I walked into Thamel – the chaotic tourist district in Kathmandu – armed only with a name, Ganesh Gandhari, and a vague address. I was looking for the office of the Gandharba Culture and Art Organization (GCAO), an association set up by members of a Dalit musician caste here in Nepal. As soon as I stepped into the crowded streets, I knew that my terrible sense of direction would get the better of me. In addition to that, the confused look on my face made me easy prey to the local vendors and beggars who could instinctively tell that I was not from the area. To my luck a man carrying a sarangee – a rustic wooden fiddle common to the Gandharbas – walked by and played a familiar tune. “Resam Phiri Ri?”, I asked, trying to confirm the title. Watching his surprised reaction was incredibly satisfying… all of a sudden I wasn’t the most clueless of tourists. I then asked the young man if he knew Ganesh Gandhari, hoping to get some reply other than a shocked reaction. Within 3.5 seconds another small built man wearing a t-shirt that said “Ask me about Traditional Nepali Music” popped out of nowhere. “You are Ted, no?” he asked in perfect English. I was impressed that he knew exactly who I was before I could even react to his seemingly magical appearance from thin air.
I had been in touch with Ganesh via email, thanks to my mandolin teacher, Tara Linhardt – a bluegrass musician from Virginia who has extensively studied the Nepali language, culture and music through The Mountain Music Project. Thanks to Tara and her husband Danny, I knew how to play and recognize Resam Phiri Ri, a particularly popular folk song among Gandharbas.
After exchanging our initial introductions, I followed Ganesh to the GCAO office (which I probably never would have found on my own) and, soon after, had the chance to marvel at the incredible musical abilities of the Gandharbas who were already there. They performed a short concert – something that they do every day in the evening for interested tourists and the occasional passersby – and effectively demonstrated their mastery of the Sarangee and Madal (two-headed drum) through their extensive repertoire of folk songs. During song breaks, I had the chance to speak with Ganesh about the struggles that the Gandharba community endures when it comes to making a living while preserving their musical and cultural traditions. According to Ganesh, Gandharbas never owned land and for centuries lived solely off of commission – usually in the form of leftover food and alcohol – for their performances. There is a clear dilemma of preserving an art form that has never propelled the Gandharbas to economic stability versus abandoning this musical tradition altogether.
My evening at the GCAO helped to remind me of one of the primary reasons in my decision to come to work for Dalit Rights in Nepal. Within the past few years, I have become incredibly interested in all forms of art, culture, and performance from Dalit communities. Not too long ago, I only thought of Dalits as poor, disenfranchised people whose everyday struggles were beyond anything I could imagine. While my perception was not completely false, it was very one-dimensional. Throughout the latter part of my college career and during my time in India, I began to understand the beauty in the culture and traditions of such marginalized groups, which have been overlooked and under appreciated for centuries. I feel that celebrating Dalit arts, cuisine, performance, and folklore on a local and international level is a crucial addition to the protests, rallies, and petitions that aim for Dalit equality in society.
The music that I heard at the GCAO was indeed beautiful and immensely entertaining, but even more significantly, it helped bring the Gandharba community to life in my eyes. To me, they are more than another random musician caste in Nepal… they are talented individuals who continue to fight for artistic recognition and the ability to keep their performance styles and traditions alive.
Posted By Ted Samuel
Posted Jun 21st, 2007