15 January, 2004

This Singer is No God of Stone

Title: This Singer is No God of Stone
Author: Sushma Joshi (New York)

The death of Narayan Gopal, Nepal’s most beloved singer, left a void in the Nepali psyche. Deep Shrestha, with his soulful voice, lyrics that blend folk and pop, and songs filled with poetry, has been one of the few voices that have dared to fill the empty space in the popular consciousness.

Born in Dharan in 1951, Deep started to picked up music from his father, who was also a musician. His father sang with his friends, and young Deep listened to him and picked up the music as he went along. His father, unfortunately, did not live long enough to see the talent he was nurturing. "I don't know if he even knew I had this talent." Says the singer, whose father died when he was 11.

He started off by learning many instruments - the bongo, the guitar, the harmonium, all of which were self taught. "I would listen to my older brothers and that's how I learnt." He says. "Then I started to sing at school. Eventually, I started to take part in national competitions. People liked what they heard, and I got a lot of people telling me that I should keep singing."

In 1967-68, Deep came to Kathmandu for the first time. He came along with a theatre troupe which was staging "Silanyas", a play for King Mahendra's birthday. It was a big group, and included artists like Radha Udhas, Kalika Prasad Sharma and Ram Chandra Banepali. "There were no direct roads from Dharan to Kathmandu at that time. We had to go through India to come to the capital." he reminisces. "It took a long time. We went to Biratnagar and from there to Jogmani, Fharmeshgang and then to Kattiyar. This was called the Chotti Lane, or Sano Lane. Then the train went from Samastipur to Raxaul directly, and this was called the Badi lane, or Big Lane. And from there I think we took a bus or truck to Kathmandu, I can't quite remember…"

"I had the opportunity to sing two songs during the scene change during "Silanyas". One was "Pattarko deuta haina." I was a young boy then, and everybody was impressed. So I got an audience in front of Mahendra sarkar. I sang in front of him, and that's how it all started. He asked me to be on radio, so I sang in Radio Nepal on poush 3, 2025 for the first time. People were so enthusiastic about it. I became well known, all of a sudden. They got to hear my name."

The first burst of fame, while heady, was short lived. There was a still a long way to go before Deep Shrestha would establish himself as one of the most beloved names in Nepali music. After his debut on radio, Deep Shrestha went back to Dharan. He returned to visit Kathmandu every year, but it was expensive to travel and it was not until 2030 sal, when he won the gold medal in Radio Nepal's yearly competition, that he was able to move to the capital.

"I had to struggle a lot when I came to Kathmandu. I used to sing in a restaurant for the first six months. I did not like the work so I left. I stayed with friends, and we traveled all over the country and outside. I went to Darjeeling, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Shillong, Siliguri during that time. I was with Aruna Lama and her group of singers, and they would get invited, and I would go with them." Aruna Lama's group included the beautiful Sofia Gurung, who was fifteen years younger than him, and who he would eventually marry.

"Sofia and I liked each other, so we got married after her graduation in Loretto College. We have two daughters: Dristi and Srinkhala. I brought out my first album a few years back, and it was named after my elder daughter. I will be releasing another one soon, and its named after my second one."

His daughters, who are young, are already singing. "They don't need to be taught." He says. "They pick it up by themselves." And yet being an artist is a tough career choice in Nepal, where professional gigs are few and far between, and most artists and singers remain lowly paid. The recent technologies that make pirating quick and easy have also cut down on the meager revenues that artists receive in Nepal.

"Its difficult to survive as a singer in Nepal, you have to think of it as a second profession because there is no steady source of income." For the moment, the girls are singing with their parents, but according to Deep: "We would like them to be educated as well, so they can have another profession."

The singer, good at math and science, was expected like all good Nepali sons to be a doctor by his family. "I turned out to be a singer instead." he says. "But I got a lot of moral support from my muma, even though she wanted me to focus on my studies and become a doctor."

While making a living might be difficult, international acclaim is not. Besides India and Nepal, Deep Shrestha has also sung in the USSR, Hongkong, Singapore, Brunei, Bahrain, Lhasa and Pakistan. Like most artists, his travel schedule is erratic, depending upon organizers who invite him.

