Festive Sounds: Dhimay Drumming in Bhaktapur

Features Issue 67 Aug, 2010
Text by Gert-matthias Wegner / Photo: Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati

Newar musicians still perform many genres of music that are rooted in historical tradition and articulate important dimensions of social and cultural life.  In Bhaktapur, music and dance are still integrated within the ritual and agricultural calendar, social organization,  and urban space.

The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley are known for their achievements in the arts and architecture which developed during the five hundred years of Malla rule (13th – 18th centuries) in the three rival kingdoms of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Despite the pressure of modernization and changing political and economic conditions, Newar musicians still perform many genres of music that are rooted in historical tradition and articulate important dimensions of social and cultural life.  In Bhaktapur, music and dance are still integrated within the ritual and agricultural calendar, social organization,  and urban space. Each occupational caste carries out different ritual and musical duties and functions.  Newar farmers (Jyapu) perform group singing at shrines, a variety of dances during the Gai Jatra week and several genres of processional music, dhimaybaja being the most popular among these.

Ideally, an ensemble of dhimaybaja comprises of four cylindrical, double-headed dhimay drums and four pairs of brass cymbals.  Cymbals are of two kinds;  the larger pair (bhuchyah) plays a basic accompanying pattern at slow tempo: 1 - 3 4 (numbers representing cymbal strokes, hyphen a silent count) and  the smaller pair (sichyah) plays a similar pattern in double tempo.  The result is a boisterous and crashing affair which is complemented with the deep rumble and clear strokes of the drums.  This combination is considered perfect for bringing a maximum number of girls to their windows when a dhimay group passes by. 

Years ago, when large trees were still available, drum makers (Kulu) built the drums from hollowed tree trunks of odd shapes.  Nowadays, dhimays are made either of tin or brass which are shaped into cylindrical shells.  The left hand drum hide carries a paste made of crushed castor apple seeds, tree resin and mustard oil.  This paste is stuck at the inside, lending weight and resonance to the hide.  The right hand hide is made of thin goat skin pulled tight.  It is struck with a simple stick or a beautifully rolled cane, producing a sharp and penetrating sound. Both drum heads represent two different aspects of the Newar music god, Nasahdyah.  The lower sounding hide stands for the destructive aspect, Haima, while the higher sounding hide stands for the source of inspiration and charm, Nasah.

Both the gods (or aspects of one and the same, Lord of music and dance), are worshipped by drumming apprentices with regular blood sacrifices and musical offerings.  Such musical invocations must be played at the beginning and end of each performance and whilst passing an idol of a god on the way.  Gods thus addressed, manifest themselves in shrines, temples, sacred stones, trees, rivers and divine flight holes in brick walls.  During processions, the drummers actualize the divine energy residing in all religious artefacts on the way.  The other and more obvious effect of the music is to inspire the festive crowd and creatre a joyous and exuberant mood which often causes people to jump and dance among the drummers. Thus, inspiration through music and inspiration through home-distilled liquor (ayla) or rice beer (thvan) contribute to make Newar town rituals what they are: a joyous merging of the world of humans with the realm of the gods.

Figuratively, Newar musicians proceed on an elaborate mandala which represents their ritual townscape.  Whenever passing a key point of the mandala, they erupt in loud musical invocations addressing the divine power residing in those places.  These dyahlhaygu (“calling the god”) invocations function like telephone numbers: Whilst concentrating on the correct production of the sacred composition, the players focus on tapping the divine energy residing in the monument.  These compositions then help the musicians establish a connection with the gods and reaffirm the order of ritually used urban space.  However, the continuing processional music and the simultaneous roar of the invocations may appear to be musical chaos to the uninitiated.  Locals make sense of the music in terms of where it is played.  Newar settlements are like musical scores to those who know how to read them.

Talking about drumming apprenticeship, I have to continue on a more personal note, as in 1983, I went through such an apprenticeship myself and later on initiated and taught a large number of young drummers.

Usually, youths of a neighbourhood approach the most prominent dhimay player, asking him to teach them.  They supply a clean room with a wall niche for keeping the music gods.  Their mothers prepare the necessary ritual utensils and offerings.  The initiation ritual is carried out at the local shrine of Nasahdyah.  It is preceded by similar offerings to the two sons of Lord Shiva and Parvati, Kumar (represented by a round stone in front of every Newar house) and Ganesh at his local shrine.  After this, the guru and his students proceed to the shrines of Nasahdyah and Haimadyah, carrying offerings and two clay cups, each with a betelnut on top of a mound of uncooked rice.  These are meant to serve as seats for the music gods who are transferred into the practice room for the duration of the apprenticeship.

At the shrines of the music gods, the centre of worship is a triangular or rectangular hole indicating the flight lanes of the gods.  The guru purifies the shrine with water and arranges flowers, red powder, food grains, coins and other ritual offerings.  To ensure the gods’ blessings, life must be taken in some way or other.  This essential offering includes raw eggs and/or a cock for Nasahdyah and a young, female chicken for Haimadyah.  Eggs are cracked open and the egg-white spilled.  Water, red powder and grains are sprinkled on top of the sacrificial animals and the sacrificial knife.  Animals are asked for their consent to being sacrificed.  In response, they have to shake their bodies - not unlike the South Asian head gesture indicating consent.  If an animal refuses to shake its body, the omen is helped with a splash of water.  If an animal remains adamant, the entire ritual must be repeated with another animal.  During the sacrifice, blood is sprinkled on the gods and participants apply vermillion powder, a drop of blood and a vertical line of black soot on their foreheads.  The musicians pray, sprinkle rice grains and carry the essential offerings home.  The remains are always instantly devoured by groups of local children.  The gods, now residing in the two betelnuts, are placed in the purified wall niche in the music room, to receive daily prayers and offerings.  Teaching and practising happens in seclusion and outsiders are not permitted into this room.  Similar sacrifices are carried out at regular intervals, signifying the beginning of new compositions or - a week before the end of the apprenticeship - inclusion of accompanying instruments.

Sacrificial animals must be supplied by the students.  It is recommended that they steal the animals, as the music gods favour clever thieves.  Stealing a chicken is relatively easy.  Stealing a male goat requires special skills and divine assistance.  Thieves collect a few grains of sacrificial rice at the shrine of Nasahdyah, in order to place these on the animal’s head to ensure that it collaborates and does not utter a sound in the process.  If the owner happens to be a close neighbor, it is always nice to invite him to participate in the grand ritual feast after the sacrifice.

During the final ritual which closes the apprenticeship, the divine flight passage is blocked with an edible paste prepared with yoghurt and pressed rice.  The face of the Lord of music and dance is painted on this paste which is said to accumulate divine power.  At the end, it is distributed among the participants and consumed with reverence.  Having sacrificed the goat, the students worship the gods residing in the drums and play their entire repertoire of compositions, with all their relatives and friends watching this coming-out event.  The new drummers, now decorated with white turbans, flowers and red powder, proceed through their neighbourhood, full of pride and satisfaction about their achievement.  As the sound of their music precedes them, countless beautiful eyes watch the procession from the windows.

When I arrived in Bhaktapur in 1983, drumming was exclusively a male occupation.  This changed after I taught the first girl, Indira, in 1995.  Her coming-out as a drummer caused quite a sensation.  Instantly, all her female classmates wanted to learn from her.  Nowadays it is not uncommon for girls to participate in many genres of processional music.  Perhaps the time was just ripe.

German musician and ethnomusicologist Gert-Matthias Wegner teaches at the Free University Berlin and at Kathmandu University (KU).  He founded the KU Department of Music in Bhaktapur and organised concert tours with Newar musicians presenting their art at European festivals.