Arbaja, a Nepali instrument once played by the Gandharvas, has found a saviour in singer Lochan Rijal
Not many Nepali youngsters know what an Arbaja looks or sounds like. But singer Lochan Rijal is determined to save this unique instrument once played by the Gandharvas from becoming extinct and make Arbaja a familiar sight in Nepali homes. “I felt that it was time for me to devote myself to music that belongs to Nepal,” says the 33–year-old, who spent a month in Kaski last year documenting the production process and strumming techniques as part of his PhD thesis on transmission of music in Nepal.
When he arrived in Kaski, Rijal was shocked to discover Mohan Gandharva, the sole remaining teacher of Arbaja, possessed only one instrument that too badly damaged. “When I found out just how much this form of music and its history had been neglected, I was saddened. But it also motivated me to learn more,” he explains.
For three weeks Rijal trained under Hari Gandharva of Kaski to make Arbajas which bear a close resemblance to the more well-known Sarangi. He made numerous trips to the jungles in search of Khirro, the wood used to make the instrument. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Not only was I learning to play the Arbaja but making them and helping to preserve the culture in a small way,” he admits.
In 2006, Rijal made it big in Nepal’s pop-rock circuit by bagging four awards at the Hits FM Music award for his album Coma. Initially he wanted to study medicine, but switched to music instead and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Kathmandu University and plays the guitar, dhime, tabla, and sarangi equally well. Now a lecturer at KU’s school of music, Rijal spends most of his time writing music with Arbaja.
“You can play different tunes on a guitar, but the sound of Arbaja is very unique. After all you can’t create your identity with a guitar,” he explains. “Arbaja has given a new definition to my music and I now have opportunities that I wouldn’t have if I had limited myself to pop music.”
His latest single Paurakhi is one of the few recorded songs that exclusively feature the Arbaja and Sarangi. And like his other songs this one too carries a social message about youth migration. His other project includes Eelum Dixit’s movie Red Monsoon which has a heavily Arbaja-infused soundtrack.
Says Rijal: “The new generation of Nepali singers are taking the easy way out and forgetting that originality and identity are the most important things. If we don’t save Nepali music and instruments, who will?”
Video of Paurakhi by Lochan Rijal