Remembering Dharmaraj ThapaThe melody of early modern Nepali history inspires us to look into our own times today.
This article draws from a discourse I presented on the birth anniversary of Dharmaraj Thapa (1924-2014) in Kathmandu recently. In my view, Thapa's journey represents the rainbow of the early modern Nepali historical times experienced after the country became free from the Rana oligarchy in 1950. A humble, somewhat village-oriented, confident and charismatic poet, collector and singer of folk songs, Thapa was a mirror of history because he was a witness to the crises, metamorphoses, political sincerities, bravados and apogee of monarchical power. Thapa also took the early anthropological initiatives. I have written articles about him, given seminars on his contribution to Nepali singing and folk song collections, and emulated his voice and style for light-hearted moments in public. Here I will look at the features of the early modern Nepali history by alluding to poet Thapa's various interests and associations.
When Dharmaraj Thapa set out on a bard's journey Nepal was just waking up to the amorphous, yet, powerful possibilities opened up by the end of the Rana oligarchy in 1950. That transformation opened Nepal to the wider world putting an end to a century of censorship and restrictions. The youth, mostly guided by democracy or left-oriented, followed the political path. They adopted multiple methods to express the euphoria of the changing times. Writing poetry and lyrics was one prominent interest at that time. Not only that, taking one's invention to the audience was another guiding principle which was performed by singing songs or reading poetry about the social or revolutionary change in society. Dharmaraj Thapa wrote lyrical poems and sang; he collected folk songs and sang them effectively. He created music for his words.
Thapa felt the words and understood the sensitivity of the times when he wrote them. One telling historical episode is in order. Dharmaraj Thapa wrote a song about the rebellious political leader named KI Singh (1906-1982) who, unhappy with the Delhi Agreement of 1950 between the Ranas and the Nepali Congress leaders that ended Ranacracy and created the first civilian controlled government, continued the so-called revolution, got arrested for that and was put in the Singh Durbar prison. KI Singh escaped the prison with the help of the security guards on 22 February 1952 and fled to China seeking political asylum. Thapa serenaded a revolutionary song krantikaari hain vira ki singh or 'oh, brave KI Singh where did you go after breaking the prison!' He sang about KI Singh's virtue, honesty and revolutionary spirit. Thapa visited different places singing this song. He said to me in a personal interview that police came to disrupt his singing, and even beat him up. He recalled that with a sense of pride. Thapa had taken umbrage at one incident though. KI Singh returned after staying in China for three years and eight months, in 1955. Progressive writers like Laxmi Prasad Devkota and Hridaya Chandra Singh Pradhan met Singh in Chabahil and drove him on a jeep to Tundikhel or the open greens, with great fanfare. They gave speeches there, but the bard Dharmaraj Thapa was nowhere to be seen. He was not invited to meet KI Singh let alone serenade the song about him. But Dharmaraj Thapa said such incidents made no difference to him because he sang for the people and the nation.
One important quality of Dharmaraj Thapa's music was that this folk singer, this poet without any training could create music for his songs according to the mood and genius of the times. For example, the now lost KI Singh song is sung in high pitch; the sharp rise and fall of tone is orchestrated with the words of the song that represents the revolutionary spirit of the times. Thapa could change the tone and melody according to the subject of the song. His famous song about Buddha janmecha buddha nepalma written for the international Buddhist conference in Nepal many years ago is an example of that. His singing here is totally different from the KI Singh song. The cadence that he employs in this song brilliantly captures the serenity evoked by the Buddha. I am very impressed and surprised by Thapa's musical talent. He had the great musical sensibility to give music to his words according to the mood of the historical times. His measuring scale for that was a combination of poetic strength, his voice and melody.
The other quality of his music came from his visceral relationship with the land, geography, and the passion with which he wrote and sang. He got this sense, this sensation of proximity with the land through his body, his legs mainly. He measured this scale of music through his countless travels across the country from where he picked up the tones, melodies, words and the power of the folkloristics. He sang songs directly drawn from his extensive travels all over the country. That was the first category. The second category of his songs was his own poetic creation. Like Rabindranath Tagore, on a small scale, Dharmaraj Thapa wrote music for his poems. But I do not have enough space here to cite them. The songs he wrote and sang under this category were message-oriented like dhuru dhuru narou aama, 'our Shukraraj Shastri got arrested/ people got the news that he was going to be hanged’, 'can you douse the flames of hunger with tears of lamentations'? And so on. Dharmaraj Thapa looked for leaders, heroes; from KI Singh to king Mahendra, but he never put anyone but Nepal on his head when confronted with the challenge of choice. But in later times, he remained disillusioned on this score. One impressive song goes like this: siramathi nepala amaalai or 'I keep mother Nepal on my head, and king Mahendra on my shoulders'. He measured music, words, politics and love through his body, through his walks.
Dharamaraj Thapa visited the Indian Nepalis of various places serenading Nepalile maya maryo barilai or 'oh, how the Nepalis have forgotten us'! A Darjeeling poet Agamsingh Giri's song naulakha tara udae that Ambar Gurung made very famous by composing music and rendering his voice, was an inverse nostalgia, a metaphorical response to Thapa's song nepalile maya maryo barilai.
The melody of early modern Nepali history inspires us to look into our own times today.
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