Minstrels at the crossroads

15 min read
06 Jan 2017
15 min read
2403 words
The Gandharva musicians need a more responsive market than the current one if they are to survive as artists

Music runs in the blood of Gandharvas, but to survive with their age-old skills today, they have had to adapt. A small number comprise musicians like Bukun Gandharva—those who haven’t made it big but have managed to earn a decent living by playing in various restaurants and hotels. Then there are the chosen few like Kiran Nepali, who found the limelight through experimenting with music forms and genres and collaborating with other artists. But the majority of Gandharvas are struggling on the streets. And at stake for many of them in these trying times is their dying art and its legacy.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the proliferation of radio and television, most Gandharvas earned a living as travelling minstrels—they delivered messages from one village to another by incorporating the news of the day into their songs in exchange for money, food and shelter, among other forms of payment. “There were also a few Gandharvas who sang in the courts and were considered the pride of the courts. But that practice ended with the end of the monarchy,” says Lochan Rijal, an ethnomusicologist whose PhD research was entitled The Transmission of Music in Nepal—The Gandharva Tradition. Rijal has a PhD in Ethnomusicology from Kathmandu University and the University of Massachusetts.

Way back before democracy, way back before the last kings were ruling Nepal, the Gandharvas would play important roles—on behalf of Nepal’s first Shah kings. There were Gandharvas like Maniram who served as messengers during Prithvi Narayan Shah’s rule. Many others worked as messengers for the kings to follow, and some even worked as spies, carrying classified messages that were imperative for carrying out war strategies. They also sang karkhas or victory songs and created biographies of the rulers through their songs. The Gandharvas created repositories of history, and their messages were supposed to be transferred from generation to generation, orally, through music.

Way back before democracy, way back before the last kings were ruling Nepal, the Gandharvas would play important roles—on behalf of Nepal’s first Shah kings

Although details about the exact origin of Gandharvas in Nepal is a contested one, Rijal speculates that they could have travelled as musicians from Lucknow with the then king of Lamjung, Kulmandan Khan, after Khan’s surname was changed to ‘Shah’. Today, some 6,800 Gandharvas live across Nepal, mostly in Kaski, Tanahun, Gorkha, Bhojpur, Lamjung, Dang, Salyan and Kathmandu.

What is not contestable about them, though, is that the style of music that the Gandharvas play is of a singular kind. Their songs’ power comes from their soul instruments—the sarangi and the arbaja—and in that haunting voice they are known for, they bring forth the bhakas, the stories, the karkhas, the seasonal songs and the festive songs. While the melody from the sarangi captures a listener’s attention, and while the lyrics (imbued with sheer poetry) reel listeners in, it’s their voices and the way they sing the repetitive patterns that take listeners to the depths of their songs. Perhaps it’s because their voices have to harmonise with the frequency of the sarangi, which is of a lower register compared to other instruments, that their voice has that powerful pull. Or it could be that because they have had to carry the painful and heart-wrenching stories of others’ lives that their songs sound so plaintive. 

Any listener taking in the lyrics of ‘Aamale Sodhlin Ni’, sung by the late Jhalak Man Gandharva, should be able to empathise with the soldier fighting in faraway lands and who’s the protagonist of the story. The song essentially asks a messenger to present impossible answers to the soldier’s close relatives if they happen to ask where he is—he does not want his relatives to know the ugly reality of the situation he is in. The repetition of ‘sodhlan ni khai’ and ‘bhandiye’ throughout the song serves to hit home the truth that while the family members are desperate for news of the soldier, the soldier, in turn, would rather that their queries be deflected.

“Although other songs written in the same vein are as lyrically rich and as melodically captivating, there are very few people who listen to them today,” says Kiran Nepali. Thus ‘Aamale Sodhlin Ni’, which enjoyed good airplay for years and has even garnered many, many views on YouTube, represents the exception, not the rule for how Gandharva music is being consumed.

It’s because of such diminishing demand that Gandharvas themselves are discouraging their children from pursuing a career as musicians. Nepali’s father didn’t want him anywhere near a sarangi because he knew how difficult the life of a Gandharva would be. It was the same for Bukun Gandharva, whose brother strongly discouraged him from learning how to play the instrument. 

Living through challenging times is something the Gandharvas have known all too well—through history, actually. The status that Gandharvas once had in society, say today’s Gandharvas, was lost when the Muluki Ain of 1854 became the law of the land. The Gandharvas were relegated to the lower end of the caste system because their profession was not deemed to be as important as others’. Thus in the years that followed, they have had to struggle to cope against both the diktats of the caste system and of changes that progress started to bring.

And by the tail end of the 20th century—when radio, TV and the internet began to rule the waves—the minstrels found themselves stranded.  “Most Gandharvas in the villages find it hard to sustain themselves,” says Rijal. Many of them have had to take up other professions to get by. “There are Gandharvas who are working in brick kilns in Sanga and Dhulikhel; in tea estates in Jhapa; and as farmers in Bhojpur. Then there are Gandharvas in Pokhara who work in hotels and play for tourists along Lakeside,” he says. According to Nar Bahadur Gandharva, many of the Gandharvas have also gone abroad looking for job opportunities.

