Amrit Gurung: There are people who’ve never learned to liveThe Nepathya frontman talks about his music and his changing philosophy on life.
For those of us who grew up in the 90s, the evolution of our formative years can perhaps be traced through Nepathya songs. Our early years were romantic, idealised versions of life and love as reflected in ‘Chekyo Chekyo’, ‘Himal Chuchure’, ‘Jomsomai Bajar Ma’ and ‘Chari Maryo’. We grew up, turning inwardly poetic with ‘Resham’ and looking outward at the country we grew up in with ‘Sa Karnali’ and ‘Bheda ko Oon Jasto’. Eventually, there was disappointment, and disillusionment, vocalised in songs like ‘Ghatana’.
Here we are now. We’ve come of age. The insurgency is over, the monarchy is gone, there’s a new constitution and the people in charge say the country is headed for progress.
So why does it feel like something is missing?
I don’t ask Nepathya’s Amrit Gurung this. It’s not something I’m even thinking about at the moment, but Gurung is in a darkly reflective frame of mind.
“The world is not how we’ve imagined it to be,” he says as we sit down for Japanese food in the quiet of the Hotel Sunset View. “The world is full of hypocrites.”
I ask him to elaborate, press him on what is leading him to feel this way but he’s dismissive. He appears troubled and wants to talk about life while I want to talk about music.
“I wrote a song after two years,” he says, clad in his trademark round frame glasses and ponytail. “I had been doing music but I wrote and composed a song for the first time in two years. I was shocked at just how passive I had become.”
Gurung, the long-running frontman and the heart and soul of Nepathya, is not making much music anymore. He tours regularly, playing sold out shows wherever he goes. He’s still a stadium rocker, energetic and blessed with vocal chords every Nepali rockstar must envy. But Gurung hasn’t made new music in years.
“People don’t seem to be interested in albums anymore. They’re always asking me when the next Youtube video is going to come out,” Gurung says, a bit morosely.
Nepathya was always about thematic albums. While they weren’t concept albums per se, most songs revolved around the album’s chosen theme, the state of the country in Mero Desh or the costs of the Maoist insurgency in Ghatana.
But there haven’t been many Youtube singles either.
“I’m always doing music but the writing has stopped,” he says. “There are several reasons—my age, the company I keep and the environment.”
But at 53, Gurung is not so old that he can’t make music, and he’s always been surrounded by musicians and creative professionals. And when it comes to the environment, his dislike of cities is well-known, as Gurung prefers to spend most of his time at his farm outside of Pokhara. He is also known to go on long walking trips across Nepal, collecting folk melodies that he then weaves into his music, a process that was captured in the film Bheda ko Oon Jasto...In search of a song.
But here too, Gurung is deflated.
“I don't walk as much as I used to anymore either and that's not because of my age,” he says. “I think I got busy. Not with work, but with family. My priority is now my home and family.”
In his over 20 years of making music and touring across the world, it was his family members who supported him and kept their patience, says Gurung. Now, it is time he gives back.
“I used to be someone who didn't care. I would leave everything and just go off on long trips,” he says. “They say that when it comes to artists, it is the family that suffers the most.”
I press on, I want to know the reason behind Gurung’s moroseness. Although this is the first time I’m meeting Gurung, he’s always seemed like a very upbeat and positive person on interviews, and even in his music. What has led him to think so poorly about the world at large ?
“I started to feel like I was in a loop, as if the same thing was happening over and over again,” he says. “I had thought that some things would last forever, but that illusion is gone now. I’ve realised that the most important thing is what is immediately around you—your environment, the clean air, the fresh water, and the people.”
He’s tired, I decide. He’s weary of the day-in and day-out. It’s not financial woes or relationship troubles. His is an existential crisis—Gurung appears to be grappling with his own self, the path he’s chosen in life and the meaning he will ultimately create out of all that he’s done. It doesn’t matter if all of Nepal can sing along to dozens of his songs. In the end, a man needs to be happy with himself.
“All I want is to be able to wake up in the morning and bathe myself, drink clean water, breathe fresh air and listen to the birds,” he says.
I tell him I’m surprised to hear him talk like this, that it’s not what I had expected. He apologises.
“I'm not a pessimist, I'm still hopeful,” he explains. “But I am frustrated that things haven't gone the way I imagined they would. The things I’m saying, they might be sad but they're the truth.”
I agree with Gurung. I can understand where he is coming from. But is this what is on his mind when he’s performing in front of thousands?
“No,” he says. “I forget myself when I am on stage. There's an intimacy between me and the audience. There's the sound, the lights, and I don't think about anything else. I feel blessed when I am performing.”
That then is the lone silver lining in this dark cloud. At least Gurung isn’t disillusioned with music yet, because that would be a disaster for Nepali music.
“I like many of today’s bands,” he says. “I go to their concerts on my own and listen to them. I like how dedicated they are and how much they're trying. They're also technically very gifted, not like in our time.”
I ask him for some names but he refuses, he doesn’t want to upset anyone by forgetting to mention them. Although, he does say that he sees a future for Nepali music, especially those bands that are working with folk melodies and traditional instruments. Only, there’s still a couple of things missing.
“There's a vacuum between the artists and the audience,” he says. “There are artists making original music and there is an audience for it, but somehow they're not meeting. Perhaps it’s the market, the management and the mainstream audience, which wants immediate satisfaction, like instant noodles.”
The audience of today consumes music through videos and as single. Gone are the days of the radio and the album, where you had to sit down and really listen. “I still feel like music is not something to watch, it's something to listen to,” says Gurung.
But didn't Nepathya itself have some great videos? I ask. In the 90s, some of the most memorable videos on television were Nepathya’s, like that cycle ride in Resham and the Dolpo landscapes of Sa Karnali.
A coincidence, he says.
“Those videos were about collaboration and teamwork,” he says. “I think the video for Sa Karnali is the best example of a group of contemporary artists and friends working together to create something.”
As was Bheda ko Oon Jasto, where Gurung and his friend, the writer, editor, journalist and peripatetic Narayan Wagle, go off into the hills and mountains in search of a song. Gurung is at his best in the film, inquisitive and open. That kind of collaboration is just not happening anymore, he says, and perhaps that is what has him so downhearted.
He could perhaps move on, I suggest. If he’d like to take a break from music, he could pick up one of his other passions, which include painting, photography and farming.
“I enjoy painting the most, but it’s been years since I stopped. The satisfaction that I get from playing with colours is unlike anything else,” he says. “But I got into music and everything changed. It became a high of sorts and now, I've become addicted, I can't quit.”
If he sticks with music then, will it reflect this new Amrit Gurung and his change in philosophy?
“That should reflect in my music but I am not sure,” he says. “After all, I might die tomorrow.”
Gurung apologises once again for his melancholy.
“I am moody,” he says by way of explanation. “I'm a positive man, but I'm not going to pretend and say that everything is great. I don't want to be fake.”
He comes back to something that he’s repeated multiple times throughout the nearly two hours we’ve been sitting together.
“The world is not how we think it to be. There are people who've never learned to live,” he says. “It's like that Ram Krishna Dhakal song, yo bhanne kura na ho.”
Hotel Sunset View, Baneshwor
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