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Linguistic Diversity in Nepal’s Music Industry

Nepal's music industry is leading the way in promoting the country's many languages.

A visit to Kantipur FM, located in Nepal’s Lalitpur district, brings you face-to-face with many of the country's musical legends. As one of Nepal's pioneer private radio stations, its music library offers a treasure trove of old and new recordings. It is also a good place to meet famous musicians in person.

I am at Kantipur FM to interview Nanda Krishna Joshi, a singer and political activist for the Nepali Congress Party who, along with several other singers from his region, has done a great deal to promote the languages and musical genres of his home region: Nepal’s far-west.

Joshi tells me that getting the deuda and thadi songs in far-western regional languages like Doteli and Baitadli accepted as part of the national mainstream has been a long, hard road, and is still an ongoing process. The same is true for songs in languages from Nepal’s plains region, and for the country's many indigenous languages.

I ask about the music on Kantipur FM's shelves. The librarian first divides the Nepali-language recordings into modern song, folk and pop — "pop" includes everything from the slow and sentimental "senti," to songs mixing various local folk elements with the musical vocabularies of international rock and R&B, to straight-up hip-hop and thrash metal. Then he begins dividing the rest by language.

"We're in the Kathmandu Valley, so naturally we're going to have more Newari songs. Then comes Tamang songs, and then maybe Hindi. We also have Gurung, Rai, Limbu, and Tibetan songs," he explains. "But other stations in other districts will have more songs in other languages. It all depends on who your audience is."

In addition to songs in the national language, Nepali, songs in ethnic and regional languages now make up a significant part of Nepal's popular music market. But it was not always this way.

Development of Language in Modern Nepal

As one of the world's most linguistically diverse countries, Nepal currently recognizes 123 linguistic groups, among the 126 officially recognized different castes/ethnic groups as reported in the 2011 census data.

Nepal was united as a state in the late 18th century, and the language of the unifying conquerors, known as Khas Kura, Gorkhali, Parbatiya or Nepali, became the language of the state. The place of other languages in government, education and media has been debated throughout Nepal’s existence, but the recent story of language policy is most often told as a shift from a monolingual, unitary model to one that embraces pluralism.

Policies under the Rana regime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries favored Nepali and, after a decade of debate in the democratic 1950s, the autocratic Panchayat government embraced a unitary, monolingual model from 1960-1990. This policy influenced the music industry most significantly at the state-run radio station, Radio Nepal — Nepal's only radio station until private FM outlets emerged in the late 1990s.

A look at the folk music department at Radio Nepal gives us an idea of how this worked. Beginning in the 1950s, song collectors like Dharma Raj Thapa, who also served as arrangers and singers, traveled around Nepal learning songs, recording and playing on the radio — always singing in Nepali. Songs they learned that were originally in other languages would be translated, or simply given new Nepali words.

Thus, a genre of "national folk" was created partly by design and partly by default, based on what those in charge at Radio Nepal's folk music department chose to promote.

Thapa and others from the early days of the radio, such as folk and modern song performer Hiranya Bhojpure, told me that Nepali was promoted as a practical lingua franca, to reach the largest possible audience. Yet from 1960-1990, the promotion of Nepali became a cornerstone of official policy meant to create a unified national cultural identity.

"This unitary policy was always contested," Joshi tells me. "We fought for the ability to sing deuda songs in Doteli, rather than in Nepali."

At Radio Nepal, officials in the folk song department attempted to placate members of other linguistic groups by offering one half-hour program a week, featuring songs in languages other than Nepali.

Yet this strategy may have held the seeds of its own demise, as the comparatively tiny amount of time given to non-Nepali songs on air gave other linguistic groups a measure of their marginalization.

It was in the 1980s that Joshi and his fellow far-western singers, along with singers of other regional and indigenous languages, began to advocate for greater inclusion in national radio broadcasts. Their efforts at the state level were augmented as another venue began to open up: a private music industry.

Democratization of Culture and Language in Nepal

As ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel notes in his 1993 book, Cassette Cultureabout the rise of private and regional music industries in India, the new cassette companies in the 1980s democratized the sphere of South Asian cultural production.

In Nepal, the advent of a private cassette industry coincided with a growing movement for janajati (indigenous people) rights. Language was a major focus of their struggles to be allowed to express their cultural identities and to obtain greater political representation. Cultural performances in indigenous languages were a major part of their strategies. Even if they did not make political statements, they demonstrated that these languages and musical styles were part of a broader, pluralistic concept of Nepali culture.

As a market for folk music outside the styles of national radio began to grow, ethnic and regional-language recordings also began to increase. Now, studios like Pritam Gurung's Rodhi Digital in Kathmandu began to produce songs, music videos and films in various languages — in this studio’s case, the indigenous language known as Gurung or Tamu Ke. Regional studios and companies, like New Malika in Dhangadhi, Kailali, produced recordings in regional languages. And, with the fall of the unitary Panchayat government in 1990 and the advent of democracy, linguistic and cultural pluralism began to gain ground as goals of national policies on social inclusion.

In the early 2000s, several years into their People's War, Nepal's Maoist party adopted the janajati movement's demands for recognition into their party platform. As scholar of indigenous politics Susan Hangen argues, this move helped bring cultural and linguistic pluralism to the forefront of Nepali politics.

After the civil war between Maoists and state security forces ended in 2006, social inclusion on multiple fronts, including language, became a primary focus of the ongoing process of state restructuring. Half of the 2010 National Cultural Policy is devoted to language policy, and the other half discusses how to achieve greater social inclusion through promoting aspects of Nepal’s various cultures.

Despite these policy changes, state efforts continue to follow developments in the private music industry. While the proliferation of media forms has made state productions a less important part of the music industry as a whole, the private recording industry and aspects of the state are beginning to coincide in other arenas, such as election campaigns.

Joshi has always used live performance in his political activism, rather than recording songs and music videos in support of the Nepali Congress Party.

Yet other artists and political parties are turning to recordings in their search for votes. A recent music video in support of the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist features actress Rekha Thapa dancing to a song in Maithili, a language spoken in Nepal’s plains region as well as in neighboring India.

Cultural preservation and ethnic advocacy organizations are recording more and more songs in indigenous languages, and these songs are receiving wide circulation via social media, artists' tours, and through the traditional music industry routes of album sales and radio play.

"The goal," says Joshi, "is to get all of these accepted as part of Nepali culture, all throughout Nepal. Our languages are not secondary. And our deuda is part of the oldest Nepali culture that exists."

As the Nepali state pursues more pluralist policies, the music industry offers a platform for linguistic groups to assert themselves, combining goals of cultural and political recognition.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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