Consequently, there are fewer and fewer Gandharvas still playing music in the country. There are the likes of Bukun Gandharvas, who play on the streets and in the restaurants of Thamel. Bukun hails from Tanahun, a district that many Gandharvas used to call home. All of his forefathers were Gandharvas by occupation. Since it was difficult for them to make two ends meet just by playing the sarangi, they were also involved in fishing. But despite the hard lives that Bukun’s ancestors had to live as minstrels, he still decided to follow his passion for the sarangi and pursue his ancestors’ legacy. Over the years, he has played at places as far afield as Darjeeling, performed in night buses and sang to countless tourists.  

In order to keep with the times, Bukun Gandharva started working with other styles of Nepali music. He has already released an album—Sarangiko Gaatha. And he has had the opportunity to travel abroad to countries like Austria, Germany and Japan, among others, to perform his music. Furthermore, he runs the Village to Village Sarangi Centre, a venture that provides sarangi lessons and sells sarangis

Then there’s of course Kiran Nepali, perhaps the most famous living Gandharva musician in Nepal. Nepali has collaborated with the likes of Kutumba and Bipul Chhetri. Nepali never received formal sarangi lessons, as he was discouraged from learning to play the instrument, but he was determined to learn the art, which he later picked up from his grandfather.
Today, he is a popular artist who incorporates both folk bhakas and modern music styles in his music. He has plans to uplift the Gandharvas and preserve their culture through Project Sarangi—an initiative that seeks to protect, promote and preserve the sarangi and work with Gandharvas. 

At the other end of the Gandharva spectrum are musicians like Nar Bahadur Gandharva, who have been struggling to make a living. A group of about 55 individuals, including Nar Bahadur Gandharva, who are members of the Gandharba Cultural Art Organisation, Thamel, have remained true to their Gandharva heritage. The members of this association, to this day, roam the streets and perform for the public in the same way their ancestors did. “Whatever we earn by busking is just enough to make two ends meet. Around 25 per cent of what we earn is invested in the association, and we survive on the remaining 75 per cent,” says Nar Bahadur Gandharva. The members of this association want to preserve their art, their identity as Gandharvas and earn their living only through playing music. But theirs is, so far, a losing battle because the true Gandharva way of life is undoubtedly dying.

Some of the Gandharvas have the option of collaborating with artists of various genres, but these collaborations—in which they’ll be playing small parts—probably won’t be enough to make a living out of. And if they decide to stay honest to the essence of their music, there isn’t a profitable market and producers who are willing to produce them. Most Gandharvas can’t produce albums out of their own pocket. “We have some really good, authentic Gandharva music recorded in cassettes, but we don’t have the budget to produce them, and the producers are not willing to take the risk,” says Nar Bahadur Gandharva.

In some ways, collaboration projects might help Gandharva music evolve and find a place in today’s market. But the question is: at what cost? “The Gandharva music tradition has already lost much of its richness due to the lack of extensive documentation,” says Rijal. Many of the old karkhas, bhakas, folk stories and tales and Gandharva songs have been lost forever. To understand how rapidly their storehouse was being depleted, Rijal conducted an experiment with two Gandharva brothers. One brother had memorised about 500 songs, and Rijal wanted to know how much of these songs the other brother was familiar with. Surprisingly, the other brother was familiar with only about 2.94 per cent of the 500 songs. This might be just one instance, but it shows that if the rate of transmission between two siblings not even a generation apart is that low, the transmission rates from one generation to another could be far, far lower.

Most of the newer generation Gandharvas have already sought other career paths. “Earlier, if a family of Gandharvas had five members, then all of them would pick up the skill of playing the sarangi. Now, hardly even one member does so,” says Rijal. Bukun is disappointed that his children have not shown any interest in learning the sarangi and embracing the Gandharva tradition. “If today’s generation of Gandharvas continue to have their way, then the sarangi and Gandharvas would be two completely separate entities,” says Nar Bahadur. For him, Gandharva and sarangi are cut from the same cloth.

There is no denying that the Gandharvas’ culture and music is deteriorating. It’s come to a point where Nepalis are about to lose the rich national treasure that Gandharva music represents. Their art can only get saved if more listeners start to value the Gandharvas’ original works, the same way that the blues had a revival in the US and around the world because there was a core group of people who were listening to them. Their music needs to reach people who will value an art form that is different than what’s mainstream because there is so much artistry, so much poetry, so much soul in their art.

If today’s generation of Gandharvas continue to have their way, then the sarangi and Gandharvas would be two completely separate entities

So much so that their skills were once eulogised even in myths. The Gandharvas, according to myths, were the musicians in heaven to whom angels danced to, by whom the gods found themselves entranced. Their situation here in the real world today presents a stark contrast to what’s been written of them in the myths.