Written by PETER J KARTHAK
A SONG’S TSUNAMI, 1962-2012
Nau Lakh Tara: Fifty Years After
The story purportedly goes like this:
One cold and misty winter day in 1960 in Darjeelingtown, a nationalistic, albeit dipsomaniac, Nepali schoolteacher called Agam Singh Giri handed a page to a nascent singer and composer called Amber Gurung.
This was at Bhanubhakta School of which Giri was headmaster. It was also where Gurung had set up his evening Art Academy of Music in one classroom.
What Gurung saw was a song, and he set it to music, arranged it for his young Art Academy musicians, and sang it. The song made both Gurung and Giri – Gurung more so – famous all over Darjeeling in a short time.
It was then there appeared a senior officer of Darjeeling Police. Court Inspector (CI) Sachindra Mani Gurung had heard Amber sing the song at town hall and tea garden soirees, and its words and music captivated his discerning heart and soul.
He was attuned to the arts, culture, music, and literature of the Darjeeling Hills.
Soon, CI Gurung decided that the song should be recorded and cut on disc. He volunteered to bear the entire costs of having the song pressed at Hindustan Records in Calcutta.
Amber Gurung and his Art Academy musicians – Karma Yonzon, Gopal Yonzon, Sharan Pradhan, Ranjit Gajmer, Ganesh Sharma et al – traveled from Darjeeling to Calcutta and back, and all of their travel, food and lodging expenses, recording fees and disc production costs were paid for by the CI Gurung: A model of personal
generosity typical of Darjeeling.
Agam Singh Giri
A dummy version of the disc duly arrived in Darjeeling, and we played the scratchy grooves at KC Dey’s – Darjeeling’s Harmonium Maila! Soon the finished copies of the record arrived for the market in the early winter days of 1961.
As a junior member of Amber Gurung’s Art Academy of Music in town, I saw it all happen and most of what followed.
The song was soon to be the epochal masterpiece called “Nau Lakh Tara Udae” – Nine Hundred Thousand Stars Have Arisen!
The song hits many fans
Once the song hit the airwaves of the Darjeeling Hills in its villages, towns and tea gardens through PA system, each public and private occasion spinning the record on manually winded gramophone record player, the political and social beans spilled out and a Pandora’s Box regurgitated the many controversies that followed, with historical recoils which mostly remain hidden to this day.
What better occasion than the International Day of Music 2012 to unravel the many undisclosed fallouts caused by this one single song!
Should there be any song interpreted on one hand as an anti-national political agitation by the government of a country, and the same song taken as a protest anthem by a chronically afflicted group of the same nation on the other, this then was it – a bombshell! Compared to Jean Sibelius’ symphonic poem “Finlandia” as a tableau depicting episodes from Finnish history to remind the 18th century Russian Empire of its hegemonic censorship regimes imposed on Finland, or Hitler and his Nazis being aroused, ostensibly enough, by Richard Wagner’s operas and his invention of the music drama in which drama and spectacle and music were fused as an unprecedented form, “Nau Lakh Tara” was a mere three-minute song, recorded in a dingy Calcutta street studio on mono-track magnetic tape and then pressed to grooves on the surface of a wobbly 78rpm vinyl disc. But what nuisance and noble values it was soon to be seen pregnant with!
On the face value of it, the song was but a mere cry-baby “Poor Us!” self-pitying soliloquy of the Nepalis of Darjeeling in their diaspora in India.
They had the disingenuous tag of being “Indian Nepalis” and were as solidly settled down in Darjeeling, as elsewhere in India, as its bona fide citizens. It goes without saying, but Nepalis are centuries-old residents in other parts of the world as well, being in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, and elsewhere. VS Naipaul, born a Trinidadian Indian, is by descent a Nepali from Nepal by his own account.
Now Sir Vidiya and a Nobel Laureate in Literature, his Naipaul heritage has its sagas from the hills of western Nepal to the ghats of Varanasi in British India before his forebears headed to the sugar plantations of Trinidad.
