A sky full of images

Get up every morning

To chase a goal

That you don’t even know.

Life is wilting away

In the corner of a Sajha Bus

Have you done anything

To make you happy?

When Bartika Eam Rai released the first song Khai on YouTube in 2016, it took Nepali cyberspace by storm. The song captured the existential angst of her generation: life wasting away in routine tasks as dreams are postponed. The lyrics were autobiographical, and the voice captured an inner emptiness.

Rai composed the song to share with her mother and close friends, and was taken by surprise when it spread like wildfire in the Nepali diaspora on the Net.

“My songs come from real life, from anger with social conditioning, identity crises, and existential questions,” the US-based singer said this week on a visit to Nepal. “A person is supposed to achieve certain things by a certain age, like getting a good job, being settled. These things apparently define us, and it was not working out that way. So I weaved my own confusion into music.”

But instead of revelling in her newfound fame, Rai did what she had always done to cope: compose another song. Shoonya was to become part of her second album.

The singer is an accountant by day and composer by night. The voice is so original, the words so genuine that each song goes viral as soon as it is released. Khai won her two Hits FM awards: Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Song of the Year. She is in Nepal after almost five years on a concert tour.

Rai jots down her feelings as they come, and only later slashes them into song lines that are distinctive from all other genres of Nepali modern music. She admits to being unsure at first about whether they would work at all.

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“I was under the impression that Nepali audiences do not appreciate lyrics much, and are more into melodies,” she said. While many singers start with riffs and notes, I start with words. And the words are quite literary.

Nepali audiences proved her wrong, and she gets over 4 million views for each song. The words and music seem to appeal to Nepali youngsters because they echo their own feelings. “My mother, a Nepali teacher, instilled a love of Nepali language in me,” Rai remembers. “When I was in boarding school, my friends’ parents would sneak in food, but my mother would leave letters for me.”

One of the letters read afulai avalokan gara (observe yourself) – hefty instructions for a 9-year-old girl. Today, Rai carries on that tradition and includes Sanskrit words like pragadhor abhinaya, and the title of her first album is Bimbaakash which means ‘a sky full of images’.

“I grew up singing and admiring classic Nepali songs, but in school I found out that everyone else was singing in English, and my self-esteem dropped,” she recalls, “Today I make a conscious effort to record in Nepali, because apart from commercial songs, I feel that we are not writing and recording in Nepali as much as we should.”

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Rai’s songs reflect her intensely private persona. And after the success of her first album, she felt pressure from audience expectations. Her second album Taral feels more intimate, with Umer about her deceased father, and Anumati that gives a loved one permission to move on.

But doesn’t she feel vulnerable exposing heart and soul to strangers? “Of course there is some negative feedback,” she admits, “people harass you for being a girl, make sexist remarks, and that does make me anxious sometimes. But in the grand scheme of things, these things do not matter.”

What does matter to Rai is home, and she weaves the theme of homesickness into many of her songs, with nostalgia of school and childhood. Even her Nepal tour is called Ghar, but she now wonders where home really is.

“Here in Nepal I was always surrounded by writers and musicians. In the US, I felt lonely, and many of my songs were composed in that dark, empty space,” she says. “I realised I wanted to be back home, but Nepal is changed every time I come back. It is not what I left behind. So, the question now is: what is the home that I really want to come back to?”

She is here for a month this time, and despite the inner torment in her lyrics, Bartika Eam Rai’s songs leave listeners with hope:

Look at yourself

How long has it been

Since you laughed freely?

Lived fearlessly?

Go, be lost…

Content in happiness,

Find you in yourself…