Nepali Times
Nilo, nilo gagan ma


It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it all started. Some say it was after the explosive arrival of FM radio in Kathmandu, others say it came with Nepal's own young MTV generation exposed to good music and good lyrics on cable. Whatever the case, Nepali music has arrived. And unlike Hindi music which is largely driven by Bollywood, modern Nepali pop has evolved largely independent of cellulloid. Which means the songs are a little "pop-ish" since it does not have to appeal to the box-office's preoccupation with the lowest common denominator.

The new genre called Nepali Adhunik music has now got the maturity, self-confidence and world class professionalism and a growing body of young fans who demand that quality from our singers, musicians and lyricists. These are discerning afficionados and they are no longer satisfied with mediocrity. And having been exposed to professional production on the cable music channels, they can tell when something is fake, a copy, or plain bad.

But not all is hunkydory. With commercialisation has come the rat race which means only those who can afford the exorbitant costs for studio and arrangement can afford to get there. It is a catch 22, you need a break to make it big, but you need to make it big so you can afford a break. Gone are the days when asprising singers lurked outside the Radio Nepal studios in Singha Darbar fishing in the small pond before their turn to sing finally arrived. They got paid the grand sum of Rs 10 per song.

Today, everything can be done for you. Fast. Make an appointment with a composer/ arranger at a private recording studio. Hand him your lyrics and tell him what genre you prefer. Sit back and relax. (But have your hard cold cash ready.) In a couple of hours, your music track will be ready. Take the track home, practice your vocals and come back for the final recording and mixing, and you're done. In the meantime, you would have surely organised your TV appearance, at a mere Rs 10,000. The cable channel will escort you to the location of their choice and shoot you with dancing girls galumphing around you. In a couple of days you're on air. Friends and family will watch you and you will become a superstar. But-no offence-are you, really?

That's what serious musicians are worried about-that the industry will be overrun with musicians with questionable talent. Composer Bulu Mukarung has seen Nepali Adhunik and pop change dramatically in the last 22 years. "Ignorant people with the means, for whom music is a hobby, are ruining the Nepali music landscape. The new songwriters can't even explain their own songs," he sighs, pointing to soundtrack and pop songwriters. Mukarung and his past contemporaries enjoyed some of the best Nepali lyrics of the century in the 1960s and 70s. The consensus seems to be that the gradual erosion of standards has been in large part due to the film industry which abandons the real in all areas, including music.

But, say some like popular Adhunik singer Kunti Moktan, it is too early to start writing weepy dirges for Nepali music. "You can't have good music without good lyrics, and without both together, you can't sing a good song. And right now, Nepali music is right there." Nepali singers and musicians who matter have, in a sense, gained-freed from dependency on the bureaucracy of state-controlled media, and with more flexible production houses. Says Moktan: "Nepali music, and attitudes have have opened up greatly. Singers must now season each new song with a different taste."

After the annual Hits FM Music Award in March, many critics and lovers of Nepali music were talking about the dawning of a "golden age of Nepali music". The buzz has been that lyrics, composition and vocals are all coming together in new and wonderful ways. "Good lyrics have simple and soft words, they need to have depth of feeling and, most importantly, the need to portray a vision. Popular songs in Nepal have always had these elements. The new generation of songwriters have taken the work of the past as their model. This has certainly helped Nepali music rise to new heights," says 51-year-old Deep Shrestha, who made a brilliant comeback in 2000 after a 16 year hiatus. "The only problem I see is that the works of some better-known lyricists is deteriorating as they try to adopt the style of newer writers," says Deep. But he is certain this will not bring down the house Nepali Adhunik has built-after all, says Shrestha, a good song written in any style will always be beloved, regardless of its genre. "We are getting good lyrics these days. And there's a demand of good songs from the listeners, too. And we are working hard," says crossover Adhunik/pop singer Nalina Chitrakar.

The kind of Nepali music we are talking about doesn't go too far back. Until Radio Nepal was established in 1950, for most Nepalis music was an ephemeral affair. The state-owned station set up recording facilities in the late 50s, but it was not until 1965 that it gave up transmitting most of its musical programmes live from the studios, launching the careers of such artistes as Hari Bahadhur Ranjitkar, Uhi Govinda Bahadhur and Bhairab Bahadhur. Nepalis got their first taste of Adhunik as popular, mass culture in 1961, when Radio Nepal started broadcasting Bachu Kailash who was the first Nepali singer to record his own LP (long play, remember?) with a Calcutta-based orchestra. This was quite radical in itself, because until then only aristocrats listened to recorded music-78s (78 rpm singles)with love songs by singers like Master Mitra Sen, Melwa Devi, Stulal Shrestha and Master Ratna Das Prakash. Bachu Kailash's winning combination of good vocals, a hint of classical melodies, a folk flavour, simple and sweet lyrics, and good arrangement meant success for him and increasing public demand for Adhunik.

The decade starting 1968 was Nepali Adhunik's most inspiring, productive period, with lots of experimental and avant garde music being composed by people like Nati Kaji, Amber Gurung and Gopal Yonzon, all of whom were well-versed with a range of western and eastern music. Here, the Darjeeling Diaspora stood out: Sharad Pradhan, Karma Yonzon, Jitendra Bardewa. There were locals too: Prem Manik, Pushpa Nepali, Prakash Gurung and Deep Shrestha. But in the decade 1985-95 Nepali Adhunik lost steam as singers seemed to go into mass hibernation. But now, like a phoenix, it has risen again spreading its wings.

Until Adhunik arrived on the scene, folk songs were the logical medium to express individual and underclass angst, but the power of these new lyric forms changed all that, and people now had new ways to react to romance and social situations. Dharma Raj Thapa's 1960s ballad "Nepali le maya mare bari lai" , for example, spoke about the growing number of Nepalis migrating to India for work. A contemporary hit, Bidesh jane mayalu teeme lai ("For a love going abroad") talks about a similar theme-Nepalis migrating to Hong Kong and the Middle East and the broken hearts they leave behind. They tug at the heartstrings of individuals separated by the cruel globalised world of migrant workers.

Today, music is a Rs 150 million industry, with some 250 albums of all genres from folk to native rock being released every year. Regular demand of stage shows has equally helped the musicians earn extra income. Kunti Moktan and Nalina Chitrakar whom we interviewed are also busy working for their new album to be released in the next few months. Many contemporary singers are suspicious of digital synthesisers. "Upcoming musicians know the importance of acoustic sound and so they won't completely rely on the digital sound. But it has certainly amde the existing musicians fine tune their skills and look for good songs," says Sanjay Shrestha, musician and recordist at Omni Phonics studio in Balaju.

The Music Nepal, one of the foremost private run studios and music distributor started from two small rooms 15 years ago when the Hindi music had a grip over 90 percent of the market. Today Music Nepal produces 120 songs a year with an annual turnover of Rs 40 million. Meanwhile, the share of Hindi music in the market has gone down to 40 percent.

The growing fame of Nepali music is also marked by the music distributor's rush to buy the copyright from popular artists. The prices ranges from Rs 40 thousand rupees to Rs 300,000 (Nabin Bhattarai's Smriti). All said and done, but what the senior Nepali songwriters and musicians have to be proud of is the impact their hard labour of long years has brought about. For Nepali Adhunik listen to the young voice of the 22-year-old song writer and musician Prabin Shrestha of Tantra which recently debuted the emotive word music of Nilo nilo gagan ma. It is a prayer for peace and goodwill.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)