Meet the Women Celebrating the Beauty of Traditional Music From Nepal

This female band gives empowering performances keeping a rare art alive.

Apr 12, 2024
Meet the Women Celebrating the Beauty of Traditional Music From Nepal | This female band gives empowering performances keeping a rare art alive.

Nepali Musician Shanti Chaudhari is no shrinking violet. Living in Nepal, still considered a traditional, often patriarchal society, Chaudhari began playing in a women’s band in 2021. But that’s not all. This changemaking band, as AP reports, plays the naumati baja, aka Nepal’s nine traditional instruments. These were previously only played by male musicians of an ostracized caste, the Damai, once known as the “untouchables.”

From exclusion to inclusion
Growing up in the country of Nepal, located between China and India in South Asia, Chaudhari was scolded by her parents for standing too near a group of musicians playing the naumati baja instruments. These captivated her, despite being identified with the lowest social caste in Nepal, and stigmatized as a result.

Among these instruments is the Sanai, a distinctive double-reed wind melodious instrument that holds a significant place in Nepali culture. It is a type of curved clarinet made of seasoned wood and a bent metal pipe featuring a flared bell at one end, and several finger holes.

Yet, as AP details, this determined musician went on to overcome her family’s opposition to the music, and even her husband’s initial disapproval to play in a band of her own, Shrijanshil Mahila Sanstha. This translates to the Self-Reliant Women’s Group.

Band founder, Bal Kumari Bhusal, shares that she was criticized when she first established the band of nine musicians, some four years ago, with musicians from various castes. At the start, lower caste musicians taught the band. And Bhusal is breaking barriers in other ways too: “Previously, there were few women musicians, but now we’re growing in numbers on this journey. It’s not just about preserving our cultural heritage. It’s also about empowering women in today’s challenging world.”

Many of the musicians welcome the chance being in the band gives them to see more of the world outside their homes, allowing them to escape some domestic chores while earning for their efforts.

 Today, this nine-strong ensemble performs abroad repertoire, taking in religious to folk and more popular melodies played on percussion and wind instruments. These women are in demand at weddings, birthdays, religious ceremonies, and political gatherings too. 

More Nepali traditional music initiatives serenading women
The Self-Reliant Women’s Group isn’t the only band striving to revive traditional Nepali music. The Rising Nepal Daily reports on a related revival in Biratnagar, an industrial city in southeastern Nepal

Here, a municipal initiative is training local people eager to learn how to play these traditional instruments. This trend reflects a growing appreciation of heritage-rich music despite the many more modern alternatives.

Here too, women are keenly aware of the empowering commercial potential of becoming accomplished players. They are also keen to get out of the house to enjoy the melodies and rhythms that they can create with other musicians on these traditional instruments. 

Project Sarangi is another initiative striving to keep Nepali traditional instruments and their music alive. Its ambitious goals involve the desire to fight back against globalization and the commercialization of entertainment which risk driving traditional music to extinction, the project maintains. It is headed by Kiran Nepali, an acclaimed player of the Sarangi, a Nepali traditional four-string instrument made of wood covered with goatskin. 

This project aims to standardize and modernize what it calls “Nepalese indigenous folk instruments”  to make them appeal to next-gen music lovers. It also wants to boost the creation of fusion music that combines the best of traditional and modern Nepali sounds.

Significantly, Project Sarangi also acknowledges that women are still much less involved in Nepali musical practice than men. In its efforts to inspire local women to participate more, it has offered them free three-month music training courses.

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.