Shyam Tamot is a living legend. The progressive singer, lyricist and music composer, who hails from Bhojpur, Nepal, is one among the most revered artists of our time. His song Gaun Gaun Bata Utha—sung by Ramesh and Ralfa—was the most popular song during the 1990 revolution in Nepal and is recognised as the unofficial anthem of the movement. The song has been translated into 18 languages including Tamang, Nepal Bhasa, Rai, Limbu, Jirel, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Hindi, French and Chinese.
Mr. Tamot’s song anthology Gaun Gaun Bata Utha was published in 2001. The writer has written more than 300 songs till date and more than 50 of them have been recorded. The artist also has a Nepal Bhasa music album to his name and is working on releasing another album, this time in Nepali language. These days, he is involved with Saarthak Janasangit Pratisthan, an organisation that works to collect and archive politically progressive songs of Nepal.
Team Fuzzscape had the privilege of meeting with him during their visit to Bhojpur. This is a short conversation that we had with him about Bhojpur, its cultural heritage and his involvement with Ralfa.
00:34 Culture of Bhojpur: Conservation and Challenges
05:27 Importance of documenting intangible heritage and his contribution
07:08 Newars in Bhojpur
12:50 Cultural Music
16:52 Culture and External Influences
22:12 Influence of Western Music in Nepal: Then and Now
26:59 Ralfa: A beginning
34:54 Ralpha and reformation
40:34 Ralfa : New Paths
44:14 Ralfa: Political Involvement
48:07 Politics and Music
51:34 Universality of Music
CULTURE OF BHOJPUR: CONSERVATION AND CHALLENGES
Bhojpur is a culturally diverse district. Although Bhojpur is a district with the majority population of Rai-Kirants, other castes, namely Chettri, Brahmin, Tamang, Newar and others have lived here together; their cultures coexisting. But sadly, in recent days, the cultural heritages are disappearing; a problem not just this district, but the whole country is facing.
Before the 1990 revolution, the youth had a rather negative impression of their traditions and cultures. But after the country was declared a democratic state where different ethnicities and cultures thrive, people started to realise the importance of the conservation of heritage. And after the country was declared a republic (in 2006), people from different communities started to work actively to preserve culture and heritage. This, they have been doing by wearing cultural dresses, celebrating festivals with the community and by following ancient processes, by bringing into dialogue discourses about culture and making films in respective language and based on respective cultures. Many have been utilising social media to display cultural activities and—since the current government supports cultural and ethnic identity—a lot of cultural activities are promoted and documented by mass media. After the country was declared a republic, the government has been sanctioning budget for cultural preservation and promotion and communities have been working with related government bodies to conduct classes on language and culture. This way, communities have been actively working to conserve their cultural heritage.
Bhojpur is now in the need of a cultural museum. The communities have been in talks with the related government bodies and if a museum is established, it will become an asset for the district as it will contain important information about the area and its culture as well as can become an important visit site for tourists and all who wish to gain more information.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOCUMENTING INTANGIBLE HERITAGE AND HIS CONTRIBUTION
Unlike tangible cultural heritages which have a structure and survive for several years, intangible heritage keeps transforming. In order to show the younger generation culture and lifestyle of their ancestors, intangible cultural heritage should be documented.
I am involved with an organisation called Sarthak Janasangit Pratisthaan. The organisation works to archive and conserve politically progressive music which were created during different times in Nepali history. It has currently been working to create visuals for such music and has been broadcasting them via Youtube.
THE NEWARS OF BHOJPUR
The Newars currently living in bhojpur migrated from Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Kavre and Dolakha. While some of these communities of Newars still make use of Nepal Bhasa, others have stopped. Most of these communities still celebrate some of the cultural festivals celebrated in the Valley. Taksar, an area in the south of Bhojpur Town is inhabited by Shakyas and Tamrakars who migrated from Lalitpur. Since the members of the community still live together in a cluster of houses, they still speak Newar Bhasa and mark all the festivals that are still celebrated in Kathmandu Valley. Songs and musical practices are still surviving. In comparison to Taksar, Newars residing in the more rural areas of the district are less connected to their roots. Still, there has been a resurgence in cultural awareness and more and more Newars from the villages have now been trying to learn their mother tongue and have also been taking classes on language and culture.
In 1995 we founded an organisation called Nepal Bhasa Mankha Khala of which I was elected as the Founding President. The organisation started by creating language and culture courses and published several books on culture and the Newar culture system. Not so long ago, the celebration of Mha Puja—a Newar festival that marks the start of a new year in the Newar calendar—was limited to Taksar. But, realising its importance, Newars from around the district have started celebrating it now. The community has been working actively for culture conservation these days.