But these are thoughts and facts available and affordable only today while things were much narrower and straight black and white then when Nau Lakh Tara appeared as a disturbingly awakening text and a rousing and an enlightening melody in the early 1960s.
While its sonnetic structure has the stream of pensive lamentations gushing and tumbling out in rapid, hasty and impatient lyrical outpours, its rushing musical lines paint a tableau of the rains and shines, the seasons and years and decades of the Nepalis sweating it out in Darjeeling, its Nepal-roots inhabitants carving out their niche existence since they were pushed out by their own rulers in Nepal and pulled in by the welcoming British Raj in Muglan since the 19th century.
Yet Agam Singh asks of them, pat in the middle of the stanzas: “Gharako maya birsera / Kina po yahan aayau ni?” – Having forgotten the love of home / Why, at all, did you come here? The questions of identity and unresolved belongingness continue in the midst of all the unending angst and chronic existential vagaries in sufferance as their fateful lot in this Himalayan corner.
As far as Darjeeling – Sikkim, Ilam, and Bhutan are automatic extensions in this cantata – is concerned, it was the Dorje Lyang, Land of the Gods, of its prehistoric indigenous race called the Rongs, or Lepchas.
Now their ancient Mayel Lyang has become Gorkhaland of those Nepalis whose grandparents first heard the forbidding piano fortissimo of “Nau Lakh Tara” half a century ago, and the forbidding words, “Nasamjha aaja Nepali sanchale yahan bancheko” – Think not of Nepalis enduring here ever comfortably!
As it obtains even today, and even if its native Lepchas are virtually wiped out in Darjeeling, its Indian Nepalis have lived here one day at a time from the moment they arrived here, carving out uninhabited Lepcha terrains into farming terraces, planting tea all over the hills and valleys, quarrying pits and chiseling granites to erect British Mews, Maldens, Villas and Kopjes, and building roads and railways from Siliguri to the Gundri Bazaar, the present-day Chowk Bazaar.
They have dreamt one dream at a time for their existential recognition, language legitimacy, and state education plans and policies for their children. And today, Darjeeling’s Gorkhalanders want to wish the old concept of Nepaliland away as dead yesterdays while agitating to provide eyesight to their blind tomorrows.
It all started, the extraordinary self-rendition of Indian Nepalis to Gorkhays in the Darjeeling of Dorje Lyang, with “Nau Lakh Tara Udae” in its poetic narrative and with jarring notation which innocently helped redefine today’s Gorkhaland.
A trilogy of triumphs and tribulations
As it is, there’s still no authorized translation of Agam Singh Giri’s Nepali lyrics, but suffice it to say that his apocalyptic verses revolutionized songwriting in the Nepali world: Lyrics could indeed depart from the customary love, despair, departure, and brokenhearted forlornness that prevailed in Nepali music; that there were other far more serious subjects and themes to pursue.
But on its own hinges, Nau Lakh Tara is Darjeeling’s own desperado Fado, with no solvent Saudade anywhere in sight. Giri’s Trail of Tears is still wet and Gurung’s winding staircase melodic movement fades away with the lines of “Kina po yahan aayauni, Kina po yahan aayauni ni………?” Morarji Desai comes to mind!
As for the song’s musical construction, its composition and arrangement are available in Bhatkhande ‘sargam’ and western Staff notation.
Nau Lakh Tara is one of the three songs Agam Singh wrote for Amber Gurung on the same theme of Nepalis being stubbornly rooted, already for generations, albeit in the insecure “Prabas” or uncertain Muglan of Darjeeling.
All three songs were set to music, and Amber sang them on various occasions in Darjeeling. But while Nau Lakh Tara saw the light of the day, the other two songs in the trilogy remain in Gurung’s archives since the 1960s.
One lyric doggedly opens thus:
“Najaau farki Nepal,”
Uthera bhanchha Deurali:
“Farkera herana Muglanko
Mayalu paakhaa chiyabari!”
Another one reflects on the Nepali home on the Kanchanjunga Range:
“Baisaakh laagyo pahaadmaa,”
Kukkule bhanchha, sunana!
