Melodious Instruments of Lyrical Nepal

Features Issue 193 Nov, 2017
Text by Prashant Shrestha / Photo: Amar D Rai

Nepal’s rich culture comprises unique songs and lyrics, and they are set to the tunes of ingenuous musical instruments that are extremely melodious and very, very pleasing to the ears.

Entering the narrow entrance door of Patan Durbar Museum (which was deliberately made narrow so that enemies would not enter in large numbers) was similar to stepping into a portal that transported you back in time. The intricate wood craftsmanship, carvings of deities on the tundals (external pillars that support the roof), and the imposing lion and dragon statues on both sides of the stairs filled my heart with pride at the unique architecture and style our ancestors had created. As I walk past the main chowk (the square courtyard), I was ever so conscious of the fact that history had been played out within these walls. The stairs I was taking had once been climbed by great kings and noblemen. Pretty princesses must have giggled through these corridors. Great warriors must have walked in these gardens with their heavy swords. As I strolled into the palace garden, mangal dhun (the auspicious tune) was being played with flutes and madals. Those traditional instruments and tunes greatly complemented the whole ambiance. This is what it must have been like when royalty watched musical performances back in the ancient era. The venue chosen by Jamarko to hold an event for promoting folk musical instruments couldn’t have been more exciting and appropriate.

Apparently, there are 1,325 different types of traditional instruments in Nepal. When we talk of the past, we often see it as a primitive picture, with people getting by without electricity, cars, and even proper housing. But the sheer number of folk musical instruments questions these assumptions. It is a testament to the fact that their lives must have been rich and vibrant with music, dance, and togetherness. Life must have been nothing but a grand celebration (and without the stress of modernity). Think of the ingenious minds and adroit hands that devised them! Think of the numerous musical virtuosos whose art we will never behold! Who knows, Nepal might have had someone more inventive than Beethoven and more prolific than Mozart? We will never know. That is the most troubling fact about this whole affair. We will never know! The world will never know! And programs like Jamarko are efforts to fight this ignorance of our own heritage in music.

Some of the instruments played in the show were dha baja, khein, flute, madal, jhyali, tah, muyali, and sarangi. Dha baja traces its roots to Buddha, which is more than twenty-five hundred years ago. It is fabled to be the favorite instrument of Siddhartha Gautama. And, according to the myths, the Shakyas of Lumbini brought this instrument to Kathmandu when they migrated here. The allure of dha baja is quite evident. It delivers boisterous beats exuding vigorous energy and commanding absolute attention. Every strike of tah (smaller version of cymbals) contrasts dha, as it produces a shrill sound and breaks the monotony of performances, thus making them all the more dynamic. As the muyali (an instrument which resembles a trumpet) was played, it reminded me of wedding processions. The sound of jhali reverberated off the walls and added a unique dimension to the musical piece. But, even among all these, the sarangi (a Nepali instrument resembling violin) stood out. A deluge of emotions were pouring out of its strings. It neatly brought together the entire orchestra of traditional instruments.

Choba Dhimay Khala (a traditional Newari band) gave a powerful performance with dhimay (big drums carried on the chest). They played it indefatigably for fifteen minutes straight with incredible zeal. For someone as musically impaired as I am, the sound that comes out from drums is just noise. But, even I could appreciate the rhythm emitting from those dhimays; so impeccable was their performance. Dhimays are played mainly during jatras (Newari festivals), but I had never focused solely on its sound. They were not merely loud drum beats, but it actually carried a definitive rhythm and tune. It truly changed the way I saw that particular instrument; that so much melody could come from a set of drums. On top of that, the players were in their youth. They said they learnt to play out of respect for their culture, which was very inspiring. Another group, Dhintang Nepal, had young girls playing madals and dhimays. This group, in fact, provides free basic lessons to girls to prove that women can do it, too. They were using music as a tool for empowerment. Indeed, it is a very effective way to rekindle interests in new generations about our musical heritage. Moreover, the madal is unique to Nepal. No other country, not even India, has it. Unwittingly, these girls had become among the treasurers of the art of playing the madal (now that its use is following a downward spiral). They seemed confident with the instrument, and their piece was in no way amateurish.

