Kathmandu Cantos: Fear and loathing at Radio Nepal, 1966-1976
PETER J. KARTHAK
Bleak Radio Nepal
When I entered Radio Nepal’s recording studios, I had the second wave of shock in Kathmandu. The underused conditions of the infrastructure were unsightly. The main studio already looked decrepit. There were virtually no musical instruments worth the name. Two manual pipe organs and an old grand piano lay in the corners. They looked liberated from some Rana durbars which had seen their dancehall heydays.
Two microphones stood forlornly and their cables trailed off to the recording control room with a narrow annex booth for news broadcasting and features recording.
This new building was a Japanese gift and the recording equipment were a complete Thorens console, installed perhaps under a Swiss development plan. Who would donate some essential studio musical instruments, such as guitars of many kinds, violins, violin cellos and violin bass, mandolins, percussion items, various saxophones, trumpets, French horns, concert flutes, sarods, sitars, veenas, tanpuras, tablas and even harmoniums?
But during my ten years at Radio Nepal, even though Nepal had professionalized the fine art of extending its begging bowl, nobody in the sixteen-year-old absolute Partyless Panchayat democratic monarchy ever thought of having adequately accomplished cadres of musicians at Radio Nepal nor was anything substantial done to modernize its recording studios.
How many trained and experienced musicians and instrumentalists did Radio Nepal have in its stable in 1966? None whatsoever! Instruments, mostly madals, sarangis, sitars, dholaks and tablas and such much were stored in an adjacent storeroom. Ranjit dragged out a double bass from there and pressed it against me. It was a well-seasoned instrument with gut strings and a horsehair bow and a box of honey wax resin. Well, from that day on, bass notes and third-effect sounds would be notable additions to the recordings of songs and music at Radio Nepal!
The studio hall was carpeted but dusty and musty, although shoes were to be left along the corridors outside, as Nepali customs dictated. The air conditioner was out of order, and the soundproofing wasn’t acoustically maintained. Inferior sounds and inadequate instrumentation of those times can be heard on the tracks of music recorded in those days and broadcast today.
It soon transpired that we should bring our own instruments, and here I missed the modern equipment I had accumulated in Darjeeling for The Hillians and had left them there. It was sometime later that Nati Kazi was sent to Japan to select and bring instruments needed for the recording studios at Radio Nepal. Soon there were Yamaha instruments – three electric organs, each with a foot pedal for bass notes (which nobody used), one electric acoustic guitar and amplifier, and a percussion set (with the principal cymbal missing) – and these were thence customarily and repeatedly used in every type of song – be it bhajan, rashtriya geet, folksongs, modern pieces, and what not! It was indeed monotonous.
So it wasn’t surprising that we borrowed and brought new instruments for the recording sessions of such discerning and discriminating composers as Amber Gurung, Gopal Yonzon, and a few others. We lined their tracks with electric bass guitar runs, streams of synthesizers, more acoustic and twelve-string guitars. More wind instrument players and violinists and cellists were sought for such recordings. Our personal and collective efforts can be heard in such outstanding compositions as Amber Gurung’s “Khoji rahechhu, nistar pyardekhi” and “Aae, tee sab yaad aae” (both lyrics by Bairagi Kainla), “Bataasle jhaarekaa fulharu sangaali,” “Fulharu oili jhare timro biyogmaa,” and “Pokhiera ghaamko jhulka, (all lyrics by Haribhakta Katuwal, the former two sung by Amber Gurung, and the last by Narayan Gopal), Gurung’s latter “Malai marideu” (words by Ishwar Ballabh), as well as “Mero geet ma ubheko dhulole sunos” and “Shikhar bhane kahaan, ajha kati taadaa” (sung by Narayan Gopal, both lyrics by Gopal Yonzon), and many others. In all these recordings, among many others, half the numbers of musicians are outsiders and volunteers and not ones registered with the studios. As said previously, these volunteer musicians brought their own instruments because Radio Nepal did not add any modern musical instruments to its stock during the ten years I was there.
