Adding Rhythm to Nepal's Traditional Music

Lishor Kulu was seventeen when his father, Santa Lal Kulu, passed away. So, at a young age, he was obliged to handle his family business of traditional percussion instruments that his grandfather Nhuchhe Lal Kulu had passed down to his father. The art of making these instruments ran in the blood, so it didn’t take him more than a year to be confident in what he did. Thirty-three years later, the self-learned artist still runs his century-old shop in Saugal Tole, Patan.

Instruments like dhime, madal, dhaa, dhyangro, damphu, tabala, tyamko, nagadaa, damaru, jimbe khein, nya-khein, and damo-khein are neatly stacked on the shelves of his shop. He spends eight to ten hours a day in his shop making these instruments. However, workdays don’t feel that long, because while working he is always accompanied either by the FM radio abuzz with political debates and music, or his friends, who come to his shop to talk politics and the philosophies of life.

The making

Most of these traditional drums require similar materials and processes to make, besides having different shapes, sizes, and designs. The materials Kulu uses are mostly made in Dhading. For instance, to make a madal, a cylindrical hollow wood is needed that is shaped to perfection by machines. One side of the cylinder has a smaller opening and the other side has a slightly bigger one. Another material used is goat/ox/cow skin for the “heads” of the madal, also brought in from the market. In some places, these skins are also dipped in limestone paste to get a good texture. Straps made of similar skins are used to tighten the attached heads. Khari is a paste-like substance that is layered on the heads for enhancing the instrument’s tunes. This substance is a mixture of iron powders, straw, water, cooked rice, flour, and even, powdered magnets. However, people in different countries use different materials for making khari. While applying khari on the heads, one needs to be very patient, as it has to be applied in twelve different layers, and each layer needs five-eight minutes to dry off properly. The first layer is a large round shape and the proceeding layers on top are smaller circles. If all these materials are available in his shop, it usually takes Kulu two days to finish three madals. The materials have become expensive over the years, and so, the prices of the instruments have also gone up, explains Kulu.

What is the best thing about this profession?

For Kulu, it is mainly about retaining a family profession. He is proud of being able to take care of his “purkhyauli pasal” (ancestral shop) and it holds a special place in his heart. Another fun thing is that he gets to experiment with different designs and play with colors on the instruments, which makes work more interesting and challenging.

Along with that, the business is economically satisfying, too. The prices of his instruments range from Rs.1,500 (for a small-sized madal) to Rs.22,000 (for a high-quality khein; a normal one comes for Rs.10,000). In addition to that, he gets to be his own boss and work as per his convenience, without having to worry about strict work-hours that corporate houses have.

“Lastly, I feel proud that I have been contributing in preserving Nepal’s rich culture,” he says. These traditional drums add glory to any musical environment, and are needed in cultural events, including jatras, weddings, guthi functions, bhajans, and dohori, to name a few. Band members, especially those playing folk music, also use these percussion instruments. Madals are in high demand amongst groups of people traveling, or just hanging out and wanting to have fun singing and dancing.

A fond memory

Having been surrounded by percussion instruments all these years, Kulu has learned to play almost all of them. He says, “I don’t have theoretical knowledge of the instruments, but have the knack for playing them.” When asked to share a fond memory related with his instruments, he recalls that, over six years ago, he became friends with a Japanese visitor who performed fire dances. The performer wanted to do one in Patan Durbar Square, so they went there one evening, and while he gave his performance, Kulu played the madal. “It went on for about half an hour, and I played six different beats. Many people came to watch us, and it was such an enchanting moment,” he reminisces. He plays percussions like khaichadi, tabala, and madal for bhajans every week in Saugal Tole.

His attachment with traditional drums

Generations of the caste ‘Kulu’ have been in this business, dispersed all over Kathmandu Valley, especially near the durbar square areas of Basantapur, Patan, and Bhaktapur. The population of Kulu in Nepal is very thin, and the descendants of the Kulus skilled in making these traditional drums now have many other aspirations for professions, as they are exposed to various opportunities, unlike older times, he observes. He adds, “I hope that those who are still in the business do this job genuinely, and not just for commercial purposes, as the profession is our kins’ glory.”

There are people of other castes also interested and talented in making the traditional percussion instruments, and Kulu feels happy about it. Many foreigners and Nepalis come to his shop to learn how to make these instruments. He provides them with the materials and supervises them to make the instruments (of course charging some amount of money) and they get to take their self-made instruments home after completion. He is very happy when an enthusiast gets to learn the art from him.

He also has a son who is thirteen years old and is equally inclined towards music, learning the guitar from YouTube. He also knows a little bit of jimbe and madal, and his father gives him suggestions or hints while playing. Whether or not his son will be willing to take over his business later, Kulu is excited about at least passing on the skills of making the instruments to his son.