Nepali Times
State Of The State
What is your song, comrade?


Politicians don't go to their constituencies anymore. Mainstream parties have almost abdicated the countryside. From Marchabar to Manang, the only political activists who can be seen in the districts are the Maoists. More often than not, it's to gherao something.

The Maoists are usually decked out in their new uniform: grey tracksuits and Chinese sneakers. They will stay with supporters outside the district capital, as they still prefer haunts where they found shelter during the underground years. UML cadres, on the other hand, gatecrash government guest houses when they do venture out. And if an NC leader leaves the district headquarters, he will immediately look around for a hotel or lodge.

On arrival, the NC cadre begins the day with puja at the local temple. The UML fellows are late risers. The Maoists go to the police station to assert their presence and then interrogate the VDC secretary on what contracts are ongoing and which parties are bidding for them. No wonder the Paris Danda honchos are so well informed about politics at the grassroots.

Their days also end differently. A Kangresi will head for the local watering hole if he is not carrying his own bottle. And as the night wears on, yodelling old Bollywood hits is the order of the day. UML operators are more comfortable in the company of nationalist capitalists and civil servants and when happy, prefer the tunes of MaBiBi or Chandani Shah.

But most intriguing is the way a Maoist spends the evening. From a side pocket of the backpack emerges a plastic-covered notebook. It is opened gingerly and the ferocious warrior of yesterday begins to read poetry. Surprisingly, few Maoists sing unless they are affiliated with the cultural wing of the party, when they burst into a full-throated Nepali version of 'The East is Red'. King Prithvi warned that songs could enfeeble the soul of a warrior. The Maoists have taken the counsel of the Great Gorkha conqueror to heart.

The politics of music is difficult to define and impossible to quantify. But a gross generalisation would show that some kind of relationship does exist between music and politics. Ballads, blues and laments tend to induce fatalism. String instruments tend to encourage pacifism in their players as well as their audience.

Patriotic and love songs are conducive to conservatism. Dharma Raj Thapa, Narayan Gopal, Tara Devi and Mira Rana dominated the Nepali music scene for much of the Panchayat era. Unsurprisingly, the harmonium and flute were their main accompaniments - there is nothing like a wind instrument to create an aura of calm and completeness.

The Maoist insurgency inspired two simultaneous changes in musical tastes. Country music and devotional songs came into vogue once again. (It has since become de rigueur for retired generals to cut bhajan discs.) The other: poetry readings became popular.

The Maoists are busy turning swords into guitars. But music, and the arts in general, are areas where the Maoists have a lot of work to do to rise above their usual exhortative socialist realism. Which is why the song and dance outside DDC buildings this week failed to rouse onlookers. Public protests can be carnivals of the people rather than spooky torch processions that persuade no one except diehard supporters.

This column is in memory of French anthropologist Claude L?vi-Strauss, who argued that music had the ability to represent the conflicting forces and ideas that lie at the foundation of society. Prof. Levi-Strauss passed away on Friday.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)