Folk Lok

The Future of Dāphā

Though Dāphā music has been carried forward as a culture by the Newa indigenous people of the Kathmandu valley, Dāphā songs are not only sung in Newa language. Some songs are in old Maithali, while words from Sanskrit are also used in Dāphā songs.

Triratna Manandhar

Triratna Manadhar performing Dāphā  music
Triratna Manadhar performing Dāphā music

This piece was originally written in Nepal Bhasa by Triratna Manandhar and was shared by him during his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of Dāphā Calling: Revitalizing our music heritage, a four-part panel discussion series series supported by the U.S. Embassy's Book Bus as part of its Folk Lok program. It was translated into the English by Prateebha Tuladhar.

Dāphā is an ancient, indigenous music tradition of Nepal. Devotional songs sung by a group, to the accompaniment of the traditional musical instrument, kheen, is called Dāphā. Singing in a group by playing kheen and other accompanying musical instruments is known as playing Dāphā. Dāphā is a kind of devotional music, and playing Dāphā means to pray and to sing prayers. Most Dāphā songs are descriptions of gods and goddesses or prayers sung out to them. The description of different places in the country, the importance of pilgrimage sites and the philosophy of life are also the themes of Dāphā songs. There are also Dāphā songs dedicated to mother’s love and other familial sentiments.

If we go by the mention of a king’s name included in one of the Dāphā songs, it suggests that the tradition could be 450 years old. There could be older Dāphā songs without the mention of the names of the kings, but it is difficult to find evidence. Since the Dāphā songs are based on Ragas, Dāphā can be considered a fusion of folk and classical music. Since it is very old and took hundreds of years to develop and was only transferred orally, no written documentation of the Dāphā Raga System is to be found. Therefore, there is a lot of confusion on the Dāphā Raga system. It is difficult to understand its connection with the knowledge of the present practice of classical music.

Though Dāphā music has been carried forward as a culture by the Newa indigenous people of the Kathmandu valley, Dāphā songs are not only sung in Newa language. Some songs are in old Maithali, while words from Sanskrit are also used in Dāphā songs. While performing Dāphā, two kinds of songs are sung. One is the Gwara and the other is called the Chali. First, the Gwara is played and later the Chali song is sung. It is considered acceptable to sing the Chali alone, but singing the Gwara only is never considered acceptable, because it should always be concluded by singing the Chali.

The Dāphā Music System was developed in the Kathmandu valley. Dāphā is also found in the old Newa settlements outside the valley. In order to carry on the Dāphā tradition, there needs to be a formal or informal group of participants, known as Dāphā Group/Circle. From the Newa community, only some castes like Jyapu, Sayami, Udaya, Syasya, Bare and Gubhaju have Dāphā groups these days.

No occasion is needed for the Dāphā performance, as the tradition is about singing prayers. It can be played and sung anytime. But, the Dāphā tradition has been connected to different religious and social practices owned by the Newa people. They either have to play Dāphā on different days of a year or throughout a month. Thus, the Dāphā is played during major religious events or festivals. It would not be too much to say that Dāphā music survived for hundreds of years because of this tradition. As an initiation, an invocation to the gods is sung, followed by an alaap (the beginning) of the Raga, and then the Gwara and the Chali are sung. After the repetition of the alaap of the Raga and the closure invocation, the Dāphā is complete. 

There are two methods of learning the Dāphā and other Newa instruments. One of the methods is Kislin. To make a commitment to the genre by holding an earthen cup filled with rice, topped with a beetle nut, along with some offerings, is called the kislin. This brings the formal training to a close. In this process, the god of amiability, known as Nasadya is invoked during the training. In this method, the trainer and trainees both should adhere to the rules and regulations of the training set by the training center, with the Nasadya as the witness, until the training is completed. It is said that any irregularity in training is a blemish upon the god. The trainees can sing and play what they have learnt elsewhere, only after the completing their learning and holding a formal exit from the training. Because of the strict rules and regulations in the kislin, this method of teaching is not practiced often these days.

The other method is an informal self-interested learning. Trainers and trainees do not have to adhere to rules and regulations like in the kislin method. The training can start and stop any day after worshipping the Nasadya. The participants can join or leave in the middle of the training. Since, the rules of training are flexible; the trainings are carried out more easily.