“Hridaya haamro roeko,”
It’s possible that Bhupi Sherchan knew about the “Najaau farki Nepal” piece, and so he much later wrote “Aljhhechha kyaare pachhyauri timro chiyaako buttaamaa / Baljhhechha kyaare sunako kaadaa kalilo khuttaamaa…” which was eventually set to music by Gopal Yonzon and recorded by Narayan Gopal Gurubacharya.
This hit song doubly confirms the Indian Nepalis cemented to the soils of Muglan in Darjeeling while their other brethrens were scattered to other parts of the world, including across the dreaded and unholy Kala Paani.
Nau Lakh Tara as a song – tome and tone combined – had already hit the popular psyche in Darjeeling. Now, as a recorded package, the song traveled far and wide, broadcast and shoutcast as it suited the moods and modes of the ears that heard it.
It was not a political manifesto, however; it was simply a self-portrait, a report on the bathos and pathos of the Nepali lifeways outside Nepal in its transplanted folkways in Darjeeling, while the song’s unprecedented modernism revolutionized melodic progression in Nepali music with chordal emphasis on Beethovenian construct. Amber Gurung thus conveyed Giri’s Jhyaurey lyric on a modern folk vehicle, an effective experiment never tried before.
The rights and wrongs heaped on Nau Lakh Tara
There wasn’t much intellectual discourse in Darjeeling on the Giri-Gurung duo’s divine work. The people of Darjeeling, in their blind faith, had taken the song in its stock entirety; the populism it had gained needed no controversy or adverse criticism. This is our song, right or wrong, they said.
I was a tenth standard student at Turnbull High in 1960 when Nau Lakh Tara had already swept the Darjeeling Hills. Our teacher of Nepali, Mr. Indra Bahadur Rai, held a side discussion in our final-year coaching and counseling session.
He expressed his confusion with the song’s tumbling imageries in quick and mutually conflicting succession: autumn juxtaposed with blossoms, smiles placed against despair, rare hope in pervading bleakness, more angst and less respite, virtually no promises in the face of futile prospects.
Indeed, that’s the pensive picture painted by the three stanzas of the song, and its twelve lines reflect on as many epics lived through by the Nepalis in this provincial Muglan for at least twelve historically recorded decades by then.
Then on to Kathmandu in the early 1970s: A conversation took place between Shanker Lamichhane and Bhupi Sherchan on Amber Gurung and Nau Lakh Tara. Their talk was more concentrated on Amber’s role as the song’s composer, arranger and singer, yet the presence of Agam Singh was always somewhere there.
Finally, Shanker Lamichhane concluded that Nau Lakh Tara was the right song written by the right lyricist and composed and recorded by the right artist at the right time.
King Mahendra of Nepal, too, thought that Amber Gurung had the right stuffs. Like he had cajoled and attracted many Nepalis from outside Nepal, he invited Gurung to come to Kathmandu and belong here. So Gurung followed the old footsteps of Randhir Subba of Kalimpong, Lain Singh Bangdel of Darjeeling, and others from “across the Mechi.”
For good measures, Mahendra also enticed Haribhakta Katuwal of Duliajan in the Northeast. That the king’s conspiring courtiers dumped them in Kathmandu is a shameful fact.
Only recently, Gurung has reemerged as the creator of Nepal’s new national anthem, befitting the secular nation as a federal democratic republic, and presently he is the Chancellor of the Academy of Music and Dramatics. Katuwal returned to Duliajan early on and died gulping from a bottle of moonshine.
What King Mahendra did was play out his own vision in a new push-pull factor that resulted in a reverse migration of Muglan to Nepal, at least in the cases of Amber Gurung and Katuwal.
Why he did what he did in enticing Gurung and Katuwal, among others, from India and elsewhere to Kathmandu should best be left unanswered, due to his untimely demise. But his royal wish to have Amber Gurung live and work in Kathmandu was a blessing in disguise for Gurung. It goes this way:
When Nau Lakh Tara deafened the dales and vales of Darjeeling, the biggest democracy in the world called the Federal Democratic Republic of Secular India sat up and listened to the song. It was alarmed, to say the least.
