|| No Nepali music in Rana Nepal
Radio Nepal and its recording studios reflected the century-old past Nepal had shed merely fifteen years ago, and it was the total absence of sense and sensibility in the music of Nepal.
For instance, Nati Kazi composed his mellifluous modern melodies on Newar and hill folk foundations but there was virtually no one as arranger to have it packaged as a distinct three-minute contemporary piece of the times when his songs were recorded and released.
Even today, simple three-chord songs receive no discernible structure of wholeness that can endear it equally to general listeners and particular cognoscenti.
Therefore, a song like “Nau Lakh Tara Udae” is still treated as a poem and more of a literary work in Nepal while its avant-garde musical construction which was engineered in Darjeeling as an unprecedented oeuvre in Nepali music needs a Nepali Nadia Boulanger to balance its lyrical sibling with its musical twin vis-à-vis the typical one-sided literary criticism that is still current in Kathmandu.
That it is a song, a “geet,” and the composite cannot be treated in isolation as verses of Agam Singh Giri on one hand and a tune of Amber Gurung on the other. Nau Lakh Tara’s words and lines, once given musical cohesion, assume a two-in-one logical avatar. But there is still no one in the Nepali world to understand and explain the duality of a singular unit called “song,” which Nau Lakh Tara in fact is.
When this basic comprehension is not in place in the first instance, there is no question of understanding the epic encyclopedia of Giri’s lyrical lines and match it one-on-one with Amber Gurung’s staircase melodic lines (progression) with essentially complicated musical arrangement with chordal complexions, as demanded of, for and by the poetic justice meted out by the words and melody to each other.
Thus, the song automatically jumps to other contrapuntal boundaries as well, in which case it is no more a dual unity of literature and music only but a critical mass of more than two compositional components, about which the least said the best in Kathmandu at this moment, for want of even elementary understanding of what elements go into a song to make it what it is.
What I am trying to say is that Nepalis readily cite the name of Chakra Pani Chalise as the lyricist of the previous national anthem – “Shreemaan Gambhira Nepaali Prachanda Prataapee Bhupati” – of Nepal: But who composed its melody and arranged the music? Literature and music have been strange bedfellows in Nepal: Sahitya mostly belonged to the twice-born Bahuns while Sangeet was mostly the lot of the lowly untouchable Damais/Darjis. Mata Saraswati’s gifts were thus cross-valued in Nepal.
This vast vacuum caused by an almost ridiculously incomplete grasp of even a “mere” song, for instance, like Nau Lakh Tara, must go to the black-hole history of Nepal as ruled and racked and ruined by the Ranas for 104 years from 1846 to 1950 AD.
They atrophied and stifled Nepal, which was but their respective ruling clique’s family fiefdom to milk and exploit, by closing its borders and closeting Kathmandu as an isolated and blockaded capital in the valley with not even a single entry-exit road.
The roads built within Kathmandu and the electricity and water supply system laid out were only for the rulers and their gentrified lot. They had even imposed strict licensing rules for ownership of motorized vehicles, even radio sets, for the commoners.
A rich and influential Newar “Sahu” of Indra Chowk, while on a business trip, was seen in an ornate buggy in Calcutta by a visiting Rana prime minister, and the commoner businessman was publicly whipped once back in Kathmandu. That was Nepal in the pre-1950 years. The silent cries of Nepal were no music to the ears of its serfs.
Lal Durbar: Pundits, Ustads and Master Ratna Das “Prakash”
At both Radio Nepal and in Casino Nepal, I heard yarns of the bygone musical tamashas in Kathmandu, especially in the decorated dabalis, intimate khopis and ornate naach ghars of the Rana palaces.
Lal Durbar (the present Hotel Yak & Yeti) and Phohora (Fora) Durbar were famous for their naach-gaan evenings and weekend soirees. While Kathmandu Valley’s Newar populace held their seasonal and open-air “pyankha”-s at Chhetra Pati, Ason Tole, Jana Bahal and most other neighborhoods – and I enjoyed watching these nocturnal “giti nataks,” which sadly died out by the mid-’70s due to encroachment of the public performing platforms and population and traffic pressures– the ruling Ranas imported and lavishly maintained Indian classical singers and musicians at their Durbars, Mahals and Bhawans.
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
They were from the British Raj of India, and were of two groups – the Hindu maestros were called Pundits, and their Muslim counterparts were addressed as Ustads, and they excelled in the many gharanas of Hindustani music.
It so happened one day that Ratna Das “Prakash,” the same handsome hero and heartbreaker, was summoned to the Lal Durbar to sing as a Nepali artiste. He fiddled with the harmonium and began a Thumri. As Prakash himself has said in an interview, he was immediately dissuaded from singing such music. In just a few seconds into his preliminary alap, one Pundit, assumed to be Ram Vilash Kundan, interrupted him.
“Naa, naa. Woh mat gaaiyegaa yahan, Master Jee! Woh to hamaraa hi hai naa, Hindustankaa. Woh taraanaa to hambhi jaante hai, humhi gaate hain. Isliye, aap apnaa kuchh sunaaiyena, apnaa Nepalka!”
