So it was not all fun all the time. There were bad-moon-rising days, too. One particular Rahu-Ketu working day took place on the last date of every month, to every studio musician’s dreadful chagrin, when a particular singer appeared at Radio Nepal to record his song.
Though this singer passed away a few years ago, his lore and legends are legion. Even at the risks of this man’s stories being exaggerated and apocryphal, even way back in the 1960s, certain fables ascribed to him are worth mentioning, especially in connection with the antics he created in the studios when he visited Radio Nepal once a month to have a song – repeat, just one song! – recorded. These will be explained very shortly.
He was called “Uhi” Govind, his full name being Govind Bahadur Gurung. But why the pronoun “Uhi”? Well, the story goes like this:
When Radio Free Nepal, or something revolutionary like that which clandestinely broadcast from Biratnagar against the Rana rule in the pre-1950 First Democratic Revolution days, was officially reinstituted at the present address in Singha Durbar in Kathmandu following the downfall of the Ranas, the radio station was run on a typical Nepali ad hoc fashion for want of hardware, software and professionals in the early days of democracy.
Therefore, every broadcast had to be “live” because, among basic modern facilities, the station lacked even records and gramophones, forget about recording studios, equipments, composers, lyricists, singers and musicians.
Singers and musicians were essential in the typical humdrum broadcasting hours of Radio Nepal in its gestation period and early days in Kathmandu.
Listeners, however eager in the democratic airs of a New Nepal, would not have the patience to listen to only news, views, reviews, interviews, speeches and punditry on Nepali prajatantra (democracy) in prosaic precisions.
So singing and music had to be inserted as entertainment and diversion in the “programs,” for which rough-and-ready musicians and singers were placed on standing order inside the tensed broadcasting booths, those impromptu makeshift huts.
When news in Hindi – yes, in Hindi! – was being broadcast by, say, Tulsi Nath Dhungel in his baritone voice, the staff had the typical exchange in the corridors and outside:
“What’s coming after the news reading?”
“A song will follow, as usual.”
“Of course, but who is singing?”
“Who else other than the same Govind?” Uhi ta ho ni – Uhi Govind! Aru ko hunura!?
This “who else?” or “the same” were the synonyms for “Uhi” in the Nepali language, and this was attached to Govind, which made him “Uhi” Govind – the one and only, the indispensable Govind Bahadur Gurung.
There were other male and female singers at the ready and on standby duty for live music transmission on Radio Nepal’s short waves in its initial days. Janardan Sama, Master Ratna Das “Prakash,” Hari Prasad Rimal, Nati Kazi and other male singers were mustered for this on-the-dot performance in front of the live microphone.
When the newsreader wrapped up his broadcast by announcing “This is the end of the news” and the program-in-charge interjected with his “Now here’s a modern song by Govind Bahadur Gurung” announcement, the studio’s ever-ready live-in harmonium lead and tabala player began the song’s introductory notes, and the singer started singing, as rehearsed.
All of them sat on the floor, with their legs crossed. Obviously there would be a maudlin clarinetist, too, accompanied by a “tringal” (triangle) or chimes.
The song would take three minutes of air time on average, unless asked to stretch it indefinitely in case of emergency, during which the next item would be duly readied for the next program on the roster.
It was said that seven or eight times out of ten calls, it would be Govind Bahadur Gurung who would be readily available to face the “on” microphone on the broadcasting floor and sing like a lark.
Very soon, this led to him being given the nickname of “Uhi” – “Who else!” “None but Him, the one and only,” or “Uhi” Govind. So much so that even his record labels carried the name of “Uhi Govind,” including the credits given to him for the songs he later recorded at Radio Nepal.
Among the many unverified but popular lore and legends of the singers and composers at Radio Nepal of the 1950s and ’60s, and as reported in these pages, the monthly musical menace wrought by “Uhi” Govind is especially noteworthy. As indicated above, the heard-and-said story begins something like this:
In the past one and a half decades since the establishment of Radio Nepal as the nation’s monopolistic shortwave mouthpiece, none of the original live-in singers remained in the impromptu studios of the radio station. By then, most materials were canned and stored in magnetic tapes and discs, except live news broadcasts.
