12 July 2022
Postcard from Dumre
Rahul Giri is one of our Resonations artists-in-residence alongside Yee I-Lann, whose recently published blog you can read online. Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. In this blog he gives us some insight into the start of his online residency at the British Library:
Dumre, a small town in central Nepal, was where my father was posted as a civil engineer in the late ‘90s. It was also where I spent many of my vacations. While thinking about how to approach the Resonations artist residency, I wanted to find a personal connection. This came through ethnomusicologist Carol Tingey’s field recordings of the Gaine community at Tarkughat village, Lamjung. A village that was less than 30 kilometers from our camp in Dumre.
Photo of Gaines at Tarkughat Village, Lamjung with their instruments (madal, arbajo, sarangi, from left to right) taken by Dr. Carol Tingey, 1992
Carol Tingey’s recordings took me back to my childhood days in and around the hills of Dumre. During my father’s office hours I would leave the camp and wander around, following narrow winding paths up the neighboring hills surrounded by terraced farming plots, where a few huts were dotted here and there. My fear of the unknown was eclipsed by a sense of adventure and curiosity. My walk would almost always end at a cliff overlooking the boisterous Marshyangdi river; the climb down - steep and slippery, and thick with vegetation – was one I never attempted.
On my way back I’d stop at the solitary chia pasal (tea shop) just outside our camp for a bottle of Coca-Cola (charged against my father’s tab) and sometimes an order of wai wai noodles. The radio would always be on and tuned to Radio Nepal, playing mostly folk music and popular songs from Nepali cinema. At British Library Sounds you can listen to a selection of lok geet (folk songs) recorded by Carol Tingey at Gorkha, approximately 40 kilometers east from Dumre.
Every once in a while there were parties at the camp, and meat (maasu), alcohol (rakshi) and maadal (hollow drum) would come out. The staff and their family and friends would sit around the fire and sing songs. Paan ko Paat (Marshyangdi Salala), a hugely popular folk song in Nepal and for the Nepali diaspora, was a regular feature. Paan ko Paat is part of the dohori tradition in which a group of men and women sing back and forth in an improvised conversational format tied together by a set melody and chorus. Dohori songs are generally sung at melas (fairs), weddings and other festivities. The improvised lyrics are filled with flirtatious and suggestive metaphors in hope of courtship. You can listen to a rendition of Paan ko Paat by Gaine musicians recorded by Carol Tingey at British Library Sounds.
A lot of the songs recorded by Carol Tingey, especially the folk songs from Gorkha and Tarkughat, were the soundtrack of my time at Dumre. However it was her recordings of the Gaine tradition that really drew me into this sound archive collection.
The Gaines are a caste of professional musicians who traditionally traveled from village to village performing songs in return for money or food. Their primary instrument is the sarangi, a four string instrument played with a bow, generally accompanied by a madal (hollow drum). They have been referred to as bards, historians and journalists of the pre-radio era owing to the fact that they would sing songs about current affairs, socio-political issues, cautionary tales and events from neighboring villages. Their repertoire includes folklore, karkha (songs of historical heroic praise), mythologies, devotional and seasonal songs. The Gaines, once considered untouchable, also fall into the lowest bracket in terms of economic and social standing.
Though it was not the main focus of her research, Carol Tingey explored the Gaine tradition. First while researching the work and sound recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake. Then later as part of a collaborative postdoctoral research project with musicologist Richard Widdess and musician and ethnomusicologist Gert-Matthias Wegner. Tingey’s own recordings of Gaines in Tarkughat, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, Nepal, made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, document much of the Gaine repertoire.
One example of a tragic ballad can be listened to in Tingey's recording of the song Sarumai Rani. The song, recorded in two parts (listen online to part one and part two), revolves around Sarumai Rani's desire to go to her maiti (parental home). She pleads to Raja, her husband, but he keeps refusing, instead he offers her ‘suna bote choli’, a gold studded blouse.
maiti rajako deshni ho
My home is your country too
fulera gayo kesha ni
aba janchhu mero maiti ko desha
My hair has turned gray (I have gotten old)
Now I want to go to my maiti
After much convincing, Raja finally concedes. Unfortunately Sarumai Rani is bitten by a snake on the way home and dies.
The music and story of Sarumai Rani encapsulates ‘dukha’ or sorrow, an emotion that is synonymous with Gaine music. Perhaps this emotion is a reflection of their social standing as well as the plight of rural and marginalized communities of Nepal.
Growing up in Kathmandu - especially during my late teens - I was always looking outwards. I listened to shortwave radio instead of FM or AM and found great joy in picking up albums from music stores in Kathmandu that sold dubbed cassette tapes of international releases. One of these tapes happened to be Radiohead’s Amnesiac. The album was going to be the building block of my musical journey - as a listener and musician. I was constantly looking for music with a similar emotion, which led me to artists like Sigur Rós and Portishead. The common thread joining them was melancholia, a sense of longing and vulnerability that was despairing and comforting at the same time. This experience is something I found in the music of Gaines.
So when I started thinking about the residency and listening to countless recordings in the sound archive, I found myself looking inwards instead. It wasn’t just a nostalgia-driven search but an attempt to find reference points for my musical landscape. A way to find parallels and make sense of what I do as a musician within the Nepali context.