So its bureaucracy duly declared the song as anti-national, if not seditious, and the Intelligence Bureau hounded and harassed Amber Gurung by putting mild pressures on him, subjecting him to an uneasy vigilance and applying other unsavory methods. Freedom of expression was violated in this case.
Since the lyrical contents of the song were not censored in advance – God forbid such strictures in a free country! – the state government of West Bengal found itself in an embarrassing position. So, soft subversive ways were employed against Gurung.
In his case, the state took special umbrage because he was a government employee in the Government of West Bengal’s Ministry of Information’s Department of Information’s Lok Manoranjan Shakha (Folk Entertainment Unit) which he headed in the District of Darjeeling.
His was a secure and permanent post with pension upon retirement. So the government thought he was repaying Bharat Mata in an ungrateful way, for example, by singing divisive songs. The unity of India was endangered by such an unpatriotic act which was also as treasonous as it could be.
It is sad to note, even at this late date, that the political parties and elected leaders of Darjeeling made no effort to clear Gurung’s blacklisted name. He had committed no federal crimes by singing a sad cathartic song which reflected the collective experiences of the Nepalis of Darjeeling. But not a single intellectual wrote a word decrying the tightening purge against Gurung nor did any civic leader of Darjeeling speak on his behalf, either.
The sharp instruments of the State and Center cowed down even the stalwarts of the society and conscientious citizens. The universal concept of human rights was a strange bird in those days and times when the Naxalite Movement was raising its hammer and sickle banners merely fifty miles down south from Darjeeling.
Understandably, it was also a time of the Indo-China border “incidents,” and India had reasons to push the panic button in a border district like Darjeeling which could be strafed and bombed by Chinese MIG and Sukhoi parked in adjacent Tibet. Darjeeling had strict blackout orders imposed in the evenings.
In such circumstances, with the national paranoia of “phoren hands” everywhere, a “sensitive” song like Nau Lakh Tara was an unpatriotic development, detrimental to India’s unity, and a divisive element violating the sanctity of Mother India. In such nationwide panics, India misunderstood the song’s sentimental outpouring of a particular people’s unique pains as orphans in a no-man’s land called Darjeeling.
Thus was Nau Lakh Tara read and misread in these many ways and duly interpreted and reinterpreted, and the surgery continued.
No wonder Amber resigned his post as chief at the Folk Entertainment Unit. He had a wife and four children to support. He became a freelancer, performing at schools, colleges and public functions in Darjeeling District, touring Sikkim, Bhutan and the Dooars. (The latter turned out to be a staunch anti-Nau Lakh Tara region, but that’s a separate story altogether!)
Farka Hai Farka Nepali; Timilai Dakchha Himali……
I’ve digressed a little in this piece; so I must retrace my steps.
King Mahendra seemed to have seen the ominous dark clouds gathering above Amber Gurung and Agam Singh Giri in Darjeeling. So he calculatedly invited Gurung to Kathmandu, and a grand Nau Lakh Tara Tour ensued in 1962 with Amber Gurung and his Art Academy singers and musicians comprising Indra Thapalia, Rudra Gurung, Aruna Lama, Karma Yonzon, Gopal Yonzon, Sharan Pradhan, Ranjit Gazmer, Lalit Tamang and others.
The royal command performances and the antics of the high society of Kathmandu are a separate body of stories and anecdotes, too long for this anniversary piece. What is far more important to note here is that the Royal Nepal Visit was another alibi for India to cry foul and conjure new heckles against Amber Gurung.
So Amber Gurung was “fired” from his Indian Government service. He had no option but to accept the royal invitation and settle in Kathmandu. Exiled from an older Muglan in Darjeeling, he underwent a long rehabilitation stint in a new Muglan called Kathmandu.
In an affordable retrospection fifty year later, in 2012, I see that it was a time in the 1960s when King Mahendra seemed extraordinarily “lukewarm” to India.
He had his remaining five children – Crown Prince Birendra having already left for Harvard, Eton and Tokyo University – studying in Darjeeling hurriedly recalled to Kathmandu in the midst of their study.
