Nepal is known to the world as the country of festivals, with nearly half of the yearly calendar filled up by major and minor ones ranging from regionally celebrated to nationally acclaimed. Among all these festivals of varying nature and socio-cultural background, Dashain is undoubtedly the most popular and cherished one for all the Nepalis living both within and outside the country.
There are many things that make this festival special and one of them is the sound of the tune Malashree. This melody has become the theme music for Dashain and can be heard in many variations over the radio, TV and other media. Every year, many musicians release Malashree with a touch of their own creativity—from instrumental versions to devotional songs. But in spite of being so popular and having such an impact, the general public seems to be quite incognizant of its history and reality. Is this just a folk or a religious tune or has it some other significance? Who created it? What is its purpose? Such questions remain mostly unanswered to this day and what most people tend to know about Malashree seems to be either vague or inaccurate.
To begin, let us first be clear about the classification of the tune. Over the past few decades, it has been labeled either as folk or traditional music. But the folk music of Nepal, considering every regional variation, is not musically similar to this tune and so therefore it does not fit into this category. The other classification, calling it ‘traditional’ is just a label, not necessarily a musical classification as everything done traditionally can be labeled as ‘traditional.’ So, what is Malashree? Malashree is actually a raga, an ancient raga described in treatises like Sangeet Ratnakar as Malavashree. But what is a raga? Ragas can be considered the nucleus of classical music from the Indian subcontinent; they have been the core musical idea of the region for almost a millennium and have evolved and gone through many changes over this period. Malashree happens to be one of many such ragas of this classical music tradition.
Classifying Malashree as a raga is nonetheless not as easy as it sounds. As ragas are chiefly associated with Indian classical music, claiming that a Nepali tune is a raga might be a challenge and raise speculation or criticism. The reason is because there is already another raga using the same set of notes in Indian classical music. Besides, another Malashree exists in the Indian tradition sharing no similarities with the Nepali Malashree. The most compelling reason might be that as Nepal and its music tradition did not have any significant role in the development of Indian classical music, claiming that a Nepali tune is one of the Indian ragas can be considered unwarranted, if not preposterous. But does the word raga appear only in Indian music? Cannot it have its own significance in our society?
If we study the history and culture of Nepal meticulously, the word raga in a musical context does not seem to be an adventitious word. In fact, the music and dramas from the time of the Mallas were all centered on songs based on ragas. The oldest account of ragas from Nepal is made by Daniel Wright in his book History of Nepal, where he mentions that King Jayasthiti Malla made it obligatory to play the Raga Deepak during royal cremations. There are also Ragamala paintings which are an artist’s perception of raga melodies, expressed in the form of visual art. Treatises like Natyashastra, Sangeet Ratnakar, and Sangeet Damodar, considered to be the backbone of raga music tradition, were devotedly studied and followed. The manuscripts of such treatises are still well preserved in the National Archives of Kathmandu.
The raga culture of the Kathmandu Valley is not limited to a musical performance alone but is a critical part of its social and religious structure. The famous jatras and deities like Macchindranath have a type of indispensable raga singing tradition associated with them. Old dancing and drama traditions like the Kartik Nach of Patan or the Charya dance are all performed to the singing of ragas. Events like the Nyeku Jatra or Upaku develop raga singing as an imperative element of society. All these things indeed show that ragas were practiced in Nepal in the times of the Mallas. But how are these facts connected with Malashree? How can we claim that the Malashree of today is an authentic raga passed on since the time of the Mallas?
The Malla rule is long passed but the traditions they implanted in Nepali society still thrives today, especially among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. Although it sounds surprising, there is still a tradition among Newars of singing ragas. This old tradition is known as Dapha singing and it still survives in the alleys and squares of traditional Newar neighborhoods. Almost all of the songs sung by the Dapha groups are from the Malla period and are ascribed to ragas sharing no similarities, except their names, with modern Indian ones. Malashree is one of the many ragas that are sung in the Dapha sessions.
Malashree is a seasonal raga; ascribing ragas to different seasons according to their emotive nature and temperament is a salient feature of the classical music of the Indian subcontinent. Although in modern times Malashree is played chiefly for the ten days of Dashain, originally it was, and still is among the Newars, played or sung from one month before Dashain until the full moon after it. As the great festival of Dashain falls in this particular season, the songs ascribed to Raga Malashree naturally extol the greatness of Goddesses in every form. The Malashree that are available on popular media these days are more or less the same, with only minor differences. But the Malashrees that are found among the Newars are not limited to the ones that we are familiar with. There are many varieties of Malashrees, some similar and some totally different, some complying with the notes of the popular Malashree while others contradicting it. And after the Dashain full moon, Malashree is replaced by another seasonal raga called Dhanashree.
Malashree today stands as the only Nepali raga that the public knows, and therefore carries a legacy as old as its name. It is not a creation of an individual, but a continuity of tradition, possibly the same great tradition as the Indian classic. While it is true that there is a cornucopia of inconsistencies and flaws in local raga culture currently, it is also true that there is enough evidence and grounds to rekindle the tradition. Malashree is a key jewel of Nepali classical music and let us hope that it will someday be the impetus for the revival of that forgotten tradition.