Moon, Memories and Music

Features Issue 40 Aug, 2010
Text by Sanjeev Upreti / Photo: Naresh Shrestha

The Full Moon Concert at Kirateshwar
The sound of a harmonium and tabla greeted me as I parked my vehicle by the side of the Bagmati River and ascended the stone staircase leading up to Kirateshwar, the temple of Lord Shiva at Pashupatinath. It was 26th December, 2004, a full moon evening. The silver sheen of the moon upon the waters of Bagmati and the surrounding green forest gave rise to feelings of wonder and peaceful harmony. As I reached the temple I found that a session of devotional songs was already in progress. In the courtyard inside the temple complex, young musicians were singing bhakti (devotional songs) to praise Shiva and other Gods. The inner courtyard was already packed with people: expatriates, visitors to Nepal, local musicians and music lovers were rubbing shoulders as they listened to music while trying to get a glimpse of the silver moon ascending through the sky.

As the evening progressed, bhakti music was succeeded by the main course of the event: performances by some of the well known classical musicians of Nepal. Prabhu Raj Dhakal, the son of the celebrated vocalist Nava Raj Dhakal, and now a well established classical singer of Nepal himself, sang raga Marubihag. He was followed by Atul Gautam playing solo tabla in trital. There was complete silence as people gazed at the moon and listened to this creative

genius of Nepal, who was also a member of the celebrated classical band called Sukarma. The other members of the band are sarangi player Shyam Nepali and sitarist Dr. Dhruvesh Regmi. Many people in the audience said that this was perhaps one of his best performances ever. Little did we know that Atul would no longer be with us during next month’s full moon performance, and that January’s full moon concert would be devoted to commemorate the memories of this talented artist who died on 16th January, 2005.

In the outer courtyard of the temple the regulars visitors to the monthly concert were milling around, talking to each other, ordering tea and papad at the improvised tea stall, discussing the latest happenings in the music scenario of Nepal as they listened to the swelling notes of Atul’s tabla. Many of the regulars have been coming to these open air full moon concerts since 1992, the year it all started. “Kirateshwar was a place where people used to gather and smoke pot in the 80s,” Krishna Prasad Ghimire, former president and one of the founders of Kirateshwar Sangeetik Sadan (Kirateshwar music academy) explained to me, “In the last twelve years it has turned into a space of spiritualism and music.”

He went on to explain to me the genesis of the academy. During a Shivaratri or Lord Shiva’s Night in the 1980s, Krishna Prasad Ghimire was walking around the Pashupati area with his friends Madan Dev Bhatta, Rattu Lama and Vinod Lohani. The time was around midnight and the entire area was humming with the chants of ascetics and the devotees of Shiva. The four friends wanted to sit down and listen to a session of classical Nepali music for a few hours. Unfortunately there was no place around Pashupati where their desire could be fulfilled. As they were about to return, they were told that princess Preksha Shah, who was still around the temple, wanted to listen to some music. Soon a harmonium and an ancient looking tabla were found and the four friends sang spiritual songs before the royal princess for a couple of hours before calling it a night. It was only the next day that they found out that the princess had rewarded them NRs.1000/- for their labor. It is with the help of this money that they established the music academy and organized its first full moon concert in May 1992.

Since its inception a number of celebrated Nepali and international musicians have displayed their skills at Kirateshwar. Two foreign artists, German Dr.G.M.Wagner and American Daniel Birch, who have been living in Nepal for a long time, have delighted the Kirateshwar audiences with their mastery on the tabla and sarod respectively. The list of other international artists who have performed at the temple of Shiva include Spanish flute player Carlos Gira, guitarist Baldo Night of Australia, and the Japanese singers of devotional music such as Manami Yagasiro and Tokoko Nakamura. To this list could be added the names of Indian musicians such as Patwardhan Brahmachari, the famous sitar player Pundit Umashankar Mishra and the violinist Chintamani Rath. In addition, most of the established Nepali musicians, including the old maestros like Shambhu Mishra, Sambha Dev, Mohan Prasad Joshi and Mohan Sunder Shrestha, and the well established contemporary musicians such as sitarist Uma Thapa and sarod player Suresh Raj Bajracharya, have played at Kirateshwar at one time or the other.