Although I was born in Taksar, because of my father’s business, I didn’t get the chance to grow up there. But since I have been visiting the place for some time now, I have been acquainted to the Dapha Bhajan group there. Although it is called a bhajan, different songs, including ones about love, are considered a part of it. As far as I am aware, even songs that are as old as 300 years, which were sung during the time of Siddhi Narsingha Malla, is still practiced. Also, several songs are about Rajendra Bikram. Some of the songs are sung in old Nepal Bhasa, some in languages from Tarai and some in Khas Nepali. The songs are sung during the full-moon, the new-moon and during the different festivals celebrated by the Newars. Also, some are sung at night before the day of a specific festival. I feel proud to say that the songs are still alive and surviving.
From the total population in Bhojpur, about 34 % are Rai-Kirants. Their language is still in practice and the biggest festival is Sakewa. Some refer to it as Chandi, but its actually name is Sakewa. It is celebrated on the full-moon days of Baishak and Mangsir. During the two days of the year, Kirants get together to dance, sing and celebrate. The festival always starts out with the worship of water taps. Kirants are nature worshipers. After paying homage to water taps, people dance in their homes as well as in groups, in public spaces. The dance performed shows the entire process of farming from planting to reaping through gestures. The dance is performed once so that the harvest is good, the second time it is done to be thankful to nature for a good harvest.
The Chettris and the Brahmins celebrate Ekadashi, Rudri, Chandi, Kul Puja (Diwali) and other festivals. In terms of music, they practice what is called a Balan Bhajan. The men are usually involved in dancing in this form. Recently, there has been a revival of the bhajan and the younger generation have started to learn and practice it. In case of the women, they still celebrate Teej by singing Sangini and Teej songs, but recently there has been a trend of dancing to music from external sources, so a mixed or rather degraded form of art is practiced. Sangini is a beautiful traditional dance form which is only practiced in a very small scale these days. I am hopeful that it will be promoted again one of these days.
The Darji (Pariar) community have successfully conserved their Panchhe Baajaa. The Magar community have still in practice their traditional Maruni dance. The Magar language as well as culture is well conserved. The Tamang community perform the Damphu Naach. They also organise language classes and consistently promote their cultural dresses. Hence, different communities are all contributing in the conservation and promotion of their respective cultures.
CULTURE AND EXTERNAL INFULENCES
The world has been made smaller with the help of media. So, inevitably, cultures influence one another. Music, since it is such a sensitive thing, is influenced rather easily. Media now is not only relating to audio, but is also visual, which is even more influential. Yesterday was a different thing as media didn’t have as much power. But influence now is unavoidable.
We say that foreign music is influencing Nepali music, but Nepali music is influential as well. The process is two-way. But this process is quite dependent on the economy of a given country. If people of a country are wealthy and can afford to use technology and can travel extensively, then the arts and culture of that country can be more influential. But if a country is not strong economically, then the culture and arts of the state also becomes poor. It starts becoming poor even if it was rich in the past. Since we are a poor country, we are easily influenced by the culture and practices of richer countries. We think that all this is right because its people from the richer countries that are doing it. So, we become easily influenced. These influences have their advantages as well as disadvantages.
It is integral for us to conserve our cultural heritage and arts because it tells us where we have come from. But since we are still working hard to fulfill basic needs, we have only been able to pay limited attention to conservation. There might come a day when it becomes integral for us to look back and search for our history. Another thing is that arts and culture, due to multiple influences, become common. So, we must vie to promote what we have in way through which we can get to a global platform; where our cultural heritage has a distinct identity. To tell future generations of their ancestral history, and to let researchers know our history, we must conserve original culture and the arts. At the same time, to make space for our culture in the world, we should also flow with the global current. Both these things, we should do.
INFLUENCE OF WESTERN MUSIC IN NEPAL: THEN AND NOW
Western music has had influences in Nepal from earlier. Cultural exchange with the West started when Nepal established political relations with England. For example, the uniform that the Kings and the military wore shows British influences. Hindustani and Muslim music entered Nepal through Khans and Bais who were invited to perform in the palaces.
In the past, we only had metal and skin crafted instruments, but later, ones like the harmonium entered the country. The tabala, for example, entered the country when the ustads and the Khans came to perform for the court. In this process, the guitar, piano, saxophone entered as well. These influences we can see in songs by Kumar Basnet, even before Om Bikram Bista. This is before Ralfa. The songs were played in Radio Nepal.
External influences can be seen in Ralfa’s music. The music that Ralfa created was not just Nepali music, or not just influenced by music from India, but it had influences from the West as well. Ralfa also took inspiration from typical folk music.
