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."

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