Project Tungna had an endearing ensemble of father and son with their friends. The tungnas were handmade by the father. One of the tungnas was colorful and had carvings of a dragon’s head. He explained how the colors and other embellishments in his tungna had astrological significance. Tungna is used for the rhythm (sur) and dhamfu for beats (taal). It is primarily played by Tamang and Sherpa communities in the upper hilly and Himalayan regions. They played mangal dhun beautifully, followed by other festive tunes. The band Panchamrit used tabala,along with tungna and sarangi. They had just returned from a tour across Europe. If personalities were assigned to instruments, the tabala would be seen as somewhat shy. It produces subtle beats in the background, but it was certainly spewing magic with soothing and revitalizing scores, as the rain soaked listeners were refusing to leave their seats. The tabala proved itself to be the backbone of the performance. ATM (Asan Tebahal Maru) Trio also played nyakhein and danga. Danga is almost extinct, with only a handful of players left in the world. Interestingly, this band is the last surviving group to play dapha in the Wura (Buddhist Newars) community.

The most frequently played piece was the cho dhun, an apparently easy-to-play tune that is mostly played in festivals. At the event, Choba Dhimay Khala and ATM Trio played it remarkably. The only difference is that the former did it with dhimaya nd the latter with muyali, jhali and dha baja. The dyalhyawu (a devotional piece) was ritually played. Literally, it means ‘offering to god’ in Newari. They were remembering God and praying to Him through their music. In Hindu beliefs, artists get their talents from God. It is not they who possess their extraordinary abilities, but it is God who works through them. The origin of their prowess and inspiration is divine in nature. Some artists even believe the very process of creating their masterpieces is a form of prayer to the Almighty. Their art itself is an act of worship. They were devoting their music to Nateshwor, an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the god of drama. Dhintang Nepal, in fact, did dyalhyawu three times, each time with a different instrument. To ponder upon it, this is not surprising. In the old days, bhajans (a series of devotional songs) was pervasive. Most adults in the evening (without television or even electricity) gathered in a pati (communal space) and do bhajan. It was their way of showing their gratitude towards god, and of course, an opportunity for socializing. If you think about it carefully, they were not playing for money or fame, they did it purely out of the joy they received from pursuing their art.
The instrumentals being played just stole the audience’s hearts away. ‘Rajamati’, ‘Dyayata Shina Shwa’, ‘Tungna Ko Dhun Ma’, ‘Shirshaya Heku’, and many more thoroughly entertained us. In particular, Pachamrit’s sarangi player, Manish Gandarva, delighted us with many popular numbers, such as ‘Sindhuli Gadi’, ‘Resham Firiri’, ‘Pahilo Bhetma’, ‘Wochu Gali Thochu Gali’, ‘Damfu Ko Taalai Ma’ and others. He was very expressive through his sarangi. The band, Miku (abbreviation for Mitho Kura), mixed instrumentals with touching poetry. ‘Ke Badal Sunawla Hunchan’ talked about the limits of human aspirations. The voice of Pushpa Palanchoke, the poetess, was sweet and pleasing to the ears. They also had some fusion going on with Western instruments such as guitars and drums. They performed a jolly tune on Holithat almost made me dance.
Jamarko, although its motto was ‘a little step’, in reality, has proven to be a game-changer. It not only showcases our ancient instruments, but also provides a platform to emerging artists who show ardent interest in them. In an age where people are switching the sarangi for violin, tungna for guitars, and tabala for drums, the relevance of events such as this magnifies manifold. It is a reminder to us of the many brilliant instruments our ancestors had come up with. Discarding them for Western ones would be nothing less than a colossal act of foolishness on our part. Let’s not sweep away our past achievements under the rug. All that’s needed is a great revival, which can be attained through publicity. Let’s make the madal trendy. It’s all a matter of perspective. Allow yourself to be enchanted by the magic from our past by attending such events. You will end up discovering all these wonderful, new things, and leave feeling proud that you are a part of a glorious legacy. But, most importantly, do it because it’s loads of fun.