Use of western instruments and instrumentation was more extensive since the time of Om Bikram Bista, although the use of electronic instruments was a minimum. Now, Nepali music is dominated by instrumentation and instruments from the West. Although the influence is the most evident now, the influence has been gradual.
Several factors must be considered to analyse this change. Firstly, with every new generation, taste changes. Secondly, the relation that a state has with other countries determines cultural exchange. Thirdly, our education system has had a huge hand in this change; we study, learn and practice in English language. Inevitably, we are influenced by English language songs.
RALFA: A BEGINNING
The founders of Ralfa—Ramesh, Manjul and Rayan—were all involved in music prior to the establishment of the group. They used to sing in Radio Nepal. From what I’ve heard from them and what is available to read about them, I’ve come to know that, at that time, a singer received NPR. 10 for singing a song for the radio. Also, a singer could only record three songs in a month. Kathmandu was an inexpensive city then. One could pay rent and buy food for a month with NPR. 30. Even that amount, the officials of the radio would keep for themselves and tell the singers that the money hasn’t been sanctioned yet and that they should wait. This stalling and cheating led to the dissatisfaction on part of the singers. The three could not fight for what they deserved as they had all migrated from the hills and didn’t know people who could help them. So, they left Radio Nepal. Coincidentally, Parijat, a well-known literary figure from Darjeeling was based in Kathmandu then. Parijat had been following the works of Megh Raj Nepal (Manjul), Rameshwor Shrestha (Ramesh), and Narayan Bhakta Shrestha (Rayan) and had found their songs to have a certain authenticity, especially in their folk songs, and had longed to meet them. So, after she got news that the singers had left Radio Nepal, she made it a point to meet them and pursued them to not leave Kathmandu but to stick around and survive as artists. She put forth an idea to form an alternative group that would raise a voice against the injustice faced by people in various fields and sectors. So, in the leadership of Parijat, Ralfa was formed. Ralfa became a collective of professionals from the literary and music sectors. Manjul, Ramesh, Rayan and Arim were the individuals that represented the musical side of the group. They went on to use the term Ralfa as their last names—Magh Raj Nepal now became Manjul Ralfa, Rameshwor Shrestha became Ramesh Ralfa, Narayan Bhakta Shrestha became Rayan Ralfa. On the one side, they became a rebel group against injustice, on the other, they put forth a strong statement about how they are above caste-based discrimination and that all Nepalis are equal. Although the group consisted of people from different communities, they were all Ralfas. They declared that they were reborn and had taken up new avatars, and also made clear that their music was reborn in the form of revolutionary songs. The group started singing songs about the plight of Nepalis, bringing into light the situation of the people in the country. This was in 1967.
I was not a part of Ralfa. I am somebody who started writing after being inspired by Ralfa’s work. Later, I got acquainted with the group and bonded with them very well. Currently, too, I work with some of the members of the group. I was introduced to Ralf in 1969/70 when Ralfa was doing a nation-wide tour. I was in grade 10 when they came to Bhojpur. I had watched them perform. They had new kinds of instruments with them. Then, they used a guitar, a madal and a basuri—sometimes, just the guitar. I was inspired by the way they provided the audience with the context of the song, their singing and musical style. A lot of others, like me, were inspired. I wanted to keep connected so once I returned after finishing college in Dharan, I started writing songs more seriously. A song I wrote—Gaun Gaun Bata Utha—I planned it such that it reached Ramesh and Manjul. A friend took it to Kathmandu—he remembered the lyrics and the tune—and through him they learned the song and started singing it in Kathmandu. Eventually, Ramesh and I started sending each other letters—there was no telephone access, then. That’s how our relationship was founded. And after 1977, I started spending time and travelling with the group. Ralfa had already disbanded in 73. The word Ralfa was removed but the names Ramesh and Manjul were still in use. I started out like this and I am still involved with making music.
RALFA AND REFORMATION
Ralfa has contributed in the political change of the country, although I can’t say that Ralfa was the only entity that contributed through music. If we look back in history, even during the Rana regime, there have been several instances where the youth as well as artists have contributed to bring awareness through literature and music. Poems by Mahakavi Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Siddhicharan Shrestha and Yudha Prasad Mishra, for example, were progressive. Later, the likes of Devi Prasad Kisan, Kewal Puri and Gokul Joshi have made use of songs as a tool for raising a voice. They used long-form poetry and folk melodies but didn’t use instruments. The poets recited their poems, in the form of songs, alone. From around 1969, the form that we now recognise as Sugam Sangeet—a few-lined verse followed by the chorus, 3 -to -5-minutes-long in an average— started to take shape. This form was practiced by Ralfa and they must be credited for it; they started to use instruments as well. Then, those involved with Leftist parties also started to make use of this approach. In the east, people like Lava Pradhan, N. K. Prasain, prior to the Jhapa rebellion, started to use this format. But the credit for creating properly arranged songs goes to Ralfa.