In the Newa tradition, music around knowledge has been passed on through practice and through oral teaching. In the oral tradition, the learning of mnemonic syllables of the songs and instruments as taught by the trainer, are remembered by heart by the trainee. This learning by practicing method is to copy and follow the trainer and to play accordingly. In the olden days, it was said that the mnemonic syllables of songs and instruments were not supposed to be copied by writing them. It is also possible that the saying was applicable because the trainers were illiterate. When people started becoming literate, they started the practice of recording mnemonic syllables in writing. In this way, the mnemonic syllables were taught and recorded. Moreover, the trainers in some places have now started creating the notations of songs and instruments to teach them.

According to the old system of music in the Kathmandu valley, teaching is prohibited to the “outsiders” or to those who do not belong to the same guthi or guilds. Moreover, women were not supposed to play or even touch any instrument. The males were looked upon, even if light musical instruments needed to be moved from one place to another. The women were not taught to play musical instruments in the olden days because of the belief that it would anger the Nasadya. The trainers also feared “causing a blemish” to the Nasadya. As time passed, this discrimination slowly disappeared, and women were also taught to play instruments and to sing. Women are now working in other areas, just as they are also involved in playing instruments. There are hundreds of women playing the Dhaa, Dhimay, Pachhima, Taa, Babhoo traditional Newa percussion instruments and the flute and Baya these days. A number of women are also teaching already. But the involvement of women in Dāphā circles is still limited. Although we can find some women singing Dāphā songs, there are none to be seen playing the main instrument, kheen. From the olden days, till now, only men are seen conducting Dāphā circles.

The present generation is not as interested to learn Dāphā music. They learn other instruments but a very small number are learning Dāphā music. One of the reasons is that the meaning and importance of Dāphā could not be taught clearly. The ones who have learned and are singing, themselves do not understand the lyrics. It is difficult to understand Dāphā songs because the songs are written in a mix of old Newa, Maithili and Sanskrit languages. There are lots of grammatically wrong wordings, as well. Many trainers do not try to teach the participants as they themselves do not understand the meaning of the songs. On one hand, the meaning of the songs is not clear, on the other hand, there are conservative trainers who say that “not a single word can be changed”, so making corrections is very difficult. The thought of not letting “outsiders” learn is still strong. This thought is not allowing Dāphā to develop. Perhaps, this may be the reason why music experts outside the Dāphā circle are also not showing any concern. If hidden in closed circles, Dāphā songs might someday be seen as something sung by Newa people while having feasts or under the effect of alcoholic drinks.

If Dāphā is to be kept alive, then the tradition of teaching Dāphā music should be introduced as a practice. It will not be easy to draw youth towards this form of music that has always only been practiced by the elders. If the traditional form of the music alone is being taught, the new generation will not take ownership of it. Unless teachers can explain which song and what music is being performed, it will be hard to generate youth interest in it. “This is how our forefathers used to sing this, this is what our teachers taught us,”— if this is what one continues to say, how will those who do not understand Dāphā music learn to like it? 

If we could take the following steps, it would be easier to teach Dāphā music to the younger generation:

  • In order to encourage the younger generation to participate in Dāphā music, they should be assigned roles to perform in the group.
  • Those who are interested to learn, should be taught the meaning and context behind the music properly.
  • Corrections should be made to language errors existing in the Dāphā lyrics, otherwise, the learners will give continuity to the errors. New compositions should also be introduced.
  • The philosophy behind Dāphā should also be shared. 
  • Connections in the philosophy behind Dāphā as well as other forms of music should be pointed out.
  • While teaching, the scripts of the lyrics should also be taught to be read.
  • New technology should be embraced to teach young people. All the students might not be able to join the lessons at the same time, so technology should be introduced to ensure different students can take lessons according to their convenience. 
  • Without discriminating, students from different genders and anyone who shows an interest to learn, should be enrolled for the training. 
  • Occasions should also be arranged to teach the Dāphā music outside of the guthis or Dāphā circles.
  • Music training centers should also create space for teaching Dāphā music, just the way other forms of music are taught.
  • Provisions should be made for the exchange of skills, experience and knowledge among the gurus of different Dāphā circles.
  • Without losing the core sentiment of Dāphā, attempts should be made to make it easier and more attractive to learn.
  • Instead of limiting Dāphā to a tradition, occasions should be sought to showcase it.
  • New compositions should be introduced within the Dāphā music philosophy.
    Study and research related to Dāphā should also be initiated. 

