Barta Gandharba creates a new identity, and a new life, with her sarangi.

As we walk back from Siddhakali Mandir, near Bhojpur Bajaar, Barta Gandharba tells me how
she remembers performing in the small town. She points at a corner and tells me how she once
sat down on the steps right outside the electronic store with her mother and crooned Purbeli folk
songs for the passersby. The sarangi player has come a long way since then. She is now an
established music artist and an educator, but things haven’t always been this way. The first
woman sarangi player in the town, Gandharba has journeyed a long steep path to reach where
she is now.

“I think I was seven when I first held a sarangi. I’d never touched it before but it was a matter of
a few months until I learned to bow a few tunes and sing to it. I had to,” says Gandharba whose
journey as a Gaine started after her father, Damber Bahadur Gandarbha—a well-regarded
sarangi player—left the family to travel to Sikkim. His departure left his wife with the
responsibility of fending for the family on her own and she had to make the choice of getting her
daughter a sarangi so that they could go around busking.

For four years, the mother-daughter duo frequently left their secluded village of Mangding,
Bhojpur—days at a time—to make rounds of the neighbouring villages and even walked as far
as the towns and villages of Hile and Dhankuta. Their accompaniment was a 250-rupee sarangi
that Ghandarba would master with every new place they visited.

Unlike how most artist stories go, Gandharba didn’t pick up her instrument out of passion but
out of necessity. “At times, I just wouldn’t be able to bring myself to sing. I was very young and it
would kill me to be walking around villages the entire day, performing and carrying a heavy load
of food material around with me,” she says. These days, though, she is at home playing and
singing. And it’s when she sings one of her more somber songs—Hey Meri Aamaa, for
example—that memories of days passed manifest into emotions and seep out of both her voice
and her lyrics.

During our walk to Mangding, Gandharba halts for a moment in front of a Banyan tree. “I
remember mother and I cooking our meals in the shade there on so many instances. We’d be
given rice and grains after performances and we’d sit there to cook and eat,” she says. For
centuries men from Gandharba communities in Nepal have lived as nomadic musicians who
sang of kings and commoners and of love and despair, from lands far and wide. Their audience
remunerated them with food. Barta Gandharba stands out as the first woman to travel as a
Gaine, as traditional musicians are called. Traditionally, only men were entitled to the profession
and Gandharba says this was probably because the work requires one to travel extensively,
which is not something permitted for a woman in Nepali society.
“You don’t always meet good people when you’re out in the world. And there would always be
people who objected. Some would say that I was doing wrong by not sending my daughter to
school. That was easy for them to say, but what my children needed then was to eat. I had to
keep them alive,” says Gandharba’s mother. “My daughter would be scared when people
crowded around her and would ask me to sit beside her when she played. At the end of the day,
I’d make her carry kilos of rice. She’d stop midway and start crying. It was difficult, but we did
what we had to do.”

Gandharba’s mother says it hurts her to listen to her daughter sing, even today. But she’s glad
that she is doing well for herself. She now resides in Kathmandu and is involved in all things
music, from recording and performing to teaching. The artist’s life took a turn for the better when
she met with human rights activist, Gopal Siwakoti Chintan, who helped her travel to
Kathmandu to complete her studies. With the recommendation of Photo Circle founders
Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati and Bhushan Shilpakar, Gandharba was awarded a study
scholarship in Nepal Music School where she is now involved as a teacher. And in the past few
years she has accomplished several feats, from performing with popular folk ensemble
Kutumba, being featured in national TV programmes to traveling to Norway as an exchange
music instructor.

Unfortunately, Gandharba is one among the very few from Mangding who have continued the
tradition of singing to the sarangi. Although the age-old tradition is still in practice in most areas
of western Nepal—and in some areas of the East, like Jhapa—in Gandharba’s home-village,
there are hardly any Gaines left. A major reason for this is the stigma that is attached with the

“The children in our village do not want to pick up the sarangi. They are ashamed of the history
that it carries,” says Gandharba. Traveling as a Gaine has, through the years, been branded as
a lowly profession that is practiced by the ‘lower caste’. In several instances it has been deemed
as a form of begging, so the young in the village do not want to learn the art. Another reason for
the decline in practice is due to labour migration. As we walk around Gandharba’s village,

conversing with its inhabitants, we hardly find any active Gaines. Some artists like Tejendra
Gandharba are still at it, but his case is exceptional and his purpose different, as he is involved
with the Safer Migration Project and travels to different villages in the area singing songs about
labour migration awareness.

“I wish the young in my village would continue playing the sarangi and singing. I made a life out
of it and I’m sure many others can, too. I see young women and men wanting to learn the art in
Kathmandu, and it gives me hope,” says Gandharba who now wants to use this budding interest
in the cities to inspire youngsters back home—to make them realise that it is a respectable art
form and not something to be shunned. Her plan is to find ways to organise workshops and
classes, on sarangi and the Gandharba tradition, for the youth in Mangding. She says the act of
traveling as a Gaine is still a viable source of income, as well. “When I go home, I see the young
doing nothing and it pains me. If they’d just pick up a sarangi and start learning, they’ll most
definitely find a way out. Besides, the tradition is a treasure and there’s nothing at all to be
ashamed of.”

Published in The Kathmandu Post on ​April 7, 2018