He cites Gopal Yongan, Narayan Gopal, and contemporary singers like Satyaman, Prem Dhoj and others as his primary influences. He was also influenced by Indian singers, including the old ones like Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle etc. "I once sang for Laxmikant or Pyarelal, I can't remember which one. They had come to Nepal, and I sang some folk songs for them. He said it was good, keep it up." He recalls.

Folks songs are the backbone of his music, but he has also acquired a taste for Western and urdu gazals as he grew older. "I jot down urdu gazals and then compose in my own style." He says. "I have stopped writing my own lyrics. There are many others who do that now, but I still do my own music."

His future plans include reviving duets between men and women, which are hardly every done anymore. He is also planning some bhajans, and some desh-bhakti songs. " I feel people don't love their country anymore, I want to make songs that make people care about their country. When we do a show, we give some portion of it for charity. People think we do this just for personal profit, but we give a lot of the money to social causes." He says.

"The artists are the first to feel it when the country goes bad," he says, struggling for words. We are sentimental, we can't stand even small indignities. Artists are always concerned about the state of their country, and we want to do something about it."

07 January, 2004

Smoke Signals

Sushma Joshi

On a clear day in December during the student protests, I saw three plumes of black smoke rising in the air. Students from Amrit Science Campus, SankarDev Campus and TriChandra Campus, it appeared, had all started their individual bonfires from scrap tires. As I walked closer to Ghantaghar, a cloud of billowing black smoke rose up to the sky. A line of fire, feeding off old tires and gasoline, cut off traffic from Kamaladi and caused a nightmarish traffic jam. A police car rushed to the scene and put the fire out in seconds, but the smell of burning plastic and chemicals lingered in the air. The next day, the wheels of traffic circulated the fine dust into the air. I watched the crowd of pedestrians, mostly lower income citizens, as they walked around this environmental disaster zone.
Burning tires is the preferred strategy of Nepali students during moments of public protest. Old tires, easily available, produce a satisfying amount of smoke. They are ignited with relative speed and discretion, allowing protesters to beat a quick exit before the police can get on the scene. The black dust coats the tarmac for days, acting as a powerful visual reminder of the protest.
These fires, however, have their own costs, especially to the environment and to the health of the pedestrians, bystanders and residents who inhale the aftermath. Citizens of Kathmandu, already affected by the exhaust of slow-moving vehicles spewing diesel fumes, and from the winter layers of hot and cold air which trap air into the bowl-shaped Valley, suffer a double dose of toxic emissions as the rubber tires are burnt and released into the atmosphere.
We may think tires are entirely made of natural rubber from trees, but they also include significant percentage of synthetic rubber made from petrochemical feedstocks, carbon black, extender oils, steel wire, up to 17 heavy metals, and chlorine. Synthetic rubber often contains styrene and butadiene. Both chemicals are suspected human carcinogens, with studies showing strong linkages between butadiene and leukemia. Extender oils contain benzene-based compounds which cause cancer in laboratory animals. Crude oil contains heavy metals, including, but not limited to, lead, chromium, cadmium, and mercury, all of which can affect crops and human growth. Incomplete combustion of benzene based compounds can produce dioxins, furans, PAH's (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), and PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls), a smorgasbord of horrific by-products known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. If you are wondering about the high rates of diabetes in Kathmandu, you may also look at the US government's Environmental Protection Agency's 1994 Draft Reassessment of Dioxin which states there is no safe level of exposure for dioxin, released after burning chlorine. According to it, "even at extremely low levels a wide range of serious health effects are possible, including reproductive impairment, developmental injuries, and increased risk of diabetes. "
It is an unfortunate irony that activists seeking political change would unknowingly cause so much harm to their fellow citizens through their means of public protest. Democracies cannot exist without protest, but democracies are also run by citizens with a sense of responsibility to their immediate surroundings and environments. Civil responsibility, an integral component of any democracy, will hopefully be instilled into our rallies and marches with the same zeal and efficiency with which tires are ignited.
In democracies in the West, participants exhibit strong civic and environmental consciousness during public protests. Organizers of anti-war protests in the US request participants to refrain from destruction of property, and even send people afterwards to clean up garbage. Italy remains a nation with one of the largest culture of protest against a right-wing government - and their tool of resistance is nothing more harmful to the environment than millions of rainbow-colored flags. It seems like it is time to ask for the same kind of conscientious behavior from our student protesters.
Of course, protesters in Western democracies have the guarantee that their state will not shoot them for their activism, unlike Nepal where the state still has a weak understanding of democratic principles, especially the need for public demonstrations. If the students had not burnt tires and caused a massive uproar in December, would their leaders have been released? Or would they still be imprisoned, facing jail terms for speaking their mind? Perhaps this is a cyclical problem - tires will not stop burning until we have full freedom of expression, in which case the onus of cleaning the air quality rests with the state, which has to stop its authoritarianism. Freedom of speech, it seems, is a precondition for clean air. The smoke signals towards democracy.
801 words
(Kathmandu recently got the distinction of being the most polluted city in Asia in a World Bank report. The report elicited an angry response from Mayor Stapit, who claimed the report was irresponsible - he said the report was based on the statistics derived from one heavily polluted area during a few selected hours of sampling, and that the report would harm Kathmandu's image as a tourist hotspot. Faulty science or not, it is clear that there is a rising number of patients with respiratory diseases in the capital's hospitals in the past five years, especially during the winter months. Environmental experts point to the rising amounts of carcinogens and particulates in the Kathmandu air. PM 10, a unit of particulate, has risen by three folds in the past ten years. Phasing out twos-stroke Bikram tempos with faster moving blue microbuses and Nepal Yatayat minibuses seem to have done little to solve the problem - more than 80% of these new Euro 1 engines also failed the pollution test administered by the traffic police in June 2002. The green sticker, which certifies a vehicle is non-polluting, has become one of those bureaucratic burdens that drivers buy with some ghoos from the police. Children and elderly people, needless to say, are the most affected by the worsening air quality.)

