It is the “other” Nepalis, those non-Hindu, Buddhist déclassé and de-caste merit-based Nature worshippers and animists who have the enviable thesaurus of folk music that best defines the melodious identities of Nepal at its lateral levels, from Jhyaurey to Charya, from Deuda to Samala, from Tappa to Juhari, from Lakhe Nach to Maruni Nach, from Jhankri/Lama/Bijuwa/Fedangba/Tantrik folk medicines and treatments to Ghantu trances. Therefore, Nepal is not merely, singularly and so narrowly Dohori only.
Desperately seeking out
The composite narrowness and myopia, typical of Kathmandu in particular and Nepal in general, caused casualties to occur in my younger days in the capital city.
Thus, seeing no future prospects in Kathmandu, Louis Banks left Soaltee Hotel and headed to Calcutta, then to Bombay, to become what he is now – the greatest jingle master and Jazz fusion pianist and keyboardist of India and South Asia.
Ranjit Gazmer, too, heeded the panicky summons of his near and dear ones in Bombay. He left the services at the Royal Nepal Academy, his schoolteacher’s job and Radio Nepal and purchased railway tickets to the south. Bombay’s giant filmdom’s music maestro, a permanent Nepali expatriate called Manihari Singh, took him to the sanctum sanctorum of Rahul Dev “Pancham” Burman, and the rest is history.
Phurba Tshering Bhutia also left Radio Nepal, Casino Nepal and Kathmandu to return to his hometown, Darjeeling. He taught at the Eton of Darjeeling, St Paul’s, and then lit out for other foreign territories in later decades.
Another fadeout was Puru Subba, a fellow mandolin player and organist from Amber Gurung’s Art Academy of Music days in Darjeeling and later at our own Sangam Club, founded by Sharan Pradhan, Ranjit Gazmer, Aruna Lama, and Jitendra Bardewa. He joined the UN in Kathmandu, and that was the musical end of him.
So I was left alone at Radio Nepal and in Kathmandu, one of the last dregs of the rapidly aging oldsters of the previous generation. If Louis Banks and Ranjit Gazmer left Kathmandu to pursue their beloved music elsewhere, Puru Subba retired from music and remained in Nepal while Phurba Tshering, it seems, left both Kathmandu and music altogether. I, too, would leave music one day, and soon at that, but leaving Kathmandu was not an easier option for me, for obvious reasons which, however, I deem unimportant to elaborate here.
I knew it was all coming from the day I entered the mildewed recording studios of Radio Nepal. That was why I had already entered another realm of self-expression that would be safer and smoother: Academics and higher learning. That was the reason I took up the study of literature, ostensibly at first to train myself, at least theoretically, to enable myself to write “that” cherished novel in Nepali which I had on my mind since the very month I left Darjeelingtown some five years ago. In particular, I was co-opting one Muse for another: If music was a hopeless proposition for me in Kathmandu, perhaps creative writing would be another ideal surrogate and fulfilling alternative for my artistic expressions.
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
These, then, are, in sum, the experiences undergone by and impressions heaped upon a young man called Peter John Karthak in his mid-twenties in the mid-1960s and then during the early ’70s in Kathmandu. The rest of the narratives so far are mere supporting retrospections arrived at some forty years later, confirming the miasmic memories of those dreadful and bygone decades in Kathmandu. There were, however, some miraculous sparks that pushed me through to what I am today.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna and ….
The end years of the 1960s continued on as usual and uneventfully in music, except that Mr. Dev Anand of Bombay film world arrived in Kathmandu to shoot his new movie called “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna” with himself as the hero and Zeenat Aman as his newest discovery. With most of the movie’s shooting locales earmarked for Swayambhu and Kasthamandap in Kathmandu and the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Jawlakhel in Patan, Dev Saheb’s headquarters were set up at Soaltee Hotel while the other actors and technical and administrative crews were lodged in other hotels. Casino Nepal itself would be a major location and many scenes would be shot in its gaming hall and the adjacent disco.
Dev Saheb planned an elaborate nocturnal disco scene for which he inducted five hundred Hippies to be extras in the episode. The mostly Caucasian hirsute horde heeded the call and they descended upon us, and Soaltee was swamped up by flowing long hairs and beards in psychedelically printed vests, shirts and waistcoats and Edwardian tailcoats, bellbottom trousers, denims and jeans of various hues, fancy hats – the whole works.
My intention here is not to describe what went on at Casino Nepal for the next two weeks as it is outside the purposed purview of my narrative in this series. My only story is that on that particular evening of the first location shooting, I discovered a Spanish Hippie among the flowing flaggy crowd in the raw smell of charas and pungent hashish smoke. He was a young man, about my age, and he spread a heavy stack of long-playing (LP) records on the long reception desk. He had some clever business acumen and he wanted to sell those vinyl discs. What I found in his eclectic collection were, among others, 1) Andres Segovia’s landmark interpretations of Bach’s short pieces on the classical guitar, 2) the soundtracks from the musical “Orpheus Negro” (Black Orpheus), 3) one LP of the early John Mayall Blues, 4) a Reader’s Digest edition of America’s iconic songs, 5) a two-disc album on the works by Villa Lobos, Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, Francisco Tárrega and other Spanish masters.
I had only heard or read about these musical works; now I was looking at them in disbelief. I checked the tracks and grooves on the shiny surface of the records, admiring the sleeve jacket designs of the LPs. I just could not believe my eyes. Though needing a nice wiping of wet cotton or flannel cloth, the records were in playable condition, and would last for a long time. The owner charged me Rs. 100 for the six or seven albums I selected, and both of us were absolutely happy.
“Now you own some excellent music, no?” he said. “I’m going back to Spain and I need money. And why carry these things around?”
Yes, some more quality music would be in my selective collection, and I would be listening to the records for a long time.
And so much for Mr. Dev Anand and “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna”!
New decade, new despairs and new developments
The end of the decade of the 1960s coincided with the untimely demise of King Mahendra, and Crown Prince Birendra ascended the throne of Nepal as successor. My Masters studies were over by 1971, and I had graduated. Abhi Subedi had me accepted at Patan Multiple College as assistant lecturer of English on part-time and temporary basis. My pay was Rs 319 per month. In less than one year there, Abhi would again take me to the nearby Pulchowk Central Campus of the Institute of Engineering for a better position in the Department of English. My monthly salary would be Rs 450.
Soon after I had joined Patan College, I was summarily fired from Casino Nepal on the express order of Her Royal Highness Maharani Princep Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah, by then the sole co-owner of the gaming house along with her husband, His Royal Highness Himalaya Bir Bikram Shah. My services were terminated on my birthday, and it is just a statement of fact. The speculative reasons behind my humiliating and unwarranted exit are many, but these unmusical facts have no place in these recollections of my decade at Radio Nepal as one of its studio musicians. Suffice it to say that employees in the Panchayat system were hired and fired at will, with no explanation being necessary. Since I was fired by a royal personage of the top echelon, the Constitution of Nepal did not apply in my case simply because the royals of Nepal happened to be above the Constitution itself. They were the givers and I was the receiver of the crumbs off their table. Thus, I most meekly lost my job which brought me the princely sum of Rs. 2,600 every month, plus nightly perks.
Gradually, I had ceased to be a daily visitor at Radio Nepal but I was available for any recording worth the while, including the occasional disc-cutting recordings required under the aegis of Ratna Recording Corporation on behalf of NHK, Japan.
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