Stephanie A. Spray is in her final year in a master’s program in Harvard Divinity School. She is a graduate of Smith College where she received highest honors in the Department of Religion. She spent a year in 2001-02 in Nepal with a Fulbright Scholarship studying the culture and music of the Gandharba of Nepal. There, she learned to play the Nepali folk drum, the madal, while accompanying them in song. She had previously studied tabla with Hom Nath Upadhyaya in 1999-2000 and again in 2001. She worked with the Gandharba this past summer and intends to continue with them after finishing her Masters. She hopes to bring some Gandharba to perform in the US.
In their traditional role, the Gandharbas (a.k.a. Gaine) are a caste of musicians who travel from village to village, house to house, singing and playing the Nepali sarangi (a Nepali folk fiddle). Prior to the advent and prevalence of radio in Nepal, they were the bringers of entertainment and news, even playing a significant role in spreading a national sensibility not long after the nation’s unification by Prithivi Narayan Shah. Due to their traditional role as itinerant musicians, many have compared them to minstrel singers of Western Europe. Their identity is complicated by their position outside of the caste system, as untouchables. With the lessoning demand for the Gandharba’s music, their role is increasingly ambivalent. They are welcomed by some, but seen as nuisances to others. Some merely view them as beggars or talentless street peddlers.
Gandharba are not exactly an ethnic group; they are an occupational caste found across Nepal, even into Sikkim and Bhutan. According to the Muluki Ain of 1854, they are untouchables, lower than the Damai, yet higher than the Badi. According to a 2001 government census, today there are an estimated 5,000-some Gandharba in Nepal, although many say their number is double that. As far Stephanie knows, only Gandharba men travel and perform. Traditionally, Gandharba travel village to village, house to house, performing in groups or as individuals, with the hope for payment in rice, lentils, or rupees from their hosts. They are known for their instrument the sarangi, which they make, and their repertoire of songs, which map out fields of Nepali geography and experience.
Although the caste system was legally banned in 1963, it continues. In cities, many Gandharba exist with a degree of anonymity, yet they continue to bear the burden of generations of missed opportunity and struggle. Although there are many examples of their experience as untouchables, one Gandharba of Tanahun gave one example of discrimination from his own family. Although his father had a brief opportunity to attend school, he was forced to sit at the back of the classroom on the floor, lest he defile the benches, which were reserved for upper class children. When a schoolmaster sought to mete out punishment to children, he would instruct other Gandharba to beat him, so that the teacher need not touch the child. Later, when he was a child in school, although the system of Gandharba’s beating other Gandharba was no longer in place, he was often not allowed to drink from the water jugs set aside for children. Although everyone drank with the jug held above the mouth, to prevent the lips from touching the jug and defiling the water, Gandharba were prohibited from using the jugs. He explained that this created a lot of anger and frustration for him as a boy. He expressed relief that his own children mix freely with the other caste children in school. He opined that caste distinction is beginning to recede, even in village Nepal. In its place, abject poverty persists.
As a reaction to generations of stigma related to their “begging” occupation, many Gandharba seek other avenues of work. For varied political and social reasons, many Gandharba choose to abandon the name “Gaine.” Many have changed their caste name to Gandharba or Ghandari, while some have chosen the ambiguous name Nepali, such as the well-known performer Ram Sharan Nepali. Although there are varied opinions within the Gandharba about the name Gaine, in many Gandharba’s experience, it is a degrading name. Following the suggestion of Radio Nepal personality Dharma Thapa in 1963, many have changed their names to Gandharba, from the musical creatures found in the in the Vedas and Puranas, as well as their own folklore. In this new chosen name, they are placing themselves and their music in a dignified, divine realm, which contrasts sharply with their struggle.
The story of their origin
Nepal’s Gandharba have accounts of the origin of their caste occupation. Although there are many variations of the first Gandharba story, many begin with the creation of the universe. Not long after Brahma forms the worlds, he expels wax from his ear and snot from his nose, from with two demons arise, Madhu and Kaitab. As they wreak havoc across the cosmos, Shiva creates the fierce goddess Kali to destroy them. She succeeds, saving the universe from their fury. In celebration of this event, the gods gather the fallen body parts, using them as instruments. One such instrument was the Gandharba arbaj, a lute-like instrument, said to be the predecessor of the Nepali sarangi. The gods also began a large, boisterous feast, dancing and singing. Meanwhile, the Gandharba sage, also created by Brahma, had been performing austerities for 12 years.