The best part about the monthly Kirateshwar concert is that it is completely free. Sarita Mishra, celebrated by the media as the first female tabla player of Nepal (she prefers to be known simply as a tabla player) and the executive secretary of the Kirateshwar academy since the last four years, speaks of the financial challenge faced by the academy to keep its concerts free and open to all over the last thirteen years. “While the academy is supported by the life membership fees paid by its members, and by a monthly donation of NRs. 2000/- from Pashupati Development Fund, it has been difficult to begin new creative ventures at Kirateshwar due to lack of funds,” says Sarita, “Despite the financial problems, however, love and concern of the musicians and the music lovers has kept the academy alive for more than a decade.”

Kirateshwar is mired in mythology and legends. It is said that it was
here that Lord Shiva assumed his Kirateshwar avatar and took the appearance of the Kirats or the hill people of Nepal. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is associated with music and it is popularly believed that Shiva created the initial five ragas of the classical music, while the sixth basic raga was created by his consort, the goddess Parvati. It is said that all the ragas that came into existence later were derived from these initial six ragas. According to legend, it is at Kirateshwar that Shiva once also dwelled in the form of a gazelle and that his famous duel with Arjun, one of the Pandava brothers and heroes of the epic Mahabharata, happened at this very place. By turning the temple of Shiva into a house of music, the founders had fused spiritualism with art, and mythology with musical performances that are going a long way in helping the tradition of classical music grow further in Nepal.

Krishna Ghimire described in some detail, one of his most insistent memories associated with Kirateshwar. “Dr. Dhruvesh Regmi and Atul Gautam were playing together during a Shivaratri concert at Kirateshwar,” he told me, “They played a half bit of aalap together on sitar and tabla respectively before beginning to fix the tones of their respective instruments. The mike was switched off but so powerful and vibrant was their performance that no one in the audience noticed that the mike was off till the very end of their duet. Everyone was totally caught up in the magic of the moment. It was as if some life sustaining cosmic vibration had enveloped the hilltop. Everyone sat enthralled during the performance, and felt fresh and full of vitality for hours after it ended.

As we sipped tea at the outer courtyard and listened to the rising and falling notes of Atul’s tabla, Sarita explained to me that apart from organizing monthly concerts, Kirateshwar academy holds an annual music competition for children every Magh Purnima (full moon that falls in the month of Jan/ Feb). A number of children artists who first acquired public recognition through these competitions are now established musicians of Nepal in their own right. The list includes tabla players such as Naveen Shrestha, Milesh Tandukar, and Sanskriti Shrestha, sitarist Saban Joshi, flute players Manoj Singh and Umesh Pundit, and the violinist Milen Tandukar.

Vijay K. Singh, a lawyer who is one of the regular visitors of the monthly concert, is of the opinion that much more could be done at Kirateshwar with some support from the government or non-governmental sector. “There is a need to establish a music library and research center atop the hill,” he says, “With proper funding, Kirateshwar can be transformed into a center of study and research in addition to being a center for performing music. It can be a center that will attract musicians, music lovers, scholars, artists, intellectuals and writers. By bringing spiritualism and music together it can promote a specific form of lifestyle.” For the music lovers like Vijay K. Singh, the monthly full moon concerts are already very much part of their lives. “I feel something important is missing in my life, if I cannot come to this place during some full moon evening,” he said. “How many full moons do we consciously watch in our lives? I had forgotten the joys of moon watching till I began coming to these concerts. After I began coming to Kirateshwar, however, I always mark the full moon evening in my diary. I mark the evening as my date with both moon and music,” he added.

My conversations with Sarita Mishra, Krishna Ghimire and Vijay K. Singh happened during the full moon concert in the month of December. Since then we have suffered a profound loss. We lost a great musician when Atul Gautam, one of the inspirations behind the Kirateshwar concerts, succumbed to a ruptured tumor in his brain. Atul had played tabla in the first full moon concert of 1992 when he was only twenty. The memories of this gentle soft spoken man and talented tabla player haunted us all as we listened to the recent concert on 25th January. The evening was devoted to the memories of Atul. The young flute players Umesh Pundit and Durga Khatiwoda played melancholic notes on their instruments to recreate the memories of the person who had inspired their own musical journey.  As the notes of a flute wafted through the cold winter air, we talked about Atul’s passion for tabla, about unexpected turns and unseen catastrophes of life, and about our own good luck in getting to see yet another full moon and to attend yet another concert at Kirateshwar. The notes of the flute and tabla, mixing into the mellow silver light upon the green forests of Pashupati hills, created a moment of reaffirmation for us even as such a reaffirmation was also a moment of mourning and separation.