11.30am, the Royal Nepal Academy green. The music director of the academy is half an hour late. He shows up soon enough, though.
"Sorry bhai, I was recording till four in the morning," confesses Sambhujeet Baskota, red-eyed and a little distant. His charming trademark smile is in place, though, which makes it all right. And then there is the unmistakable voice. The merest whisper takes you right back to "Tala tala gairi khet ma dhan jhulyo..." or "Sangeeta..". Tired or not, Sambhujeet leads us up to his office, which has in the past been occupied by luminaries such as Ambar Gurung.
Sambhujeet Baskota, forty-something, is one charming man-but liked and, well, not-so-liked, in similar proportions. Critics say he is a little too far away from the anxiety of influence for comfort, using freely music he feels an affinity with. There are also some who dislike the new form he is giving Nepali music, with his blending folk and contemporary music and experiments with technology.
But that, fans will tell you, is exactly what they like about Sambhujeet-that he moves with the times, that he creates a body of work that they can appreciate on different levels. And not even critics will deny that his music is catchy and captivating. One long-time admirer put it this way: "Sambhujeet is what the grassroots likes. He provides sweetness to difficult lives."
When a film with a Sambhujeet soundtrack is playing, his limpid voice echoing off the silver screen, the theatre often resounds with clapping, cheering, singing-along. People have been known to even dance in the aisles. Maybe this is impure music, but for the urban and suburban working class, the heart of Nepali modernity, this is just the ticket to a groovy time.
And that is what Sambhujeet likes. He is intense about the work he does day in, day out, in the studio. But this intensity manifests itself less in pontification and crazy dreams about changing Nepali music and more in action. Sambhujeet walks his talk. And he does it with wit-many of his lyrics and compositions are funny, but some are positively absurd and it might just be that subversive streak that makes him so popular and a staple sound on the local party circuit. He even gets to people who don't understand a word of what he is singing-at trekking gatherings and in Thamel, Sambhujeet's songs are an instant hit, with tunes like "Ghumna jau Dhulikhel..." played and replayed.
Sambhujeet did not set out to be a musician. In 1971, when he was a student at the Bhanubhakta High School who excelled in gymnastics and football-his well-toned body is still his secret pride-a voice test for Radio Nepal came his way, and that was where it all began. He was singing and trying his hand at composition even when he earned a bachelor's degree in political science. He went on to earn another bachelor's this time in music from the Sangeet Bisharad. Sambhujeet made his career in music rather than sport, but is still active and takes care of his health. He doesn't drink or smoke and in the tradition of yogis, says he sleeps barely four hours a day.
It was only in 1985 that Sambhujeet got into the crazy world of film soundstracks. He mainly got in because he'd been noticed singing parodies and whacky satires about corrupt political leaders and the authorities. "That was the need at that time, and I did what my skills allowed me to do," he says with surprising seriousness when reminded of how he used to appear on stage, dressed up like a leader, covered in vermilion and flowers, and singing parodies mocking the most notorious Panchayat leaders. And his point was well taken. The late King Birendra even invited him to the palace and said to him: "Keep up your good work."
Sambhujeet has come a long way-from Nati Kaji to Devika Pradhan, and now Nabin Bhattarai. He now works as music director on many productions, composing and arranging songs and background scores, and working with singers and musicians. And most of this has to be done fast-the longer the production time, the more expensive a film. He accepts that he often works under unreasonable deadlines, but not the criticism that it affects his work. "I can't really express how I do it, but I can really drown myself completely in the work until I can produce something good, in minutes, hours or days." Sambhujeet says he has sometimes produced a whole soundtrack at what is by any account short notice-he scored the film Thuldai in about four hours. And it was a hit! He gets excited, a little boastful even, as he talks about composing Devika Pradhan's "Estai Rahecha Yahako Chalan" in one hour, Asha Bhosle's "Gairi Khet Ko Sirai" on the flight from Kathmandu to Mumbai. He manages such a punishing schedule, he says, because his family supports him through frenetic and calm times.
Sambhujeet has composed the soundtracks to more than 120 Nepali movies and some 2,000 modern, folk and devotional songs, and has lost track of the number of jingles he's tossed off. No surprise then that he is the largest-selling composer in Nepal today and had 14 national awards come his way over the years. But none, curiously, for his biggest hits-Banjo Khet Ma Chakke Salam Cha, or Meri Basanti, or Chatta Rumal Kya Malum. But none of that matters now, after he received three awards from the new prime minister, including the big \'un-the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Nepali Motion Picture Association ceremony last week.
Sambhujeet is happy and says he's inspired to keep on expressing himself freely. t