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Ancient Melodies, Young Performers

Actively promoting Nepal’s traditional instrument, Project Sarangi is fostering a new generation of musicians being showcased all around the city.

Recently I was lucky to meet Kiran Nepali. I say lucky, because meeting him felt inspiring and rejuvenating to me. In an age when many seem sadly willing to discard the past in favor of globalization and modernity, it’s refreshing to meet someone so committed to an ancient art form. Don’t get me wrong—modernity is good and needed, and Kiran Nepali is certainly using it to bring sarangi music and performances up to date, but at the core of what he is doing is a great respect for the past and its traditions.

Project Sarangi was started in December 2014 with the stated goal, according to Kiran, “To revive, preserve, and promote the sarangi.”

For someone whose family has a background in sarangi playing and has made playing and promoting the instrument his life’s work, you might be surprised to learn that he didn’t pick up the sarangi in his youth. Instead, he studied business, and was a guitar player in rock bands. “My father never let me play. He wanted me to make a good life.” Unfortunately, it’s a sad truth that for quite some years now, many of the older generation of sarangi players have struggled to make a living from the art, and the resulting situation has not encouraged young people to take up the instrument. It’s just this scenario that Kiran is working to change. And, he’s using some of his business training and rock guitar experience to bring this ancient instrument up to date. For instance, he’s attached a pickup to his own instrument. Another interesting change he’s made is insisting the players are at eye level with the audience—he believes it promotes respect: no one is looking down on them.

“The instrument has given me so much, it’s time to give back,” he said.

Kiran sees the sarangi players as nomads and troubadours who traveled and provided a source of entertainment for locals. Well before the development and dissemination of media, they were a major source of entertainment, he says.

Project Sarangi started modestly, and a program in October 2016 brought together 30 sarangi players on a single stage. A great success, now it’s being spread out over the course of a month, with 11 young musicians performing in venues all over Kathmandu and Patan—a total of 35 events in all.  Kiran’s aim is to promote these younger players, and make sarangi cool again. “There are only a handful of people playing it,” he says. “I want a revolution.” He wants to break the barriers that limit it to one community—generally the gandarbas—and bring the sarangi to anyone who wants to learn to play. To that end, Project Sarangi has additional future plans to open a school to teach the instrument more widely.

As I look over the list of musicians, I’m surprised to see two young women’s names there. I’ve never heard a female sarangi player before, and now that I think of it, I wonder why not. I’m excited to attend these upcoming events.

The scheduled performances ran all through March, and the first I attended was on March 6 at the International Club in Sanepa, Lalitpur. The music preceded a spoken poetry event, and I was amazed to see the large number of people gathered to hear all the artists perform. The group on stage was practically a family ensemble, with Prince Nepali leading on sarangi and the other performers on the bansuri (flute) and madal. I was enjoying the music thoroughly from the start, but when they began to play a particularly haunting rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, well, I was just mesmerized. As the dusk fell over the gathering, the song segued into a bridge-like chorus of Hey Jude before returning to the original melody. It was such an amazing experience, with such beautifully executed melodies.

I learned that Prince Nepali has grown up around the sarangi, and music in general. He was trained in the instrument by his father Shyam Nepal, a music pioneer, and has been active in the Nepali music scene ever since; Prince is now playing sarangi for the Shakshyam Band.

That day, Prince and his team followed it up with several Nepali and Newari tunes before ending with a popular Nepali piece, KaliloTamalai, which had the folks in the audience on their feet, clapping and dancing along. Fantastic to see such a reaction by young people to these traditionally performed tunes.

Only days later I had the opportunity to hear one of the young women players, Barta Gandarba. In a serendipitous set of circumstances, the day I went to see her perform was March 8, Women’s Day. From Bhojpur District in eastern Nepal, Barta is a charming, unassuming woman who has been playing for 15 years now, since she was young. When I attended her event at Evoke Café & Bistro in Jhamsikhel, she was accompanied by her husband Binod on the madal. As with the other event, it was a pleasure to see the really professional, well-organized way in which these performances were managed. Hats off to all of the bars and restaurants who participated, too, by hosting these musicians. This is an important musical element of Nepal’s culture that must be preserved at all costs, and bringing it into the mainstream like this is the best way to do it, so all can enjoy and benefit from it.

As I heard the first notes Barta played during her sound check, I had a feeling of melancholy; yet when the song finally began, it burst out with a joyfulness that surprised me and made me put down my margarita and ignore my tasty Buffalo wings. My Nepali isn’t yet good enough to follow all the words in the song she sang, yet the emotion therein was unmistakable. Somehow, it wasn’t only the singing—her playing of the sarangi itself was strangely evocative, emotional, and deeply heartfelt. At times, it sounded like the instrument was singing, too, bouncy and joyful. I know, I’m repeating myself by using the word joyful so often, but really, that was the overwhelming feeling. My hands, inadvertently found to be tapping my notebook with my pen in between the notes I was taking as I listened; a Nepali man stood up and danced with his baby, rocking in time to the music.

This music touched me in a way I wasn’t expecting, but was thankful for. Sometimes, moments like this encourage us to be present in a very real way, and as Barta Gandarba closed her eyes, seemingly swept away herself by her own musical instrument, her fingers moving with amazing rapidity over the strings, there it was again: that dancing, lilting, joyfulness.

Time constraints prevented me from attending further events but from what I heard and saw, I have no doubt that the other nine featured artists—Saroj KC, Kobid Bajracharaya (Bazra), Sujina Bajracharaya, David Shahi, Gresome Grace, K C Raja, Manice Gandarba, Anil Gandarba, and Girish Shrestha—were equally special and gifted. Make a note of these young people's names; if you hear they are due to perform anywhere near you, go. It will be well worth your time.