So according to the story, the first Gandharba was a powerful sage, not an outcaste. After performing twelve years of yogic austerities (tapas), the gods begin to worry that his awesome power will ignite universe. To prevent calamity, they decide to distract him. They choose to dance and sing noisily, until finally Gandharba awakens. At that moment, his eyes fall upon Ganika, a dancing apsara, and, unbeknownst to him, he impregnates her. According to the story, after twelve years of austerities he is extremely hungry and asks for food. The gods scourge their banquet for food, but only leftovers remain, which they collect and feed to Gandharba. Upon eating the leftovers, or jutho (polluted food), his power diminishes.
Meanwhile the apasaras, including Ganika, dance in front of Vishnu. Vishnu becomes offended by her display, cursing then revealing her pregnancy to the banquet quests. When the gods ask who the father is, Laxmi reveals Gandharba as the guilty party. The couple is imprisoned for their illegitimate relationship. Ten months later, Ganika gives birth to their son while in the prison. Bramha tells them that since they have only been eating leftover, polluted food for the duration of their imprisonment, their son should be named Udarmukh Gandharba. He then tells them they are to live as outcastes, traveling and playing music. As they travel, “village to village, house to house” they must “make sad people laugh, and make laughing people cry by singing.”
The story is one crystallization of many versions of what I call their “origin story.” It is useful in understanding how the Gandharba think of their position as heaven’s fallen celestial musicians.
The Music of Gandharbas
The best of the Gandharba are masters of song and improvisation. An individual Gandharba’s level of skill is, like all musicians, defined by the music he creates and/or the style of his performance. Some are proficient in a number of instruments and genres of song, while some are disinterested in the art. Although Gandharba inherit their caste professions from their fathers, not all choose or can continue the art. Although the term lok git (folk song) is a confused term encompassing mish-mash of music in modern Nepal, many Gandharba classify their music as such. One Gandharba from the G.C.A.O. explained this term, saying Gandharba lok git are songs of joy, love, and the sadness of everyday people. Regarding the different categories found within the Gandharba repertoire, some examples are kharka songs – epic songs about gods, public figures, or soldiers; ghatana songs – describing local events, often with social or moral commentary; and mangal songs – auspicious songs, often relating stories of the gods.
Musical instruments of Gandharba
Sarangi: The sarangi is the primary instrument played by the Gandharba. It is a wooden fiddle with no fixed size, played upright. Since sarangis are generally produced at all stages by hand, each is unique. Generally, a good, average-sized sarangi may sell on the streets of Kathmandu anywhere from 1,800 to 3,000 rupees depending on the craftsmanship and the dukha, or toil, that was invested in the piece. Although not always fair, the price is often simply a negotiation between the dire need of the musician and the will of the buyer. The strings for the sarangi were traditionally made from the prepared intestines of goats or other animals, although many Gandharba are using a variety of resources, from metal wire to badminton strings. These changes have affected not only the sound of the sarangi, but the pitch of singing as well. Sarangi designs are also changing to appeal to potential customers as well. To appeal to buyers who may never play the instrument, they may be carved with various degrees of intricacy, with designs of the Buddha, Ganesh, flowers, or Garudas. Nepali sarangis are different from their Indian cousin.
Arbaj: The Gandharba claim that their sarangi is an adaptation of the arbaj, a four stringed lute. It may be strummed with the fingers, a grain or rice, or plucked with a wooden pick. The number of men who can play arbaj is estimated by the Gandharba to be very low, somewhere from 5-10.
Other instruments: Gandharba have incorporated the Nepali folk drum, the madal, into their music. Although the madal is not made by their caste, but by the Badi caste, this drum is ubiquitous throughout Nepal and many Gandharba are proficient players. Even if they cannot play, the Gandharba have incorporated the rhythms of the madal into their songs. Some Gandharba also play the mouth harp and the bansuri (bamboo flute).
Many Gandharba describe themselves as self-taught. Nonetheless, their entire community is involved in a process of performance and critique. Although there is no fixed system of teaching, hence a variety or playing styles and techniques, Gandharba are critically engaged in evaluating other Gandharba musicians.
