Street Musicians of Thamel

The street music has become a way to not only get customers to buy the instrument but also as a way to connect with music lovers from across the world, as Thamel is a pot where tourists from all over the world visit to make it one of the most happening and must go places in the world.

By Anuska Joshi

Thamel, the tourist hotspot in Kathmandu Valley, is always bustling with people with so much of sight and sounds. There are numerous hotels, pubs and shops, hundreds of people on the streets, lots of trinkets and tattoo shops, and hordes of food stalls and thanka shops. In fact, there is so much to see that you blink an eye and you miss things in Thamel.

Now there is also live music to add to the essence of Thamel, thanks to the street musicians with their folk instrument ‘sarangi’. While diving deep into the origin of this street music in Thamel, this legacy goes back to the Gandharba community who are considered as the musical community in Nepal. These street musicians are seen walking through Thamel playing their Sarangi. They also carry around the same musical instrument to sell to the interested tourists. Most of the tourists are allured by the deep melody of the Sarangi. The street music has become a way to not only get customers to buy the instrument but also as a way to connect with music lovers from across the world, as Thamel is a pot where tourists from all over the world visit to make it one of the most happening and must go places in the world.

I came across the musicians as soon as I entered the main entrance to Thamel and was greeted with twinkly eyes and a very warm smile as soon as I approached them to talk.  I had heard that music lovers have a very welcoming spirit. Most of the street musicians in Thamel are affiliated to Gandharba Cultural Association. They invited me to their office in Thamel.

Trying to sell Sarangi to the visitors at Thamel. Photo: Amit Khakurel

As simple as the office looks, with a few furniture and Sarangis hanging on the wall, the richer it is in culture and music. The Gandharva people from Nepal have been playing music since the 14th century. This was the time when there were no roads or electricity or communications of any kind. The Gandharva people would travel across mountains and hills all over Nepal on foot, taking many days, and their songs would act as a medium to put across the messages from all the different places and also pour feelings. The Sarangi and its music is a way to talk about one’s feeling, local gossips as well as political messages. The Gandharva music was introduced in Thamel around 50 years ago by people travelling to the Kathmandu Valley. They found Thamel to be a great place to showcase their talent and their instrument and the word of mouth brought many musicians to Thamel. Right now, around 50 such artists are associated with this association which was founded by Hira Lal Gandharva who is currently in Ireland.

Every day, these talented musicians roam around the streets in Thamel playing their emotions through the melody of Sarangi, battling with negligence sometimes and being blessed with amazing sales and meeting interested people other times. They are not only eking out a living through their traditional talent, but also trying to promote and save the diminishing culture which is becoming encroached upon by the new EDM, pop, and rock and roll music.

But things were not easy in the early days. The Gandharva community had to battle a lot of challenges. Initially, they were not allowed to play on the streets and were even chased away by the shopkeepers if they stayed too long outside their shops. The caste system, that divided Nepalis for so long and which still has some hold, has made the life of Gandharva people quite difficult. They were regarded as the so-called lower castes since the ancient times. That these talented people, who can make magic out of music and share everyone’s feelings, are treated with contempt still baffles me. But this is the sad truth that has stayed with our history and therefore has made their journey full of struggle. This has even prompted the younger generation of this community to be reluctant to embrace this musical tradition.

Sarangi. Photo By Amit Khakurel

But the formation of this association has opened up the door of opportunities for these talented musicians. The music has been able to touch the heart of many individuals. Anil Gandharba, who is a young musician from the Gandharva Community Association in Thamel, says that music needs no barrier and the songs and melody of Sarangi have made foreigners cry and laugh even if they do not understand the language. Many foreigners also visit this association to complete their research of Masters and PhD courses in Music learning from the Sarangi and Madal players of Nepal.

The Gandharvas have also had the opportunities to visit faraway places. Many of these musicians have been able to go abroad to represent Nepali folk music. Anil recently participated in the South Asian Sub Regional Intangible Culture Heritage Conference in Goa to present Nepali folk music. He, along with other members of this association, has been working hard to preserve this music and keep it alive. They also sell CDs of their music.

Gandharvas are mentioned in ancient scripts as being heavenly bodies who made music and also acted as messenger between gods and humans. They walked all across Nepal sharing the melody of Sarangi and laughter and cries along the way. I realized how fitting naming this musical community after the heavenly bodies of music was after the interview, when they took out their instruments and began playing.

The tune of the Sarangi along with other instruments came together with such synchronization that it made you forget you were in a small office. The people here said that the life was full of struggles and that they were continuing their ancient tradition just because they don’t have other options. But when they started playing together, they melted into one and there was a kind of warmth to that room with everyone smiling and sharing some unknown bond.

And that was the day when I went for an article and got magic instead.

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