05 January, 2004



Vincent Androciglio, licensed psychotherapist and former professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the New York Medical College, talked with Sushma Joshi of the Nation Weekly about his research in Nepal, including dreams of people about the civil war, and how systems theory might shed light on the current stalemate in the political situation.

Why dreams?
Dreams never lie. People have many defense mechanisms that keep them from facing feelings they have during the day, but these feelings always comes out in dreams. The dream is a powerful source of knowledge about yourself. It is a problem solver, it portrays the past, and can tell us about the future.

What kind of dreams are Nepali soldiers having?
I interviewed about 20 of them. Some had fought in the war, and some hadn't. They were very open and honest about their dreams. One young man described how he was surrounded by a circle of Maoists who were going to kill him. He was so terrified he ran away. Fear is a natural reaction, and one which he could not face during the day. A soldier told me that the dream is scarier than the daylight reality. Another officer described two giant eyes rising from a field and coming towards him: as he started to tell me this story, he started to shake and re-live some of that fear. Dreams allow men to feel the fear they cannot feel during the day.

Why has this political stalemate in Nepal developed and remained stable?
I am trained in systems theory, where we look at all parts of the problem, not just one aspect. I once had a patient who had anoroxia. Her parents were very anxious about her because she was not eating. As I learnt more about the family, I found out their marriage was breaking up, and the couple were held together only by their daughter's illness. As soon as she got well, the marriage broke up. This is called triangulation. One problem, seeming the issue of one individual, is actually the problem of an entire system. In Nepal, the fact that nothing is moving serves the interest of a lot of people. Its easy to blame the King, or blame the political parties, but we are not on the right track when we do that - people are contributing to the problem as much as the King.

How are the people contributing to the problem?
The people are sitting back and waiting. The media also contributes to this feeling of helplessness with their reporting. Sometimes I feel like throwing the newspaper out of the window because it’s the same thing over and over again. I stay in Pokhara, and every day people sit out in the sun in front of their stores, waiting for tourists. They need to wake up to the realization that every bad situation is an opportunity, and that they have to work to change it.

What can they do?
The King is an archetype in Nepal - and the massacre shattered this in the people's psyche. This will take at least 20 years to heal. People have to stop blaming him - I am not saying this because I support the King, but because when you keep giving people the reaction they expect, things don't change. Blaming the King is like scapegoating the bad parent. Its not all about him - its about how the people are maintaining old behaviors, and not allowing change.

How will this change occur?
Systems spontaneously change when they are pushed beyond their equilibrium. It’s the same with addiction - in twelve step programs, alcoholics are told to drink twice their daily minimum to get out of their addiction. At the moment, people are maintaining the status quo in Nepal. Something more drastic has to happen before things will change here.