Rahul Giri was one of our Resonations artists-in-residence during 2022. The Resonations artist residency programme is generously supported by the British Council.
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 his last blog as artist-in-residence, Rahul gives us some insight into what he has done during the six months of his online residency:
Over the last six months working with the British Library’s sound archive as a Resonations artist-in-residence, I have engaged with various forms of Nepali music that cut across language, culture and geography. My primary focus within this vast archive has been the recordings of the Gandharva community - a wandering musician caste from Nepal.
Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey, in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, 1992
Some of the Gandharva recordings I have closely listened to were written against the backdrop of war.
‘Jiune Rahara’, performed by Lurey Gandharva on voice and sarangi, and recorded by Carol Tingey in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, in 1992, is one such example. The song was most likely written over 200 years ago. It references the time when the Gorkha Kingdom (a hill state in central Nepal) was at war with its neighbouring states. This war was part of an expansion campaign (also known as unification of Nepal) that took place in the 18th and 19th century. It ultimately led to the formation of present-day Nepal.
The song ‘Jiune Rahara’ explores the complex psyche of men preparing to leave for the battlefield. Sung from the perspective of the soldiers, the text juxtaposes themes of faith and fate. The song lyrics narrate how men going to war rely on various practices that are considered auspicious in Nepali culture.
The refrain ‘Jiune Rahara’ which literally translates as ‘the desire to live’ puts things into perspective. It poignantly describes the mindset of the soldiers who are well aware of the realities of war - how the fear of death and the desire to live simultaneously manifest themselves through these rituals and acts of faith.
Reading the lyrics of the song, makes this clear:
Find the auspicious hour, brother, [for us to leave]
We have as blessings the curd and the banana
The desire to live
Consecrated grains of the shali rice
And curd from the mali cow
Give us the tika mark
The desire to live
Brother - we head off to the fields of war
In how many places, brother, were you hit
By musket balls?
How many places, the cut of the khukuri [machete]?
The desire to live
Will you ever come home again?
[Translated into english by Prawin Adhikari]
One of the first thoughts that came to my mind while listening to ‘Jiune Rahara’ was how the song could be applied to the lives of present day Nepali migrant workers.
Every year thousands of Nepali men and women travel abroad for employment. They especially travel to Gulf countries (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and others) and Malaysia. Like the soldiers in the song ‘Jiune Rahara’, they are well aware of the trials and tribulations that await them, including the possibility of death. Most of them make this journey out of necessity - out of a desire to live - to escape poverty, to provide for their family or to simply look for a better life.
‘Jiune Rahara’ is part of a larger body of Gandharva songs that explore themes of war through an individual’s perspective. The song is an intersection of art and reportage where loss and longing, hope and fear make way for grander narratives of valour and bravado.
Inspired by ‘Jiune Rahara’s’ approach to dealing with complex themes in such a poetic and effective way, I started thinking about creating a body of work that was based on the experiences of Nepali migrant workers'.
In the early stages of this residency while researching the Gandharva tradition I was also listening to recordings of sarangi with sampling and sound design in mind. Sarangi is the primary instrument of Gandharvas. It is a four stringed fiddle played vertically with a bow. The music producer in me was drawn to the melancholia, granularity and vulnerability in these sound recordings. I was also interested in the dissonance, grit and scrappiness which crept into them every once in a while but was especially audible when musicians tuned their instruments in between songs and conversations.
I asked Rajan Shrestha, a musician and ethnomusicologist from Kathmandu, to send me very basic recordings of sarangi - long drawn notes with no direct connection to the Gandharva compositions.
My initial goal was to create a body of work that used the sound of the sarangi as a building block - to create a varied sonic palette based on the textures, timbres and tonalities of these archival recordings. To do this, I would use various sound design and sampling techniques.
The decision to work with newly made recordings of sarangi was partly out of respect for the Gandharva tradition. It also gave me a lot more freedom as a producer as I was starting from scratch and could manipulate these recordings to match my inclinations.
Over the last few months I have been working towards reimagining and re-contextualizing these recordings - extracting and exploring elements of noise, drone and dissonance to soundtrack aspects of Nepali migrant workers journey. Most of my work with these recordings has coincided with the build up and the culmination of the World Cup in Qatar.
The majority of my work in progress is a response to the reportage around the plight of South Asian migrant workers involved in building the stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.
You can listen to some snippets of my work in progress on Soundcloud.
Some of these sketches include sound design ideas that replicate construction sites - claustrophobic walls of sound that represent the harsh working and living conditions, meditative musical passages that reflect muted optimism and hope that some of the workers have shown in interviews.
As of now these are just fragments, a collection of sketches, audio notes that I hope to build on in the coming months.