Ram Prasad Kadel’s prized collection of Nepali folk instruments

12 min read
03 Jul 2017
12 min read
1712 words
From the Archive (Nov, 2016): It’s been more than 21 years since Kadel started collecting instruments. He wants to someday set up a museum for his instruments

Kadel started collecting the instru­ments because his guru, Sanad Ku­mar Adhikari, asked him to do so in lieu of other forms of guru dakshina. The shankha was the instrument with which he started his collection. It had been bought by his family for his brata­bandha many years ago. Today—more than 21 years since he started on his quest to accumulate instruments—the earlier Kadel, who wasn’t passionate about music, has transformed into a knowledgeable, self-taught ethno-mu­sicologist of sorts. He wants to some­day house his instruments in a full-fledged music instrument museum.

Kadel’s current museum is housed in a rented space within the premises of the Mahadev Mandir. The building previously served as the residential quarters for people who were asso­ciated with the mandir, but it is now government property. First-time vis­itors can easily miss the undersized entrance of the museum, which is on the far right corner of the prem­ise as you enter. The foyer’s sparse interiors are so archaic that the CFL bulbs and the laptop at the recep­tion look unsettlingly anachronic. A wooden staircase above the reception desk leads visitors to the display sec­tion—a long, dark and dusty corridor separated into two aisles by glass cas­es in the middle. The glass cases are full of instruments of a multitude of shapes, sizes and types—strings, per­cussion, brass, and woodwinds—with little name tags attached to each in­strument. Hanging on the walls are dholaks, maadals, sarangis, other folk instruments, and a huge, eye-catch­ing sarangi—almost six feet long—to which is attached one of the smallest playable sarangis in Nepal—almost six inches long. Kadel hopes to com­plete documenting all his research and further expand his collection in 10 more years, and then turn the make­shift museum into a more proper one that sees lots of visitors.

That dream might seem like a rath­er grandiose one, but Kadel is putting in the work to ensure that his dream sees the light of day—even though his aim might seem like a quixotic one to most people. Kadel has trav­elled all across the country—65 districts so far—to obtain instru­ments for his collection. Darchu­la, Bardiya, Rasuwa, Gatlang and Baglung are just a few of the many places he has been to in his search for instruments.

Kadel is always on the lookout for old Nepali folk instruments and also has contacts who notify him about instruments they come across. He acquaints himself with the destination he’ll have to travel to to get his hands on an instru­ment—most such destinations lie in remote areas—by first reading about the place and its culture. “I have to take the bus to areas that are far flung, but once I get to the main nerve centre of the region, I prefer to use my feet to get to the particular village I have to arrive at. Walking through villages allows me to interact with the people there and learn about their history, cul­ture and so on—the sources they derive their folk songs from,” says Kadel. “Moreover, I might come off as intimidating if I barge in into their locality on a jeep. They’re more likely to accept me as one of their own and share information with me if I can pass myself off as a wandering passerby.” It is also important that Kadel get as close to an instrument’s place of origin as possible. Oftentimes when the inhabitants of a place leave their village to migrate to another area, they cannot take with them valu­able pieces of their history and culture. Therefore, to get unadul­terated information about an in­strument, Kadel often has to get as close as possible to the place where the instrument used to be used and get the information from those vil­lagers who chose to remain behind.

It is tedious for him to travel so, but it is even more taxing to extract information about these instru­ments. “Most people do not spill the beans on day one. It takes a lot of communicating and trust-build­ing before the person is ready to open up,” he says. Kadel recalls an instance when it took him up to five years to get close enough to a person to get information about an instrument called kapaala dama­ru. Kadel relies mostly on verbal communication to dig out the oral history about an instrument and document it, but he also refers to a few books on folk music and Nepali anthropology in order to deepen his research.

Since information about old Ne­pali folk instruments have mostly not been documented rigorously and need to be retrieved through interactions with the right people, Kadel is in a race against time. "It might not be too long before I lose my sources of information. There are some very old instruments, and very few people have the musical, historical and cultural knowledge about these instruments,” says Kadel. “And when such a person passes away, with him dies years of knowledge and musical know-how. Un­less the person has taken measures to pass this information down to the next generation, there is no way to retrieve that information.”

Thanks to his travels, Kadel is a re­pository of enthralling stories and no­table experiences. One such story has to do with his visit to a village near Tili­cho Lake, in Dolpa, 16 years ago. He had heard that an instrument made from the bone of a human leg was being used there. Excited about the prospects of adding such an instrument to his col­lection, he soon made his way to said village, and managed to get a hold of the instrument. But with the instru­ment came a haunting tale—that an evil spirit would disturb the possessor of the instrument. Kadel, at the time, lived alone, and spent many a sleep­less night, with the instrument hang­ing on the wall of his room, before he got used to the instrument’s presence. Today, the instrument is a part of the museum, but he still gets chills when he is anywhere near it and discourag­es people from approaching it too.

All the instruments in Kadel’s col­lection have one of three qualities in common: they are either not in use, dysfunctional or are completely new. “That’s because, if I take away a functional musical instrument from a community, I will be intervening in how they might have added to their repertoire related to the instrument, and also reducing the number of func­tional instruments in their communi­ty by one or more. I want to make sure that my collection doesn’t disrupt any­thing,” says Kadel.

Once Kadel returns from his trav­els, he starts to pen all his newfound knowledge on paper and spends at least an hour a day doing so. Kadel has a rather humongous archive of manuscripts—written by himself and others—and has published four books on the traditional folk musical instru­ments of Nepal, and 25 concise man­uals that explain how certain old in­struments are to be played. He has also written a chapter for a Social Studies book used in the SLC curriculum.

In the years since he embarked on the project, Kadel has also turned into an audiophile who loves all manner of folk music: from those in­digenous to Nepal to those of places around the world. He is also an ardent fan of Bob Dylan.

According to Kadel, folk songs encode whole histories and cultural practices of various peoples. And cen­tral to these folk songs are the music instruments they use to sing them. “Every ethnic group has its own mu­sical instrument in addition to having its own language, culture and dress,” says Kadel. “These instruments are gifts that have been passed down to us from our ancestors, and every sin­gle sound that emanates from them is precious. It’s true that my initial drive to establish a museum had to do with my guru, but today, I have developed a love for these age-old instruments and the pristine sounds that they produce. To be sure, my current museum does see occasional visitors—mostly school kids on Social Studies field trips. But I would like more visitors in my future museum, and for them to develop the same affinity as I have for folk music.”