One ostensible reason given was the king’s wish to have his family reunited and live together for the first time in many years, this time onward in the new Narayanhiti Raj Durbar.
But was he rather playing the China Card against India in the heated Cold War in this region? Plus the deteriorating relations between China and India, Nepal’s two giant neighbors, one directly to the north and the other adjacently in the south respectively, did not help normalize matters.
Well, there’s so much to read into the uncanny intrigues of the decade. So, by the way, was Nau Lakha Tara one of the unwary and unwilling pawns in the Great Game played out by King Mahendra? So much for a three-minute song for what it is worth!
The fadeout of Agam Singh Giri
Giri wasn’t persecuted nor prosecuted, as Gurung was. He was not a government employee, as Gurung was. He was an innocuous headmaster of a nonprofit primary school.
He was Darjeeling’s Dylan Thomas and similarly died as an imbibing barfly. Like Philip Larkin, he finished his four-fifth by late afternoon. His regular haunts were the millet moonshine gaddis in and around the Chowk Bazaar or the Barik Motor Stand.
He had a second wife, a much younger and indeed a beautiful woman, and that was a real coup!
Agam Singh Giri is much nearer to Bairagi Kainla’s Prufrockian “mateko manchhe” with his “bhashan” at “madhya raat.” Giri Sir was my neighbor in downtown Chandmari, and in his drunken stupor late at night, his loud “love song” declared his undying affection for Darjeeling and wanted it to be peopled only by Nepalis, with every non-Nepali “duly kicked out of Darjeeling!”
Otherwise, Giri was mild-mannered and pleasant, soft-spoken and gentlemanly, of medium height and good-looking, and always clad smartly in neat daura-suruwal and jacket.
At least, the Gorkhaland Movements of the past and present have eschewed such absolute nonnegotiable nationalism in Darjeeling as preached by Giri as its precursor, and the present leaders, even in their shortcomings, have avowed the participation of all who have long belonged to the Hills in mutual partnership and coexistence.
Well, even if a brief song like Nau Lakh Tara did in South Asia what the longer Finlandia or the Gotterdammerung Series achieved in Europe, listeners today are certainly likely to feel differently, even indifferently. That is the dispassion of Kal Chakra in history.
Today, Israel’s philharmonic musicians are playing Wagner’s music for its own sake and not for what his works might have influenced in Hitler’s Final Solution and the resultant Holocaust.
What of “Finlandia” today except for the vignettes of the historical voyages made by Finland to that point in time when it even demolished the military might of Imperial Russia? How can one take Edvard Grieg’s music now? Is it merely for the Norwegian folk traditions which his works embody, and not how his compositions helped Norway disengage itself from a more imposing Sweden and carve out its own unique identity more than a century ago?
It is up to the listeners, whether casual ones or with ones with acute historical perspectives. For me, Nau Lakh Tara is a historical baggage I’ve carried so far and which I’ve rested and emptied here.
In the meantime, I listen to Radio Sagarmatha playing this song as a “kaaljayi geet” and feel the meaningfulness of young Amber Gurung’s voice when he was not yet 24 years old.
I also gasp at the musical gaps left by the recording technology of the early 1960s, or the lack of some indispensable instruments, and how these can be remedied by today’s enhanced techniques and finer musicians.
How about some counterpoints at the end of the second line in every verse? Surely, the interlude is a philharmonic passage demanding at least twenty-five violinists, five violas, and so on! Perhaps a timpani roll with the final fadeout? For piano, is a Steinway the ideal instrument, or a Baldwin? The vocal chorus must be stringently selected and professionally coached; the original chorus, I believe, had mostly medical students of Calcutta.
With such fugitive thoughts, it’s time to call it a day. I’m sure there will soon be another Nau Lakh Tara rising and shining and creating its own halos in the firmament of the Nepal Mandala. As for the Giri-Gurung masterstroke meteoroid, it has completed its fifty-year trajectory in the constellation over the Himalaya.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at [email protected]
Courtesy: REPUBLICA, The Week
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