Nepali Times
Forever Ambar


When Ambar Gurung recorded his famous song Naulakha tara udae ("Nine hundred thousand stars rise") in Calcutta in 1961, it earned him and lyricist Agam Singh Giri some degree of harassment from the Indian authorities for its emotive call to the mother country. In September last year, Gurung, who is still singing and writing, released a collection of his memorable hits, including this classic, on CD. The song, which was nearly out of circulation, has now got a new lease on life. This Ambar revival is the result of a younger generation of Nepali music lovers who want to relive the passion and nationalism that characterised the birth of modern Nepali music in Darjeeling in the early 1960s, and subsequently transformed the history of music in Nepal itself. The musical nationalism of Nepalis in exile went through various phases, but they all drew on the historical roots of the Nepali language in the predominantly Nepali-speaking hills of Darjeeling. This sense of nationalism fit snugly into Nepal's own quest for identity in the 60s and has stayed on all the way in Ambar Gurung's own music. This phase began with a fight against the source of nostalgia itself-the Nepali nation.

Subhas Ghising's criticism of Nepal for failing to help the Nepali diaspora in India realise their dream is a case in point. When the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling was at its peak in the mid-1980s, Ghising, himself a novelist, evoked Nepali nationalism through interesting references to Nepali dramatist and poet Bala Krishna Sama. But at the same time, he also forced Nepali-language writers in Darjeeling to leave their homes, or come to Nepal. Indra Bahadur Rai, for instance, had to leave his small cottage at Darjeeling's Tungsung Basti after being attacked. Similarly, Rajnarayan Pradhan stayed away for many years.

The nostalgia that the Nepali artistic diaspora used as a weapon came to be thought of as reality in the course of time. But this imagined reality clashed with their dreams for the future, and was accompanied by the pain of disillusionment. The Indian annexation of Sikkim, the forceful eviction of Bhutanese Nepalis and the creation of a surrogate nation for them in refugee-camp towns in Jhapa district, caused another shift in the saga of the Nepali diaspora. Ambar Gurung's Naulakha tara udae is thus an expression of nostalgia that has assumed a new dimension today-its relevance revived by new discussions about nationalism in Nepal itself.

The loss, pain and other complex emotions of exile are seen most powerfully in the songs of Ambar Gurung and the lyrics of his collaborators The re-release of his songs is not a beginning but the recapitulation of the tumultuous history of non-resident Nepalis. It is full of unabashed homesickness, the pain of being uprooted, the ecstasy of creation, and the challenges these conditions pose.
The title song Naulakha tara udae marked Ambar Gurung's association with the late Agam Singh Giri. The experience and feelings of the diaspora in India are the dominant theme here. The conditions of the original recording were difficult-it was hard to organise an orchestral accompaniment, there was only one microphone, and Ambar Gurung confesses there were stronger stanzas in the song that had to be dropped while recording. The words, the major and minor scales, the single microphone, the context-all its signifiers-address the tragedy of not belonging. The song is intense, and listeners react to the sombre words and the music with raw emotion.

Nationalism and the question of identity have historically inspired exultation as well as caused pain to Nepalis. This nostalgia was defined by the overwhelming presence of India in shaping the feelings behind the music. The Indian nation state did not tolerate these emotions, and Nepali-Indians were unique because they were (and are) the only nationality in the union which felt the gravitational pull of a neighbouring nation that didn't have a history and memory of colonisation. Their language and identity were considered suspect since they evoked Nepali history to claim their identity. They historicised their nostalgia.
Nostalgia was the only weapon they could effectively use. And effective it was in the subsequent recognition of hill rule and the incorporation of Nepali in the Indian constitution's list of official languages. The strategy worked because the artists evoked a history in space: a geographical entity which was remote in one sense, but also tantalisingly near and immediate.

Nepali ethno-nationalism in the Darjeeling hills turned violent in the late seventies and early eighties. By that time Ambar Gurung had long left Darjeeling for Kathmandu and Agam Singh Giri was dead. Hari Bhakta Katuwal's lyrical nationalism did not have an audience in Assam, and he also came over to Nepal (although he returned later).

Ambar Gurung and Agam Singh Giri represented Nepali-Indians' resistance to a pulverised Indian identity. But when he came to Nepal, Ambar Gurung encountered another kind of nationalism here. It was founded on praise of the king, and there were territories and historical contexts different from those he knew intimately in India. Still, his songs fit the paradigm of Nepali nationalism at the time, and King Mahendra asked him to stay on. He was now in the land that had for so long shaped the fundamentals of his art. Nepalis rejoiced in Ambar Gurung's music, but for the singer it was a mixed experience.

I first met Ambar Gurung in 1968 when he was on a visit to Kathmandu, staying at the Green Hotel in New Road. I asked if he could give us Tribhuvan University students a performance. He agreed, and the concert was amazing. People lined both sides of the road at the University's Kirtipur campus to greet him. Ambar performed to a packed Education Hall. He also sang Sugauli sandhi (Sugauli Treaty) which blew the minds of Nepali history students whose sense of nationalism until then had been defined by patriotic songs that came over Radio Nepal.

He worked as the head of the music department at the Royal Nepal Academy, but the academy did not give him recognition as a pragya, academician. He presented an amazing "choir" composition for which Ratna Sumsher Thapa and he wrote songs, but unfortunately it wasn't recorded properly and we don't know where the tapes are now. He trained young musicians and singers. He set to music lyrics written by songwriters he met here like Thapa and Narayan Gopal. He was a guru to Aruna Lama and Sharan Pradhan. Gopal Yonjan, another disciple, also came over, married and settled down in Kathmandu. Gopal Yonjan was an avatar of the diaspora, and he also sang songs about nostalgia, identity, and patriotism, punctuated with references to the Nepalis' glorious past of selfless bravery in the 1814-16 Anglo-Nepal War.

For his part Ambar Gurung did not compromise with the nationalism of royal glorification for two reasons: he was not a sycophant and he did not identify with the glib "entertainment value" of patriotic songs as they were in Nepal at that time. Young people today see nationhood of a different order, and their interest in Ambar Gurung is itself a kind of nostalgia for a time they didn't experience. The question now is: does this generation have an Ambar Gurung to give musical expression to a new Nepal?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)