Like other Newa cultural activities, Dāphā is also under the guthis. Therefore, no matter how hard it may be, whether or not one understands, whether or not one is good at it, whether or not one likes it, the Dāphā music tradition has survived for centuries. The tradition of Dāphā was not introduced in one day, it has grown steadily over the years. Many styles within the Dāphā tradition may be totally new to other forms of music. The process seems difficult at first. It is probably what gives it its character. There are different sets of rules for different segments of Dāphā. Once that is understood, the difficult sections of Dāphā can become more charming. 

Dāphā is devotional music, and so it is focused on chanting the names of the gods and goddesses for as long as the singer can, which is why the lines are repetitive. But it is not possible to have long sessions of Dāphā regularly. Because of the complex language used in Dāphā, the songs are hard to understand. A song is dry if the meaning of the lyric is not understood. And so, Dāphā is not everyone's cup of tea. The tradition of sitting down in a group for hours, singing and playing traditional instruments is not that attractive, either. Unlike other forms of music that captures the attention of the audience instantly, Dāphā doesn’t draw listeners in the same way.

Despite attempts over the years, Dāphā hasn’t been able to take commercial form. The Dāphā musicians have been taking it forward as a tradition and social responsibility. The Dāphā musicians cannot make a living from performing Dāphā alone and so have to depend on another means of income. Some of them even express embarrassment attached to performing the Dāphā. And so, apart from what has been composed in the past and giving continuity to it, the Dāphā musicians have not been able to compose new music. As there are no teachers who can pass on knowledge related to the tradition, the knowledge around this genre is limited in existence. The songs written on the Dāphā song book cannot be sung anymore by the singers who still practice this form. Many Dāphā groups have already become extinct, and the ones that are surviving only have limited knowledge and skills around their legacy. There aren’t many who give their time to Dāphā anymore. The ones who are currently practicing it are afraid that this tradition might lose continuity.

Dāphā tradition only exists in very old Newa settlements. But the tradition is different from place to place. In some places, the differences are small, while in other places, the songs are completely different. The Dāphā traditions are similar in places that are close to each other. The further you go, the greater the differences in the music. The head musicians of two Dāphā groups would not be able to play the kheen together. The lyric as well as the compositions are different. Between two Dāphā groups, they would sing the same lyric differently. A song that is sung regularly by one group might be totally new to another group. If two groups were asked to sing a song together, they would never be able to perform together.

If we were to analyze Dāphā, we find that all Dāphā circles have the same roots. A language can differ according to the place it is spoken in, so Dāphā differing from place to place is not a surprising phenomenon, either. It is praiseworthy that even though they were illiterate, gurus were able to conserve so much knowledge in the form of music. It is but natural that the knowledge underwent modification over the years. Procedure and tradition continue to change according to space and time.

Under a state policy that preached a single language as culture and a nationalism that dominated other existing cultures, Dāphā music failed to make headway outside of Newa society. Other forms of music can be seen on TV, but not Dāphā. Dāphā should be simplified and introduced as music that belongs not just to the Newa people, but to all Nepalis. For this, all Dāphā musicians should come together and hold discussions around it. In this way, rather than losing one’s culture, different Dāphā groups would be able to create a new form of the tradition, supported by the different groups.

Since the Newa people have been giving continuity to this tradition, to give it further continuity would also be their responsibility. The Dāphā music, which prospered under the patronage of guthis and Dāphā circles in the Malla period are still in existence. Even with the limitation of financial resources, those involved in this form of music have been pulling in funds individually to ensure this form of music continues to exist. They have continued to give it an existence to ensure this form of music isn’t lost. If there is a strong financial and social backing to the guthis and the Dāphā circles, then there are chances that the tradition of Dāphā will get the support to survive. If the guthis and the Dāphā circles can find new ways to make timely innovations to give Dāphā continuity, its future looks good. But if they continue to insist on keeping it traditional, the new generation will not be willing to give it continuity.