"Music is our life!"
Recently, many Gandharba in the past decade or so have shifted the emphasis of their profession from performance associated to "begging" to doing "business.” What they mean by “business” generally means marketing their art, especially their instruments, to tourists. Due to the fickleness of the tourism sector and the challenges faced by war-torn Nepal in recent years, these days they rarely find buyers. Faced with few options to earn money, some look for other work, and when they find none, they return to the road performing for rice or lentils.
On the advice of one Peace Corps worker, a group of Gandharba began a government registered N.G.O. in Kathmandu called the Gandharba Culture and Art Organization (G.C.A.O.). The organization acts as a support for over 150 Gandharba from all over Nepal, when they do “business” in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Their office is not just a place to hang their sarangis, but also a performance and meeting space open to Gandharba across Nepal. Their door remains open to the curious visitor, Nepali or foreigner. Stephanie and a group of interested Nepalis and Americans are currently working with G.C.A.O. to organize a group of Gandharba for performances in the United States.
The Gandharbas are a treasure of oral history and literature, little recognized in Nepal or abroad. Although their songs are unique to Nepal, the appeal of their sound and spirit cross caste and nation boundaries. Although a few of them have to earned fame and success, generally the Gandharba struggle to sustain their families and maintain their traditional identity, which is found in most evidently in their music.
Q. Have any Gandharba come into mainstream Nepali music scene?
A. There have been a few such as Jhalak Man Gandharba (who sang Amaile sodhlin ni) and Ram Saran Nepali who obtained jobs in Radio Nepal. Some, such as Shyam Nepali, play sarangi for Nepali films, but few have made it playing traditional Gandharba songs. They perhaps need more marketing to appeal to the mainstream.
Q. Why do you want to bring the Gandharba to the US?
A. The primary purpose is to expose Gandharba music to foreign ears, to find a larger audience for their music. I think many selections of their music have the potential to appeal to not only specialists in Nepali or South Asian music, but to others as well. Some foreign listeners have compared their music to Irish or American folk, while some songs seemed like a Nepali rendition of blues. In a shrinking world connected by advanced transportation, the Gandharba could continue their traditional occupation traversing beyond local villages, crossing cultural and trans-national boundaries.
Q. How closely is Gandharba music and the Gandharba coupled? Would it make more sense to view Gandharba music in a more general sense as Nepali music and promote it with that emphasis?
A. They are intertwined. Although many Nepalis of other castes can play the sarangi and sing some form of lok git and although there may be different approaches to promote their music, I do not think it is possible to separate Gandharba music from the cultural and social context of Gandharba experience. If marketed as the music of Nepal, it is inseparable from a Gandharba context.
Q. What do you think of suggestions to adapt their music, perhaps into some kind of fusion, or adding more instruments to be able to sell more?
A. They have already incorporated instruments such as madal and bansuri. Many now are familiar with jhyaaure and khyale lok git, in which they are creating news songs. I am hesitant to encourage fusion into modern pop or, as one person suggested, dance music. I think this would rob Gandharba music of some of its particular texture and expression, which is what creates its appeal in the first place. The goal is not to water it down, but to highlight the indigenous aspects that give their songs life.
Q. How does one appreciate the Gandharba music? Aren't the lyrics important? How would a Western audience absorb its full flavor?
A. The lyrics are arguably equally as important as the melody or rhythm. Of course, both are intertwined in one moment, which created a problem for people who cannot understand the lyrics. Explaining the context for the music to a foreign audience is a major problem, but not insurmountable. It would take creative strategy to present the music.
Q. Who writes the music? Is it improvised?
A. Of course, like all music, theirs is composed a number of ways—in groups or as individuals. Some, like Khim Bahadur, keep notebooks of their own compositions, while others improvise freely within older songs. Depending on the musician’s mood and/or skill and the audience, one song may be performed in many ways. I was recently horrified by a recent book published in Nepal on the Gandharba, which presents their songs as fixed compositions. Some Gandharba I know were also very upset, since it falsely represented their songs as set pieces. Although songs may be composed in groups or as individuals, each musician has the opportunity to make it his own through performance. To present a song as a fixed track gives a false impression, for it misses the vitality or fluidity of music. But this problem is not unique to the Gandharba, but to any musician who sees his or her music as more fluid and creative than studio sound.