I am not one to judge, but the works of Ralfa and people like me and how it affected Nepal can be seen through the popularity of the songs among the people. If I have to say, we created songs with the purpose of uniting people and making them aware of their and the country’s condition. The songs that we wrote were about the happiness and the sadness of the people and was meant to bring to light the injustice that they were facing. We were pursing them to realise the injustice and stand against it, united. We believe that we’ve contributed in bringing the Single-party rule to an end. We believe that these songs have played an important role in bringing an end to the monarch. Now, the system is such that any Nepali daughter or son can attain the top political position of the country. All communities now have the right to develop and promote their language and culture. Artists can express themselves now. We believe that our music has had a positive influence in this change.
RALFA: NEW PATHS
Ralfa did not get disbanded due to financial issues or anything like that. As Ralfa grew, it started gaining popularity nationally and internationally. People started comparing them to popular bands of other countries. Along with the groups popularity, the members’ individual popularity also grew. They are only human and along with popularity grew ego. Disagreements happened. On the other hand, in 1971, there were several Marxist parties and one of them, the Jhapa Naxalites was quite influential. During Ramesh and Manjul’s tour around the east, intellectuals of Jhapa Naxalite talked to the two artists and told them how their movement should be institutionalised and that they should be involved with the party. They said the value of the songs would grow if it’s institutionalised and the contribution that they will make will also increase. This way, the Jhapa-based part tried to bring Ramesh, Manjul and Arim into the party, on the other side, in Kathmandu, Parijat, Rayan and Ninu were being pursued by a community party called Chautho Mahadibeshan. This happened because Parijat’s sister’s husband, Nirmal Lama, was involved with the party, which was led by Mohan Bikram Singh. There were probably some personal issues as well, but because the band was divided into two, in respect to political ideologies, they separated.
RALFA: POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT
Ralfa had become quite influential. People in different areas of Nepal had also started to change their last names into Ralfa. A lot of aspiring artists looked up to them as well. As Ralfa progressed, the then government wasn’t too happy with the work that they group was doing. But it was inevitable that the government would eventually ban the band because of the voice that they were raising against the system. They were also captured in a several instances. They were locked up and their programmes stopped. For the sake of the members’ security, for their ideals and the voice that their music carried, they needed political support. The political parties did a lot to protect them and to help them reach out to more Nepalis. Although people did not recognise them as Ralfa later, they were known as the singers of the people and that they sang about the people. Of course, people referred to them with political party name attachments, that is another issue—but they became more popular as the voice of the people. While the Sugam Sangeet style they practice earlier appealed to intellectuals, after they were affiliated to the parties, their art became simpler—both in relation to the song structure and the lyrics—and this made their art more accessible and relatable. The move to get affiliation was integral then, otherwise they would have been banned by the government.
POLITICS AND MUSIC
It is always better for music to refrain from praising a party. Music must remain as music. A song needs to bear its own aesthetics. But, to analyse whether a song is political, one must try to understand what the song is saying. Even after the disbanding of Ralfa we find political content in the works of the members. Although the songs do not mention the names of parties, the songs are based on a political ideology. This is not something that is good or bad. People have varied opinions on whether an artist should be involved in a political party, but I feel that a political party is an important component of the society—it is a combination of all the organs of a society. Political change should touch upon on all the issues of the society. It should organise all the organs of a society. Without organisation, change is not possible. That is probably why they abided by their ideologies and got involved with the parties. I don’t think the involvement brought harm. The song should be organised, not the person singing it. Just because an artist is involved with a party doesn’t mean that a song that he writes about the people should be dismissed. In our country, the idea of one political party to show supremacy over the other is a problem. A song might praise a political party, but it doesn’t necessary mean it is a good song. A good song is when it expresses human feelings, their issues and the plight of the community; this is irrespective of the party that the songwriter is affiliated to. If it is about real issues, then it’ll affect the listeners.
THE UNIVERSALITY OF MUSIC
I don’t really concern myself with the style of music or the origin of the instruments used in the song—whether it is a local instrument or one that belongs to another country. What concerns me more is the message that the song imparts. One could sing in any language, but the message should be genuine: it should talk about the people and should be hopeful. It should impart a positive message. It should talk about love between people, the love for earth. It shouldn’t just be about love between two people but about love for the community and the responsibility one bears as a member of it. If these are the issues that a song covers, then language is not a concern.