix a broken temple can, with any conscience, refuse entry to the same individual.
The night brought to attention the talents of the younger generations of Gandharva artists. Their creativity and commitment to music help ensure that their communities are recognized for their contributions to Nepali arts.