Radio Nepal did nothing to improve the lot of its musicians, either. It increased the per-recording wages of musicians just once, from Rs 5 in Rs 7.50 in my time while its hardware and software went through natural wear-and-tear phases, with no timely refurbishments made. When I left it, it looked the same, only more worn-out and wearier for want of timely vision and visionaries at its helms.
Radio Nepal, as Panchayat’s political propaganda portal, was headed by ministers, directors and program chiefs who but failed to fully realize the unequalled potency of broadcasting and shoutcasting in Nepal to perpetuate Nepal’s absolute monarchy and its Panchayat Polity. Radio Nepal, in its absolute monopoly, was more, much more, pervasive than the other state organs called the Rashtriya Samachar Samiti (RSS, the controller of news, views, reviews and previews), The Rising Nepal (the English daily) and Gorkhapatra (the Nepali-language newspaper). It was the free and open airwaves which had to be swarmed. Nepal’s remote and inaccessible nooks and crannies in Tinkar, Humla, Jumla, Dolpo, Olangchung Gola would rarely be served by RSS, or by Rising Nepal or Gorkhapatra; it would be Radio Nepal to reach the mostly illiterate population beyond Kathmandu and other urban areas for creating the Panchayat’s propaganda platforms in music and musings.
The new innovation in transistor technology had made hand-carry or portable radios available even in the hinterlands. Therefore, Radio Nepal’s studios and broadcasting nerve center in Kathmandu should have been a state-of-the-art complex, with well-equipped studios stocked with musical instruments and manned by trained and experienced musicians. Sadly, it was never to be, and so the longevity of the Panchayat System was shortened by its own rusty machinery, among other jerrybuilt and shoddy edifices, mismanaged by the king’s sycophants rather than taken care of by the kingdom’s cool professionals.
On our part, Ranjit, Phurba and I introduced a new wave at Radio Nepal for studio musicianship. But, at best, we were temporary contract musicians, with only pay-per-record precondition, subject to hiring and firing, and therefore with no standardized structure of salary and benefits. We three were followed by many “guest” musicians, and they were subject to the same stifling rules and regulations. Let’s say, therefore, that Radio Nepal took advantage of the love of music we all had. All of us had our regular employment for our livelihood in Kathmandu, and music was something we missed in this political city for being far away from home. So there was a win-win deal here; we satiated our musical addiction at Radio Nepal as our hobby and indulgence, and Radio Nepal extracted our services at the cheapest rates possible.
Caste and class at Radio Nepal
Though I considered myself a Nepali by all means, from Darjeeling notwithstanding, I had an early feeling that I had come to a strange land. My nocturnal life inside Casino Nepal showed the many distinct divides I had observed among the Nepali patrons who betted at the gaming tables and drank at the sumptuous bar, and the Nepali shell game called Kaura that was conducted on a “khaal” in another segregated hall. The same picture was available in another form inside the recording studio at Radio Nepal.
One distinction was the particular caste of the musicians. They were all from the Damai caste who worked at the Royal Nepalese Army’s military band where they blew trumpets, French horns, tubas, clarinets, saxophones, beat drums and clanged cymbals. They were off duty in the afternoon, and thus the rest of their day was spent with us in the studio. Strangely enough, too, they played delicate instruments at Radio Nepal, bowing violins, for example, and other string and softer instruments in place of the garrulous ones they blared and blew and banged in the army barrack in the earlier part of the day.
To be frank, there were some Newar players, too. I heard that these five musicians were leftovers from the next-door Babar Mahal and its ballroom and “naach ghar” which had seen better days in the past, and now the entire premises were “requisitioned” by His Majesty’s Government of Nepal in the post-1950 Democracy Movement.
