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Music: not a frivolous form

KATHMANDU, NOV 25 - Following in the footsteps of Darjeeling-bred musicians like Aruna Lama, Shanti Thatal, Gopal Yonjan, Dilmaya Khati and Kumar Subba, is veteran singer Binod Syangden. The 59-year-old has had many hits in his career—one spanning a whopping 12 albums and which saw its heyday in the early 70s—and songs like Ma Ta Satya Satya Bhanchhu and Timilay Bhaigayo are still heard frequently on the airwaves. Syangden was also the recipient of the Voice of Darjeeling title in 1970, including various other musical awards in India. Currently, he is the headmaster at the Nagri Tea Primary School in Darjeeling, where he has worked for 28 years so far. A prolific musician who kept personal records of his many compositions over the years, Syangden suffered something of a shocking setback in 2010, when his house was torched, and his archives and instruments all burned to the ground. The only thing that survived the fire was a little half-scorched maroon-coloured diary, containing some writing and songs—a vivid present-day reminder of that terrible time. The singer is currently in Kathmandu to perform at nepa~laya’s Paleti evenings on November 30. The Post’s Anup Ojha caught up with the musician for a chat about his life and passions.

How does it feel to be here rehearsing for your Paleti show?

I feel re-energised, reborn almost, being here. When the fire happened two years ago, it was naturally a very low point in my life, and I was disheartened enough to consider giving up singing altogether. But then, last year, when Aavas and Amrit Gurung came to Darjeeling with the invitation to perform at Paleti, it brought me out of that dark hole, and back to music. It’s an incredible difference from the state of mind I was in before. This is my first time performing solo; I’ve brought my diary along and will also be singing songs from it.

Did you grow up in a household where music was cherished?

I always enjoyed music, whether it was listening to it or singing myself. My uncle was a great singer, and his voice is the first memory I have of being introduced to music. But he was very insistent that I focus on my studies rather than hang around him. He would wave me off whenever he played his harmonium at home, but I was so fascinated that I would hide and listen to him. I remember actually getting slapped for being so persistent. My grandma would then let me into her room, which was next to my uncle’s, so I could press myself against the walls and hear something of his singing.

So how did your initiation into music occur?

Ever since I was very little, I was a big fan of Narayan Gopal and the Pakistani singer Muhammad Rafi, and would practice singing just like them. When I was in the seventh grade, I started participating in different school events, trying out my skills on an audience during functions like Bhanu Jayanti or the school’s annual day. Darjeeling, as a town, is very conducive to musicians, I think, or at least it was in my formative years. I grew up going to live performances by incredible artists like Aruna Lama and Shanti Thathal, and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that there was something in the air in Darjeeling that stirred one’s creative inclinations. Since my family wasn’t big on music, though, me and my friends would secretly hire a harmonium and practice by ourselves. That was how inspired we were by our surroundings.

Have you been to Kathmandu before?

Yes, I came here for the first time in the 1980s for about 20 days for a recording with Radio Nepal, and it was all so new and scary to me. But Bhakta Raj Acharya was a big help at the time, as was Gopal Yonjan, whose assistance with the recording was invaluable.

How has music changed over the years, in your opinion?

I think the biggest thing for youngsters interested in music today is that they have a lot more freedom than, say, we did in our days. Parents, at least the ones I see around me, are much more lenient with letting children do what they want, and opportunities to learn are also more expansive in current times. Back then, getting to record at an actual studio was nothing short of a Herculean task; you had to get all the musicians and singer in one place at the same time, and if someone made even the smallest of mistakes, you had to do the whole piece all over again. I remember the two days we spent at a recording studio in Calcutta in 1973, trying to finish eight songs—a very, very hectic experience. Technological advancements have made things easier in that regard. In terms of negatives, I’d say music has become a lot more dispensable today. If the difficulties of becoming popular in the past meant that you put a lot more thought and effort into what your work represented and said, because it’s so easy to get work out at present, young musicians don’t appear to value their voices as much, and are focused more on quantity than quality.

Do you have a particular message for young musicians?

I think it’s important to remember that we’re being given a gift for a reason, and that there are things we can and should do with it. Entertainment is certainly a valid priority, but there should be something more substantial besides it that we should try to address with our songs; we need to strive not just to entertain, but to transform, for good. Music, or any form of art, should not be frivolous, I think, otherwise we’ll have squandered our gift.

Syanden’s 13th album, Impression,

is to be released soon


Posted on: 2012-11-26 09:35

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