Nepali folk songs move beyond love and loss

The lyrics in traditional duets this Tij are about empowerment and social injustice

Inside buses on their daily commute Nepalis are used to listening to familiar-sounding songs that feature alternating female and male voices, responding to one another, often cheekily.

Called lok dohori (people’s duet) this genre originated with the Gurung community and its tradition of the rodi ghar dance halls. After a hard day of harvests on the terrace farms, young men and women challenged each other with duets in which the musical repartee had to come within 30 seconds.

“The rodi tradition had gone by the time we grew up in Gorkha, but our elders still sang the duets and we learnt it from them. We sang about love, happiness and sadness,” recalls noted folk singer Harimaya Gurung. “But the songs have changed a lot. These days it is not as emotional as before.”

Cultural historians agree that the commercialisation of the entertainment industry and the advent of YouTube and Facebook have cost Nepali folk songs their cultural value. Still, every Tij festival folk singers come up with new numbers in which the lyrics delve into contemporary issues like migration, patriarchy or even corruption in government.

Read also: Tibetan music in Nepal’s sacred valley, Sewa Bhattarai

“We must change as the trend develops,” notes folk singer Chandra Sharma of the National Folk and Duet Song Academy. “They may be commercial hits, but they have mostly added to the continued appeal of the lok dohori genre.”

However, there are complaints about folk songs being too explicit or provocative, even obscene. Sharma admits there are some extreme examples, but his Academy has set standards and criteria for song lyrics.

The folk songs are changing in other ways, too. The popular and controversial song by Pashupati Sharma, Lutna sake lut (Loot all you can) was a satirical critique of rampant corruption, and became an anthem for frustrated Nepalis, especially when it was censored after the singer received threats from ruling party youth.

“These voices have brought positive changes. There are many songs about corruption, freedom for women, against caste discrimination and songs about the state of the country. That means folk duets are relevant and playing a constructive role in society,” hit folk singer Badri Pangeni told Nepali Times.

Read also: Eastern melodies in Kathmandu, Sewa Bhattarai

Message or entertainment?

New generation lok dohori singers who want to send a message sometimes find themselves up against traditional expectations. “I have sung songs with social content, but when I sing on stage I focus on romantic songs, because that is what people want to hear,” says Kala Lamsal, a contemporary folk duet singer who recently released her Tij song, Patali.

Singer Mina Lama tries to find a balance. “It depends on the place and time,” she says. “I prefer to sing songs that give a message as well as entertaining songs to sing with friends and family.”

Generally, fans who attend a stage performance want fast-moving entertainment, says Lama. “People today want to dance and have fun. While there are people who listen to the lyrics, the crowd during festivals and mela (fairs) include more young people, who enjoy dancing.”

Read also: Still dancing and singing for Nepal revolution, Sewa Bhattarai

Changing Tij tunes

Tij is traditionally celebrated by women all over Nepal either for the long lives of their husbands, or so they can find good husbands. Dressed in red saris, red and green bangles, and other colourful ornaments, they sing and dance on the streets while thronging Pashupati and other temples to pray to Shiva and Parbati, the celestial couple.

Although some activists boycotted Tij because of its patriarchal overtones, today the festival's songs carry a message of gender empowerment and poke fun at the patriarchy, while at the same time promoting solidarity. However, as women get more educated, even that is changing. Many women just want to have fun with their female relatives and friends and do not want to sing only depressing songs about victimhood.

“People asked me why women were only singing about suffering because not all women suffer. This made me change my mind,” says folk duet singer Chandra Sharma. “It seemed that women just want to let their hair down and make Tij their festival of sisterhood.”

Read also: Parodying patriarchy at Tij, Sewa Bhattarai

It’s not only the content that is changing, male singers are also performing Tij songs, which would have been rare 20 years ago. For example, the 2018 Tij song, Motiram ra Jamuna by Badri Pangeni delivered the positive message about husband Motiram supporting his wife Jamuna when she gets elected in local elections. Because of her busy schedule, the husband begins doing all the household work:

“Barsaudekhi nariharu le gare chulochauka

Mahila le ni paunu parcha desh banaune mauka”

“For years women worked in the kitchen station,

Now, she need the chance to build the nation.”

Says folk singer Harimaya Gurung: “Tij is a festival of women but men also sing Tij songs. I think this is a good trend because it means they are supporting us women.”

Read also: Re-inventing Tij, Mallika Aryal

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