“Haanh, haanh! Thik farmaayaa Punditjeene!” It was another maestro, a Muslim and presumed to be Ustad Inayat Ali Khan. “Master Prakash Miya, aap apnaa Nepalkaa hi Jhamre gaiena. Jhamre! Jhamre!! Woh hamko bahut hi achchha lagtaahai. Farmaiyena!”
So Master Ratna Das “Prakash” sang a few Nepali Jhyaurey geet popular in the Kathmandu Valley of those days, much to the unchecked delights of the Indian Pundits and Khan Sahebs assembled in the Green Room Baithak of Lal Durbar’s famed Naach Ghar Hall.
The Ranas were not amused, but it was the Indian guests who encouraged Kathmandu’s musicians to sing their own compositions and not ape the many Indian schools of music. Prakash was entreated by the Indian Pundits and Ustads alike to initiate his own creative Nepali music, and not tempt himself to imitate them.
It was the same Master Ratna Das Prakash who was beholden to Bal Krishna Sama. When he was Radio Nepal’s director many years ago, Sama advised his son Janardan, in the presence of Prakash, “Tapain Prakashjee jasto asal gauna siknos, ani kehi hola.”
“Gyan bho, Hajur,” Janardan is believed to have said. “Jo hokum, Buwa.”
Bal Krishna also reminded Janardan of Prakash’s physical fitness because he always rode a bicycle, and told him to do something similar to be “sfurta” at all times. Soon, Janardan and wife were seen pedaling in and around Kathmandu on a tandem bicycle, either of them piloting at the handlebar.
Back to business at Radio Nepal, again
My years rolled on in the studios of Radio Nepal. I was there every working day. Leaving my schoolteacher’s job, I had joined the English Department of Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur for my Master’s while I retained my well-paying night job at Casino Nepal. My Master’s studies made me selective and I avoided the recording of folk music (easy), bhajans (easy and spiritual) and “deshbhaktiko geet” (mostly propagandist and preposterous for pandering only the Panchayat and the monarch). It was the modern music of Amber Gurung and Gopal Yonzon that were most challenging to instrumentalists like us at Radio Nepal.
Since I mentioned Amber Gurung and Gopal Yonzon – subtly considered “outsiders” in the musical firmament of Kathmandu for quite sometime – it must be said that it was indeed their arrival in Kathmandu that had made our entrance to the studios of Radio Nepal possible in the first place.
After all, we had made so much music together over so many years in Darjeeling that, in fact, our first participation as players at Radio Nepal was also in the recordings of the music of Amber and Gopal.
Since we were mostly non-Damais/Darjis and also from outside Kathmandu – how our different physical looks gave quite a few surprises to the officers and staffs at Radio Nepal! – there was an infusion of new and fresh verve in Nepali music, as recorded at Radio Nepal from 1966 onward. Otherwise, the only good music worthy of broadcasting from Radio Nepal were the songs recorded in Calcutta’s His Master’s Voice’s studios at Dum Dum in the 1960s.
The recording series were made possible by King Mahendra’s direct ladling out from Nepal’s annual budgets. Even then, his preferred music director for the first Nepali propaganda film “Aamaa” was V. Balsara, an Indian; so, too, was Jai Dev for the private-sector movie, “Maiti Ghar.”
And the interior scenes at Radio Nepal remained largely unchanged. Our first impression as newcomers, and not a pleasant one at that, was the person at the reception.
This man, already in his fifties, was a peon, and manned the area at the entrance to the ground floor as his personal fiefdom. He was a local, a burly bully, loud, gruff and dirty in his shirt and suruwal, unshaven and unwashed most days.
Above all, his left eye was a hollow socket which he never tried to do anything good with. This one-eyed Jack should have been given some backroom space, but he was in charge of the reception desk and questioned every new visitor’s business in rough manner and unpolished language. And though his hideous blindness in one eye was unsightly, he remained there for many years and was left on his own to do whatever he pleased.
This man’s overconfidence was quite a shock when compared to the cowered looks of the senior officers and staffs of Radio Nepal. Most of them looked shell-shocked, war-weary and battle-fatigued, almost always on the lookout against each other’s political intrigues and bureaucratic conspiracies.
They were a mock-serious and cheerless bunch, from the director down to section officers and program chiefs. The director looked mainly stressed out, expecting conflict-of-interest phone calls from the Minister of Information, and above all, the mandarins of the Narayanhiti Royal Palace who actually ran the government for the king.
The only creative fun to be had, therefore, was in the recording studios of Radio Nepal, and we enjoyed every bit of it. However, the melting pot of diverse musicians continued to bring their own instruments and equipment because Radio Nepal’s poor stock remained the same, most of them subject to rapid wear and tear. Hauling our instruments to and fro was quite a hassle in those days, to say the least.
To be continued in the next edition of The Week.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
||PAST MUSICAL MUSINGS PART III
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