The passing of a maestroNarrowing a genius’s oeuvre to promote self-serving nationalism undermines his complex contributions
The music maestro Amber Gurung’s passing has elicited an avalanche of tributes and obituaries. His music composition for ‘Nau Lakha Tara’ (1961), his meeting with Panchayat’s progenitor king Mahendra (soon afterwards) and the monarch’s invitation and Gurung’s subsequent migration to Nepal (1968) figure prominently as crucial transformative moments in his career, according to these obituary writers. While the Nepali nationalist monarch was moved by the 1961 song for its supposed longing for homeland, the Indian government that controlled All India Radio banned it, fearing the discontent of its diverse population. Back then, India had not yet embraced the many states in the south and the north-east. But the obituary writers have missed the complexity of both the maestro’s personality and of the Nepali diaspora.
Intoxicated by its postcolonial nationalism and traumatised by partition, India not only banned ‘Nau Lakha Tara’ from All India Radio but harassed the budding musician at his job, so much so that he had to resign from it. In the India-Nepal diaspora, a Nepali migrant or a minority in Darjeeling had no official recognition of his or her language and culture for economic and cultural advancement. The song captures that sense of alienation and displacement of an exile. And the alienation and powerlessness stem from homelessness. But was the supposed homeland safe and welcoming?
Oppressed by the rulers at home, who had constituted an elaborate regime of discriminatory caste-based laws, hierarchical ideologies and demeaning practices to marginalise the others and force them out, the alienated self in the song expresses the despair of the Nepali diaspora. But these obit writers fail to comprehend this complexity. In their nationalistic zeal, they celebrate the simplified narrative of a prodigal son’s return home and turn blind to the complexities of home and abroad.
If the exile is not welcome in his new place, is he welcome at home? Let us examine the ‘Nau Lakha Tara’ song a little. It compares the joyous nature—its autumnal blossoms in the hills and the starry sky—with the wilting of the diasporic self’s inner flower. Yet, the song insists on the tenacity and enduring power of the exilic flower that sustains its joys amidst the thorny bitterness of diaspora. The song seems to address one’s fellow compatriots who remained in the homeland to understand and sympathise with the suffering as well as the toughness of the diasporic self. The diasporic self asks a question to itself, “Why did you come here to put out your inner fire? Why did you come here?” But where did the fire come from?
The obit writers do not want to go there because they will be confronted by some difficult questions. Did the home that Gurung returned to turn out to be a welcoming home for him? In all these years of serving the homeland, the prodigal son did not even have a permanent roof over his head. He died with his family in a rented house. That is why he asks an interviewer in Medanta Hospital in Delhi not to focus on the individual but on his struggles. Yet the interviewer, excessively determined by his Nepali language and caste nationalism, asks the maestro in his first question what the latter thinks of the identity politics in Nepal? The maestro, scarred by his diasporic experience and rendered roofless in his homeland, cannot but give a canned answer about Nepaliness being more important.
For a Nepali-speaking caste Hindu journalist to try to recruit a famous Janajati composer for the cause of monocultural, monolingual nationalism is offensive in itself. But to show it off in a major daily as testimony of the maestro to undermine the Gurung’s and other Janajatis’ struggle for structural equality and empowerment is nothing short of an insult to the Janajati movement.
Let us examine another song for which Gurung composed the music, a song to whose tune I, along with my fellow primary school team of Maruni dancers, shook our waist, flared our hands and raised our artificial nose and mustache to collect donations on Dasain and Tihar. ‘Eh Kancha Thattai ma Yo Baisa’ is a duet between a lonesome girl worried about her passing youth and a reassuring boy who promises to return to her at her urging with sindur and gold bangles. But the girl asks the boy to return to her early in the morning in a silk turban (resami feta). She does not mention Dhaka topi (as many of our dress nationalists would have it).
Therefore, a true tribute to the music maestro would be to embrace the complexity of his life and career by recognising his contribution to a complexity of the Nepali diaspora (‘Nau Lakha Tara’), to songs of nationalistic valour (‘Rato ra Chandra Surya’), to the emerging multiculturalism in the country (‘Sayaun Thunga Phoolka Haami’)—and even the acceptance of the many ways of dressing in a multiethnic country (‘Eh Kancha’). To restrict a genius’s oeuvre to promote narrow, self-serving nationalism is not only damaging to the present and future of a complex country but undermines the maestro’s varied contributions and personal history.