Still dancing and singing for Nepal revolution

'Comrade Pratista, 14, dances to the tune of a revolutionary song at a Maoist mass rally in Dang in 2001 during a Dasain ceasefire. Photo: TAKAAKI YAGISAWA/A PEOPLE WAR

Men and women in unisex combat fatigues dance energetically on stage. Their modernistic, martial moves would not look out of place in a tv reality show. But the lyrics tell a different story:

It is time to sharpen

the shining khukri again

This YouTube video clip shows members of the Samana Cultural Group affiliated with the Biplav faction continuing where the mainstream Maoist party left off after the ceasefire in 2006.

Songs like these were hits during the insurgency, when Maoist propaganda units toured the country performing and mustering public support for the revolution. In many places, it worked.

But even though Nepal has gone from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, and many of the performers have either migrated for work overseas or turned to other professions, members of the Biplav faction are still singing to show that the revolution continues.

The tradition of revolutionary songs did not begin with the Maoists. Ranudevi Adhikari, the first female voice on radio, sang songs against the Rana regime that were broadcast from clandestine stations in 1949. One of them went:

                Nepali, Nepali,

                Let’s march forward

                with the flag of revolution in our hands

The genre came to be known as janabadi, and the songs were revived during the Panchayat when four youngsters, Raamesh, Raayan, Manjul and Arim, established a group called Ralfa.

“At the time, the only songs were about love, not about the harsh life of poor people,” remembers Raayan, who today heads the Nepal Academy of Music and Dance. “Our intention was to bring awareness and to change society through music.”

The group went on to create rousing songs like Gaun Gaun Bata Utha and Gariba ko Chameli, and toured Nepal singing songs protesting against the Panchayat regime and establishing the pragatishil genre, which shares many features with protest music worldwide.

The lyrics mainly dealt with social inequities and injustice. The music was often martial and easy to repeat and understand because it was based on simple folk tunes. When performed as dances, the songs were deliberately non-sexual, featuring uniformed men and women.

The tunes were instrumental in the success of the anti-Panchayat people’s movement of 1990 and the 2006 anti-monarchy protests. During the 1996-2006 insurgency, the messages focused on injustice and an exhortation to rise up and fight. There were krantikari (revolutionary) songs eulogising courage on the battlefield and mournful ones about martyrs.

“The function of revolutionary songs was to recruit people to the revolutionary cause, and to rally the people,” recalls Mani Thapa (video below), who headed a Maoist cultural group. “They were relevant at a particular moment in history, and we don’t really sing such battle-ready songs anymore.”

Many of the songs are now lost because they were never recorded, but also because the cause dissipated after the war. Writer and music analyst Raman Ghimire believes this is the fate of all revolutionary songs: “They are associated with a particular ideology and are only relevant as long as the movement needs them. They are never going to be popular in the mainstream.”

The Maoist party’s cultural wing attracted many talented lyricists, composers and singers, but it was later dismantled. “After the ceasefire we had intense debate about which way we should go, towards peace or towards another revolution (shanti ki kranti),” remembers Laxmi Gurung (video below) who joined the Maoists out of revenge after her leftist father was disappeared by state security and her husband killed. It is her voice in dozens of revolutionary songs, including Rana Maidan Ma, in which a line says, ‘the lives of brave warriors bloom in the battlefield’.

Laxmi Gurung (above) joined the Maoists after her father and husband were killed. She did vocals for dozens of revolutionary songs.

“More bloodshed will not be good for the country,” says Gurung now, adding that it is hard to survive as a singer in peacetime. Other members of her troupe have chosen other paths  too. Mani Thapa became a politician, while Maila Lama (video below) who sang songs exhorting guerrillas to battle, has joined the Biplov faction.

Pragati Mahara of the Maoist Pratirodh Cultural Group today sings songs about social ills and transformation. “The songs about battles are a part of history,” says Mahara. “Now that our revolution is over, we are more focused on the need of the day.”

Meanwhile, the original Ralfa generation is still active, perhaps more so than the Maoists who came after them. But even they have distanced themselves from politics. As head of a government institution, Raayan is focused on promoting Nepal’s folk art.

Raamesh also shuns political affiliations, even though Ralfa’s songs were used by many political movements: first against the Panchayat, then by the Maoists, who saw them as precursors to their own revolutionary songs, and finally by political parties during the 2006 anti-monarchy protests.

Raamesh is now more active as a children’s song creator. “We sing people’s songs, which speak up for the poor and disenfranchised. If anyone wants to use them for a good cause, they are welcome. But using it for vested political interests is a crime,” he says.

Unlike Maoist songs, Ralfa’s numbers are evergreen because they speak of the larger causes of justice and equality. There is a lesson there in what makes a song endure, while others disappear.

Jeevan Sharma, who established the Raktim Cultural Group, is among the few revolutionary singers who has gone mainstream. “The people always need a voice, and songs that speak truth to power. If they do that, songs do not need to be associated with any political party – they can have a life of their own.”

Sharma’s own song of the life of the disenfranchised, Simali Chhaya ma Basera, has that long shelf-life.

Since the Raktim Cultural Group was associated with the NCP Masaal led by Mohan Bikram Singh, Sharma’s songs were unofficially banned during the monarchy days and the composer himself was semi-underground during the Panchayat and the war years.

Ironically the Maoists, who once promoted revolutionary songs, are today cracking down on protest songs. Those who claimed to speak for people’s rights now try to ban songs like Pashupati Sharma’s Lutna Sake Loot.

Raamesh himself is still writing songs, and his latest shows the fire has not gone out:

                A great storm arose

                To raise the fallen head of justice

                Their deceitful face is now clear

                Now we know they are regressive

Laxmi Gurung's wartime memories in pictures

Read also: Voice of the party, Govinda Luitel

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