‘A new age demands new revolution’Rayan on his never-ending journey to music and fight for freedom.
Narayan Bhakta Shrestha is popularly known as Rayan. He was one of four members of musical group Ralfa during the 60s and 70s. He and his bandmates were known as people’s musicians, who took to the streets to protest many dictatorial regimes in Nepal, from Panchayat to the second Jana-andolan. Now, he is at the helm of a state institution, the Music and Theatre Academy, as chancellor. Recently his 77th birthday was celebrated in the presence of his contemporaries, friends and fans—who remembered his evergreen music, which remains relevant to this day, decades since its composition. In this interview with the Post’s Asmita Manandhar, Rayan discusses his journey from a small village in Okhaldhunga to Kathmandu, and his complicated rise to become one of Nepal’s most celebrated musicians. Excerpts:
How did you get into music?
I grew up in a tight-knit Newar settlement at Okhaldhunga. We celebrated all Newar festivals that were celebrated in Kathmandu Valley. My father was an avid proponent of Newar culture—from festivities to language and music. Due to this, I also played many roles in traditional theatre, showcased in dabalis since my childhood. Additionally, I was also told by my father that my grandfather, Ram Bahadur Shrestha, was a royal court singer. So, I feel it was my family background and the environment I grew up in, which naturally led me to pursue music.
How were you able to start out in the music industry back then? And how was your experience?
When I was 19, I was selected to sing for Radio Nepal after winning the all-Nepal music competition. From Sagarmatha zone, me and Raamesh, who is a year younger than me, were selected. Before our song was to be recorded, we were made to sing in front of a panel of veteran artists. When we finished singing, all the panel members were visibly angry with us. Both Raamesh and I were confused. We sang a folk song that was very popular in our region and couldn’t really understand how we offended them.
Later, we were told to change a sentence from our lyrics, which went like this, ‘Gai charne ma Bhaisi charyo, banko raja Kusunda lai hajur bhannu paryo’ (Buffaloes grazed where cows were supposed to, we now have to greet jungle’s king Kusunda too). It had only been a year since then King Mahendra scrapped democratic rule and established a dictatorial Panchayat system, so the panel members at Radio Nepal interpreted our simple folk song having hidden meaning against the state. We were allowed to go live only when we changed the latter sentence to ‘Mai hu bhanne sannani lai hajur bhannu paryo’ (we now have to greet a proud girl).
We were just teenagers and it was our first stint in pursuing music professionally—but it was also our first experience of how censorship can be prevalent on art.
Radio Nepal, however, was our abode for the next 14 years, where we worked as their in-house artists. We were paid Rs 10 per song, which also popularised us.
You say your initial inspiration was your cultural background, but people remember you for revolutionary songs, which pushed listeners to rebel against the system and oppression. How did you make that transition?
One of the biggest fans of our music was, as we came to know from mutual friends, was Parijat, a contemporary and celebrated writer at the time. Parijat had already been awarded with Madan Puraskar when we met her. For us, trying to find our footing in the foreign city, Parijat became our friend and guardian.
In the meantime, the payment we received from Radio Nepal was suddenly cut off. We later found out that the top-level administrators withdrew our payment in their name. We complained about this corruption to Radio Nepal’s director, but nothing happened. Then, one day, when we were walking out of Singhadurbar, frustrated with the treatment we were receiving, an administrator from Special Police, which was equivalent to present anti-graft body, asked us what was wrong. We told him whatever was going on. He then called us inside this office and listened to our problem in detail.
He made us write a formal application. We obliged without understanding the potential consequences. But, based on our application, the Special Police raided Radio Nepal premises.
After that, we were forced to leave. Many top officials were angry and threatened our lives. But we were musicians and needed a stage. In the absence of our regular stage, Parijat’s home became that place for us. That is when our music started representing suppressed voices—from personal experience and being exposed to such situations and incidents.
Is that when Ralfa was formed?
Yes. After we received threats from the Radio Nepal officials we started to travel in groups. It was then we were able to discuss our music even more. And since we were no longer institutionalised, we were able to go to various programmes and street events and sing our songs. It made us more popular with the people.
We were not aware back then, but coincidently The Beatles was also formed around the same time we named our group Ralfa. We also had four members in the group—Raamesh, Manjul, Arim and I.
All of the members of Ralfa picked very unique stage names. How did you come up with them and did they have any particular significance?
We wanted to come up with a unique name—that's about it. We are performers and we wanted our group’s identity to be memorable for the public. There is no profound meaning behind any of the pseudonyms. I just slashed ‘na’ at the beginning of my name and called myself Rayan. Similarly, Raameshwor became Raamesh, Meghraj became Manjul and Rishi became Arim.
You still remember your art being censored when you were just starting out. Now, heading a state institution yourself, how do you feel about the current state of freedom of expression for artists?
This country went through many political changes throughout my lifetime. So, I can say that our society has definitely evolved—in terms of accommodating diverse voices. But music and art should always be present to challenge and scrutinise the state.
With every changing society, comes different challenges and social abnormalities. It is the reason why art is immortal. The songs we sang four-five decades ago, like ‘Koi ta bhane jaahaj ma harara, koi ta bhane pasina tarara’ (Some travel in planes, some are drenched in their sweat), ‘Gau-gau bata utha, basti-basti bata utha’ (Rise from every village, rise from every town), ‘Ek jug ma ek din ek patak aaucha’ (One such day will come only once in a century), and many more are still relevant to this day because of this.
A new age demands new revolution—society and state require constant reminders, regardless of how democratic society is. So, in every era, artists should be on the frontline to push the boundaries and stand against any censorship.
What is the Academy doing to promote and encourage upcoming artists?
For artists to understand their roles in society, beyond entertainment and leisure, they need a platform where they can express their views, and we are ready to give them that space. That said, we are looking to be more inclusive of artists from all districts. There is a lot to be done, but we are positive we will be able to foster communication and cultural exchange among the different communities across the country.