The Dāphā group should give continuity to teaching the music to the younger generation on a regular basis. Children should also be supported to learn Dāphā music. They should be taught the importance of it. It is not sufficient to seek financial sustenance. They should be taught that they should come forward to preserve its legacy.

Anyone who loves Dāphā and is interested in Dāphā should be welcomed to the group. “Dāphā is to sing devotional songs to the gods. Not one should be kept from participating in it,” is an attitude that should be inculcated in everyone who is interested in learning and being part of the Dāphā tradition because it will help give it continuity. If the Dāphā can be taken outside of the traditional circles, it is likely that they will bring new energy to the Dāphā tradition. If well-taught, the new generation will be able to take the tradition forward in a new way. The new generation will not be drawn towards anything unless they are themselves interested in it. Along with Dāphā, they should also be given knowledge about other kinds of music.

There are many among the youth who are drawn towards music. They have been seeking out teachers and groups from whom they can learn music. It would be great if they could also be attracted to learning Dāphā music. It would make it easier for the youth who are interested in learning how to read and understand Dāphā songs. If Dāphā can also be taught at universities, it could be introduced at the international level. This will also bring it under the radar of international research. What has not been understood or learned so far, will be understood. If Dāphā can be taught at the training centers, a syllabus can be developed and Dāphā teachers will receive prominence. Teachers who know music, but have not been able to come into the limelight, will receive academic recognition. This will enable them to have a career. Once they are part of academia, the Dāphā circles will enjoy what they are doing, even more. That will help take the Dāphā knowledge even further. When we showcase different cultural shows, Dāphā could be one of them. If the people from this area show concern, the Dāphā singers who have been performing pro bono for so many years, could also commercialize their talent.

There is also the concern that the Dāphā tradition might become extinct altogether. The Dāphā musicians have continued to express their expectation of support from the state over the years. We cannot hope for Dāphā to continue its existence in the way it has managed to sustain itself. The tradition has been undergoing changes on its own. If we observe the changes that have already happened, it is easy to see that the tradition of alaap or the invocation Raga in the beginning, has been forgotten. Singing, playing the musical instruments and to sing the Raga are not easy. There are many among the Dāphā circles who can sing the lyrics but cannot do the Raga. Therefore, without the circles realizing it, this practice has been lost.

It seems obvious that among the many aspects of Dāphā, the lyrics will survive a long time. This is because the songs have been written and recorded for a long time now. All Dāphā groups have their own song books. To move them into a new book would not be difficult. But the compositions have not been recorded and will be difficult to document. With the demise of the senior gurus, even though the lyrics survive in the song books, their compositions have been forgotten and therefore lost. If we do not record the existing compositions, they will also become a lost aspect of the Dāphā like the invocation Raga has become.

The greatest challenges to Dāphā music is that it is difficult to learn and understand. The archaic nature of it, poses another challenge. That the musicians trained by one Dāphā group cannot perform with another group, is also problematic. They say that the tradition of teaching of Dāphā has been lost because there are no students willing to learn it. Those who are leading it now are those who have earned some knowledge of the music, as their legacy. It is urgent that the knowledge existing with these gurus is taught to the new generation, that an archive is built to document the existing knowledge and skills around Dāphā. The most important task of all is to take this tradition forward without interruption. Participation of as many as possible, needs to be encouraged. Many Dāphā groups say that once interrupted, it is hard to revive it.

To ensure the Dāphā tradition survives, there are three areas that need immediate attention. Firstly, the Dāphā circles need financial support, they need social and logistical support to ensure their existence in society. Support from the federal government, local governments, as well as from the national and international level is required. Secondly, training centers should be setup and provisions should be in place to include Dāphā music in the university syllabus. Everyone should take urgent steps to preserve the Dāphā music tradition. Thirdly, tourism and the media sector, should also showcase Dāphā as a cultural tradition of Nepal at different occasions. If this could be done, the future of Dāphā music could be much better. 

Manandhar is a Dāphā practitioner, Guru (trainer) and a researcher. Khin, Kwochákhin, Dhá, Náyekhin, Dhimae, Pwongá and Bae are some Newar music instruments he plays besides singing Dāphā songs. He is the author of “Hánde, an introduction to Dāphā Music and transcriptions of Songs.”

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