Shanti Thatal’s Paleti serenadeNepal’s first female music director is one of the most prominent singers, representing the early days of modern Nepali music.
Shanti Thatal’s musical performance at the Paleti series in Kalikasthan, Kathmandu a few weeks ago was a significant event for some pertinent reasons. Triggered by Nepalaya’s ‘r’ sala musical event, I have attempted in this short essay to understand the phenomenon of very important Nepali musical experiments, performances and efforts made to reach out to a wider sphere of Nepali music lovers over half a century. That final evening of this maestro’s performance with her team of young singers Meena Niraula and Bimala Century was eloquent in a number of ways. First of all, Aavaas Phuyal—the musician and coordinator of Paleti—who metaphorically represents a minority of musicians who have a classical base, was acting like a very important liaison not only between two periods of modern Nepali music but also between the geniuses of the times that Nepali music has experienced. The most well-known modality of Nepali music of that time is created out of the grand harmony of words, voices, instruments, and above all, the audience. That is a great achievement. Referring to what Shanti Thatal said was a great lyric ‘ma achanaknai aden’ (I stopped suddenly) Aavas said, ‘that is a painting in words’. That is the other element, the painting, art in the harmony mentioned above. That style, consciousness, aesthetic orientation, that creative struggle of the singers and music writers as well as lyricists to create something that would sway the audience constitutes the essence of modernism in Nepali music.
The cosy hall was packed and Shanti Thatal’s memoirs filled the audience with bleary eyes, including the CEO of Nepalaya Kiran Shrestha, who along with Aavaas creates these great musical evenings free from the rigmarole of having to be a politically appointed academician. Shrestha is doing this task of archiving great musical traditions and bringing these forgotten musicians and singers from Nepal and Darjeeling time and again—bringing poets and singers together in this process. I cannot imagine though how Kiran would have achieved this without Aavaas, who had resigned from the position of a member secretary of the first Academy of music, theatre and performance arts, and joined this den of freaks.
The Paleti series started in 2005, and it has already featured Thatal for the fifth time. Thatal is one musician and singer who not only links modern Nepali singing with today’s times but is also someone who directly brings the late Ambar Gurung (1938-2016), his musical power, his voice, his strength of producing musicians like herself and others before the audience.
Historical interpretations and narratives are nearly silent about Nepali female musicians and singers. Even a musician of Thatal’s stature has not been given due recognition for the modernisation of Nepali singing and music writing, although she is one of the most prominent singers representing the early days of modern Nepali music. Thatal’s repeated visits to Paleti and her recollections of the musical odyssey in the presence of the audience, therefore, have opened up new surprises. The audience now knows that Thatal was not an ordinary singer who only sang what the musicians gave her. As the first female music director of Nepal, she created her own music and performed. Aavas lauded Thatal for her dedication and contribution to music for about six decades. Striving to present an element of novelty in her performances, Thatal did confess it was a challenge to create something new every time she came to the Paleti series. These idioms reveal the untold story of this female artist, who is a musician of great merit, has written music to the famous words of Ambar Gurung and sung, and has also provided score for a clutch of films and plays, such as Paralko Aago, Bachna Chahane Haru, Muna Madan, Kunjini and Mendo, among others.
Educated in music at Shantiniketan, a place envisioned and built by Rabindranath Tagore and his father, Thatal became a music teacher. She composed a cantata—a medium-length narrative piece of music for voices with instrumental accompaniment, typically with solos, chorus, and orchestra—based on poet Ishwar Ballav’s narrative poem and performed it in 2012. I am fully familiar with Ambar Gurung’s cantata, but not with one of Thatal, which sadly does not exist anywhere today except in the memories of the audience and the musician. That means Thatal as a musician had experimented with this form that involves orchestral music for solo and choric singing. The fact that Thatal’s cantata should come 20 years after her guru and friend Ambar Gurung’s cantata performed in 1992 marks a tremendous continuity of that experimental spirit, though it had several problems, which I put in these words:
‘Gurung did not have any repertory at the Academy where he worked. This cantata whose libretto was written by poet Ratna Thapa was perhaps a one-time experiment. Naturally, this form did not receive continuity except for a modest attempt to introduce a choir five years after this by Ambar Gurung himself.’ (The Kathmandu Post, March 20, 2016).
But what was presented with great energy and success that evening at Paleti was poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s Munamadan that Shanti Thatal had composed and performed in 1970 and in later years of that decade. Munamadan was brilliantly performed by Bhushita Vashistha with choric interpretations and well-orchestrated musical and vocal arrangements. The Paleti team comprises of musicians Dinesh Regmi (on keys), Balaam Salam (on the flute), Sundar Maharjan (on percussions), Sandesh Maharjan (on the tabala) and Suraj Pradhan (on the guitar).
What is modern Nepali music cannot be discussed in an essay of this length. But I want to conclude by making two observations. First, the modernism in Nepali music that started by creating consonance of words, instruments, singing and audience continues to be the reality of good Nepali music. I do not consider the postmodernist turn and the folk-oriented singing as its rival. But, as Aavaas said, archiving the great works, vocal or otherwise, is a great need; but sadly we are failing at that. Second, we have always overlooked the contribution of this great female musical maestro Shanti Thatal for the modernisation of Nepali music. However, I could feel the new waves in the presence and response of the talented younger generation of music audience that night.