For the love of native tunesCultural critic, writer, folklorist. Satya Mohan Joshi, 94, is all of these things.
Cultural critic, writer, folklorist. Satya Mohan Joshi, 94, is all of these things. He has travelled all over Nepal, studying the various cultures that the country has given birth to. He has studied everything from the language and music to the traditional rituals that people use in their everyday living. He is a three-time recipient of the Madan Puraskar—for his work related to folk studies, Nepali numismatics and the traditions in the Karnali region. He founded the Rastriya Nach Ghar, has penned 15 works of drama and is the present chancellor of Nepal Bhasa Academy. In recognition of his contribution to Nepali arts and letters, he was honoured with a Doctor of Literature degree by Kathmandu University, and the Village Theatre in Lazimpat has been recently renamed as the Satya Mohan Joshi Theatre. Anup Ojha met with the living legend to talk about how Joshi got the ball rolling in Nepal on ethno-music research.
How did you get interested in folk songs and folk art?
When I was growing up, Juddha Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana was the prime minister of the country, and I was assigned by his aides to work in Tanahun and Lamjung; I had to survey the districts and create reports about the social economy of these places. As I traversed the districts, I’d chance upon people singing—in the fields, as they ploughed the fields or planted seedlings; in the jungles, when they went to collect firewood; and in the chautaras, where the people would fill the air with snatches of folk songs. In the evenings, the villages resounded with the sound of the madal being played in the rodhi ghars; and dance performances in the Maruni, Kaura, Chudka, Sorathi and Jhyamrey styles were an intrinsic part of village life. I was utterly fascinated by how music was such a huge part of life in Nepal’s hinterlands, and how the songs reflected so well the ethos of the people—and I was mesmerised by the sensibilities that informed the designs of the songs.
You were able to publicise the songs even in an era when Radio Nepal hadn’t been born and when most Nepalis didn’t own radios. How did you do that?
When I travelled to Nepal’s villages, I came to understand that Nepali folk songs were poetry. I wanted to share these songs with all Nepalis, but because we didn’t have the radio and radio stations back then, I thought about publishing the songs. I transcribed the songs, without the help of recorders, as the people sang them, and I soon had a collection. In 1946, I sent some of the lyrics to Sarada, a literary magazine in Kathmandu edited by Riddhi Bahadur Malla and Bal Krishna Sama. Sama recommended that I provide the contexts for the songs and that’s how they published the lyrics—they were printed along with their histories and my analytical write-ups about them. I later collated all the
lyrics that appeared in the magazine and created a book from the collection—Hamro Lok Sanskriti—for which I was awarded the Madan Puraskar in 1956.
How did the readers respond to your work?
Before these lyrics got published in Sarada, most people didn’t think folk songs were art. They even had a term for them—Kanthe geet—which means inferior songs. But Sama understood the real artistic value of folk music, and he thus encouraged me to keep a record of them. And we tried to inform the public about the value of our folks songs: how Nepali folk songs weave tapestries about
myriad subjects—there are songs about the birds and nature; there are songs, known as the Dai geet, for example, to be sung when straw is being rounded up into bales.
How difficult was it for you to conduct the research on the songs and write about your findings?
It was difficult in the beginning. I wasn’t a student of ‘cultural studies’, and I didn’t know anything about research methodologies and such. When I was transcribing these songs, no one had written about Nepali folk music and the pastoral arts. While it’s true that Laxmi Prasad Devkota had written Muna Madan in the jhyaure bhaka, he hadn’t written a treatise on folk music; and Dharma Raj Thapa used to compose folk music, but again, he was creating folk art, not analysing it. So I had to learn how to do the research without there being anyone to guide me. But I learned as I went along, and I’m happy that I worked on folk music.