Of the numerous traditional instruments played by the many communities of Nepal, the melodies of the sarangi are the most ubiquitous. The story behind the instrument’s wide reach is inextricably tied to the history of the Nepali state. When Prithivi Narayan Shah set out from Gorkha to conquer the kingdoms surrounding his, eventually giving shape to the nation-state of Nepal about as it stands today, the sarangi and its musicians became the media wing of his war strategy. With each victory, the Gandharva musicians composed narrative tales of the battles and praised the king to his new subjects, travelling to the far corners of the land. After they ceased to be crucial to the ambitions of the kings, Gandharva musicians continued to move from village to village, functioning as sources of both information and entertainment.
Inevitably, the travelling Gandharva musician is today well on his way to being confined to the realms of history. But his sarangi remains a living force, constantly heard on radio stations, TV channels and CDs, be it as traditional lok geet, in popular songs or in the score of TV serials. The truth is that the sarangi – because of its initial patronage by the court and its subsequent geographical spread – enjoys a disproportionate amount of air time as compared to the other instruments of Nepal. (The patronage did not, however, result in significant benefits for the musicians, their families and the community at large, with the Gandharva falling within the so-call ‘untouchable’ caste.)
Popular though the sarangi is, the instrument is essentially used to render popular/film music and a limited number of well know traditional tunes. In this, the established Gandharva repertoire, an entirely oral tradition, is being lost with the younger general of musicians largely playing mainstream commercial music to make a living. On the other end of the spectrum, considering the economic and social compulsions within the community, little space is available for experimentation both in the making of the instrument and the music itself. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this, as will be explored in the course of the next few posts.
Over the next year, the Hri Institute’s team of researchers will travel to five locations within Nepal, speaking with and recording Gandharva musicians; learning about the sarangi; and documenting both traditional styles/tunes that are rapidly being lost as well as experimental and innovative efforts by the community. We hope you will travel with us at this blog and at www.hrisouthasian.org
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