Preserving Music, Conserving Identity

Features Issue 114 Apr, 2011
Text by Anubhuti Poudel / Photo: ECS Media

The Music Museum of Nepal has been working for more than a decade in retrieving, conserving and then archiving the cultural and ethnic musical instruments of Nepal with the hope of preserving them for the future generation.

Tin tare Sarangi (Three stringed Sarangi)

By The trolley bus stand at Tripureshwor might not have much use these days after the service stopped, but a yellow board nearby atop a wooden, traditional building does have its significance. Music Museum of Nepal was established in 1995 A.D by Ram Prasad Kandel as a tribute to his Guru Swami A dananda Saraswati. It was a mere collection of musical instruments from different cultures throughout Nepal before it was registered as a museum in 1997 A.D.

“I am not a musician, nor do I sing. I do not know why I promised my guru to work in the field of conservation of musical instruments of Nepal, but I did. And I have spent the last 15 years building this museum,” shared Kandel. A committee runs the museum and provides monetary assistance to take care of the museum’s expenses. Fifty-six members from diverse cultural backgrounds work here. Some of them have no knowledge at all about music at all. However, all of them have one thing in common - an ardent desire to work on retrieving and conserving cultural and ethnic musical instruments of Nepal.

Nepal as a home to instruments
The members of the Music Museum of Nepal make it a point to visit places all over Nepal in search of musical instruments. One might regard the process simple, but in truth, it requires intensive knowledge of the culture, geography and history of the places they visit. “So far, we have travelled to 45 districts and have come across 602 musical instruments. I am pretty sure there are more than 1000 instruments in Nepal,” shares Kandel. Nepal is known for its diversity in culture and castes and there are different instruments for different occasions belonging to a single caste or culture. One can imagine the diversity and number of instruments from around the country.

The premises of the museum provide a journey through the history of the many ethnic communities of Nepal.

The process of collecting the instruments requires extensive knowledge about the community. Some of these instruments are hundreds of years old and hold great significance in the lives of people of the community. To them, these instruments are a way of life, an integral part of themselves. Many of their stories revolve around these instruments and the instruments do not just speak about the present. “If people find many Sankhas in a particular place during excavation then the place must have been under Vaishnavs. Musical instruments can tell us about the history of the place and vice versa,” says Kandel. He adds, “The search cannot be confined to a single place, it has to be diverse. Some instruments are used hundreds of kilometers apart in two different places by different groups of people. Music is not something you can concentrate in a certain area. The search for musical instruments is a tedious process and requires patient experts.”

Rich Culture, Rich music
Today Music Museum of Nepal is home to 350 different musical instruments. The wooden building holds within itself cultures and castes representing Nepal from a micro level. The instruments include popular ones like the Sarangi and the Vina with some rare ones like the Piwachha - a Newari instrument from Kathmandu, which is in the state of extinction, because people do not play it anymore. Jor Basuri, from the Sunuwar caste of eastern Nepal and the Tin Taare Sarangi from the Terai are some of the other instruments. The instruments are categorized into nine groups based on how they are played and on their appearance. Some have strings, some are hollow and some need fingers while others simply need sticks to produce sound.


Different occasions see the instruments being played. While Tharu men use a particular instrument to coax women into marrying them, traditional healers have instruments they use to heal ailments or perform rituals as common as marriage and as random as stopping hailstones. Music is truly and rightfully, used for different occasions across Nepal for purposes that are sometimes common and at times extraordinary. Murchunga, Nyahung, Bhokkar and Ghando are some other popular instruments in the museum. For those who have some knowledge on music, the museum can be extremely entertaining and for those who do not know about Nepali music, the experience is enlightening. Along with a variety of instruments, the place provides a collection of unique instruments too. There is the largest sarangi - a 7 foot 3 inch-structure and also the smallest one at 7 inches. Both structures are the largest and the smallest sarangi that can be played.

Reality strikes
While music can be entertaining, the process of working on retrieving musical instruments and archiving them can be challenging. Ram Prashad Kandel and his friends have worked right from collecting and building the musical instruments to establishing the museum, without any significant support from outside the committee. “We have tried getting support from the government and international agencies. However, we are not musicians, ethnomusicologists or recognized public figures. Therefore, it is probably difficult for agencies to trust us. We work with donations from committee members. We contribute and then work on preserving the musical instruments. We initiate a program and then work to complete it. The thing is, when you initiate something good, somehow it ends well. So far, we have had our hiccups but somehow our programs have been successful,” shares Kandel.


Music and Tourism
People call music a global language. It is the heart of any song too. Kandel shares his experience about a performance in Liverpool where Nepalese musicians had participated. In one of the performances by popular Nepali Madal player Prem Dev Joshi, the audience was moved to tears. He was surrounded by people and appreciated for his music. This somehow proves the fact that music is not something that recognizes boundaries. Music Museum of Nepal is not just preserving Nepalese music and culture, but is also working on creating an identity for Nepalese music. “Music is a huge industry in the world today. Our youngsters are more attracted towards saxophones and guitars rather than our traditional instruments. I belive that  if people were to work diligently, there are better prospects of success with traditional instruments. What is the point in standing behind ten guitar players and playing when you can stand ahead of three Sarangi players and be appreciated?” asks Kandel.

The incident in Liverpool supports his claim. Music is universal. Traditional music is rare and therefore has greater chances of being appreciated.Tourists visit Nepal for its diversity, be it geographical or cultural. If we can promote our music, then along the way, we would be more appreciated for what we have to offer. The diversity in music in Nepal is immense but much needs to be done before it spreads across the globe representing Nepal as Mount Everest does.

Jor Murali

In addition to collecting and preserving the instruments, Music Museum of Nepal gives lessons to the interested students on playing these instruments. While there are many youngsters today interested in guitar and violin lessons, the number of those interested in Panche Baaja or Murchunga is sadly low. However, the organization proudly instructs these students and hopes that someday they will represent Nepalese music in the international arena.

“We do not study our culture. We do not keep records. Music is not something that is physical for it to remain with us forever. It needs to be protected and preserved. Our musical instruments aren’t being played because slowly people have forgotten their importance and are moving towards other cultures. If this continues, we will surely have nothing left; no music, no instruments” says Kandel. While the museum is the largest collection of traditional musical instruments of Nepal, it the government has not recognized it as a national treasure. Except some students and a few musical enthusiasts, most do not even recognize it as a national heritage. However, the place has a lot to offer. It could provide immense knowledge on the culture of Nepal. It presents unique musical instruments spread wide and far from Kathmandu and throughout Nepal. It could provide lessons to those interested in traditional music. For those who do not fall under any of these categories, it could provide knowledge on music and of music, everyone’s a fan.