Then there were two Gaine musicians – Jhalak Man and his younger brother – who were brought in all the way from Pokhara to be folk instrumentalists in the studio. It was the same Jhalak Man who was later to record his Gorkha Gatha, the epochal “Aamaale sodhlinni, ‘Khai chhoraa’…” Now the Gaines are renamed as Gandharvas and Gayaks (singers).
In this low-caste and -class milieu of musicians were the three of us from Darjeeling. I was a Lepcha, and Phurba was a Bhotiya. Very soon, there were others: a Chhetri and a Gurung from Burma, a Limbu and Subba from Darjeeling (sons of British Gurkha officers and born in Hong Kong.) There were some more simultaneous arrivals: a Tamang from Kalimpong, a Gurung from Darjeeling, and so on. They all brought their own instruments. Above all, Radio Nepal’s non-inclusive culture and creed system of the old and its conservative composition saw new and liberal infusion, and the hidebound caste and class structure of the musicians at Radio Nepal was changed for the first time by the arrival of those who weren’t Hindu Damais or Newars or Gaines but mostly of Mongoloid stock and largely non-Hindus.
Caste is another something which is missing from, for instance, the names of Nepal’s composers and singers. Only today, we’re certain of the surnames of most of the big names of Nepali music in Nepal, which I herein put in parentheses: Nati Kazi (Shrestha), Shiva Shankar (Manandhar), Tara Devi (?), Narayan Gopal (Gurubacharya), Bachchu Kailash (Basnet/Basnyat), Koili Devi (Mathema?), Prem Dhoj (Pradhan), Manik Ratna (Sthapit), Fatteman (Rajbhandari), Pushpa Nepali (Newar Joshi), Panna Kazi (Shakya), Ram Lal (Newar Joshi), Bhairab Bahadur (Chettri Thapa), Gyan Bahadur (?), and so on.
Secondly, as the above list demonstrates, Radio Nepal’s in-house singers were mostly from Kathmandu’s Newar Nation, and the mutual proximity facilitated them to take advantage of the recording studios located almost next door.
The sense of caste and class directly touched even the highest in the land. As alleged, the position of Janardan Sama, son of Bal Krishna “Sama” (Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana), is a case in point. Like his father, Janardan was also interested in fine arts, which included singing and performing – genres mostly looked down upon by the highborn Ranas, Shahs, other Thakuris, Bahuns, Chhetris and such ruling elites and aristocrats of Kathmandu. So, when Janardan obliged admiring Rana Ranis at their durbars with his songs in a fine voice, their overzealous men promptly denigrated him as “Gaine” Janardan, and when he charmed and wooed the same coterie of refined ladies by serenading them with his violin sonatas, their enraged men trashed him as “Damai” Rana.
Casteism and class consciousness touched the lowly Nepali even more menacingly. Here is a story, supposedly an apocryphal one by now, of Ratna Das “Prakash” who was a Newar Khadgi by his own admission. We regularly saw him at Radio Nepal, which he often visited. Already in his ’50s during the 1960s, he was still a handsome man in dark glasses, fit because he always rode a bicycle, dressed nattily in a daura-suruwal-kot-and-topi ensemble. He lived well, I could see that, and was agile and cheerful, confident, and well received at Radio Nepal as its past live-in singer for many years and a famed recorded artiste in his own rights.
It goes that in his prime as a celebrated vocalist, dexterous harmonium virtuoso, handsome hero, and a lady killer, he had a particular group of Rana Maharanis, Patranis, Ranis and Maiya Sahebs in Patan and Pulchowk going Ladies Gaga on him. An “untouchable” Newar, he had touchable intimacy with the mutually warring women – wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, relatives, neighbors, comely court attendants – of the loftiest class possible for his fond attention and deep affection.
The Class-A Rana machos of Patan and Pulchowk were not amused by the conquests made by low-caste Prakash over their velvety women. So they ganged up one day, surprised their women’s heartthrob in one of the inner chambers while he was serenading them, and beat him up black and blue. Prakash had to be in bed for many days, nursing his injuries and ego.