So the singers of yore were no more employed as they were in the old days. Janardan Sama and Master Ratna Das “Prakash” were only occasional visitors at the station while Hari Prasad Rimal was in charge of the weekly radio drama, and Nati Kazi was the chief resident music director at Radio Nepal.
“Uhi” Govind was the only exception. He was supposed to record at least one song every month at Radio Nepal. There is another unverified story behind this unique phenomenon:
We heard, for reasons best known to those who were concerned with the facts, that it was King Mahendra’s “hukum pramangi,” or “hu.pra.” in short, that had caused this arrangement to be in place.
The “royal command” dictated that Uhi Govind be retained in the employment of Radio Nepal but be exempt from daily office duties. So he appeared only on the last day of the month, signed the employee attendance register at one go for the entire past month, then collected his salary and had to record at least one song – whether bhajan or patriotic or modern or folksong, it did not matter.
It was the monthly musical menace that Uhi Govind caused that was something insufferable for the musicians, studio in-charges and record engineers alike.
Since he was a “minor artist,” no composers of the status of Nati Kazi and Shiva Shanker would lend their songs to Uhi; so he was supplied songs by some “Sangeet Pravin”-s in the employ of Radio Nepal. He had to rote-learn the tune, rehearse the song in its entirety and record it the same afternoon.
Here was the main problem. Uhi was a happy-go-lucky and devil-may-care character, taking everything casually and lightly, including the recording.
He was perfect in the first verse, but then missed the beat in the interlude, and then went on to make a mess of the second stanza the next time. And so on and so forth.
The reverse happened, and then the middle verse was a fiasco. He either forgot the words or the melody, was either late or one beat quicker in taking his next cue.
The green and red pilot lamp in the studio went on and off with every take and retake. He was obscenely rude to his composer and ha-ha-ed and pooh-poohed through the entire sessions.
His antics made everybody laugh, but precious time was wasted with every instance of his carelessness. Once, a simple three-chord song took seventeen retakes.
I left the studio at that point because I was getting late for my night job at Casino Nepal. Another month, another foolish song took thirty-three retakes, making everyone tired, bored and hopeless at the end of it.
There were seven studio musicians who depended on the daily wages they earned at Radio Nepal (which paid us three months later.) We held our steadier jobs elsewhere, but for these men, the monthly arrival of Uhi Govind was more of a menace than moksh. In his case, we had to work very hard and long for the pittance of five Rupees per recording. And if Uhi’s recording was inferior, it would be rendered null and void, in which case no payment would be made to us for our labor.
But later, a recording had to be made by Uhi, by hook or by crook, because the new director, Ram Raj Poudel, had made it mandatory that the day’s studio recordings be played after the news broadcast at 7:30 pm. In that case, our efforts would not go to waste.
Without any personal rancor whatsoever, I still find Uhi Govind quite a character. Dressed in simple but clean jacket, shirt and trousers, and with an Irish hat on his head, this short Mongoloid man looked like one of the bookies at the racecourse in Darjeeling.
In sixteen years, this popular singer’s musical life had changed from the primitive 1950s to the more timely Radio Nepal of the mid-’60s. But he was comically “cool” about it, to the detriment of everyone concerned. His obligation to record at Radio Nepal ended only with the demise of King Mahendra.
Legend has it that Uhi’s predecessor was a Gurung general in the Gorkhali army of King Prithvi Narayan Shah. While making the Malla-dynasty Hanuman Dhoka his royal palace in Kathmandu, Shah granted the general a generous “birta” in nearby Thamel where his descendents are still presumed to be living.
In his last decades, Govind Bahadur Gurung was known for another interest in his life: as a hobbyist taxidermist. Before he passed away a few years ago, he left his house as a museum full of stuffed animals, birds and reptiles. A few of his songs are still heard on the radio, for instance on Radio Sagarmatha, which still credits the singer as “Uhi” Govind.
It has been fortunate for me to reminisce on three past masters at Radio Nepal while I was there for ten years between 1966 and 1976.
This trio is as diverse as Nepal is: Janardan Sama was a Rana, Maestro Ratna Das “Prakash” was a Newar from Kathmandu, and “Uhi” Govind (Bahadur Gurung) an ethnic tribal, known today as Adibasi Janajati.
To be continued in the next edition of The Week.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at email@example.com