I Spent My First Salary, 69.35 Rupees, to Buy a Radio: Durga Kharel

Interviewers: Mahesh Paudyal & Shilash Thapa Tamang

[Darjeeling-based singer, composer and actor Durga Kharel is often mentioned alongside his elder brother, actor and composer Badri Kharel, and the duo make a composite name Badri-Durga Kharel. We have come across fans, who take them as one individual. But they are two, though by spirit, they are one. If Badri kept himself close to theatre as an actor, Durga devoted himself to music as a singer and composer. He is most dearly remembered for his timeless songs “Bolaun Bhane Timi Lai Baata Lagne Dara”, “Gaine Dailai Sunkesariko Kesha Sodhnai Bhulen”, “Mero Maya Marsyandiko Chhal Jasto Salala” and “Banki Pareko Maya Banki Pareko”, among others.  A down-to-earth man with humbling simplicity, he is miles away from celebrity syndrome, and is faithfully committed to his dedication. He has a very limited presence in the digital universe, which confirms that he has said a big ‘no’ to the hyper-reifying tendency visible among celebrities these days. Mahesh Paudyal and Shilash Thapa Tamang of English. Sahityapost caught up with singer Kharel during his recent visit to Kathmandu and tried to unearth some subtle and sparingly explored aspects of his career in music.]

After how many years did you visit Nepal this time?

It has not been many years. This time, I came to Kathmandu right after a year or so.

It means Nepal is a regular haunt for you. (jokingly)

The way Darjeeling has become for you (glancing at Mahesh); so is Kathmandu for me.

So you are repaying our love for Darjeeling.

That is true in some sense. Haha!

Anyway, I never feel like I am in a foreign land whenever I go to Darjeeling. We, the Nepalis and the people of Darjeeling, share a common language, lifestyle and culture, and above all we possess similar worldviews. Asking how you feel coming to Nepal might be a pointless question. Still, we would love to hear your experiences of coming to Nepal.

I feel very intimate here. As soon as I land here, my well-wishers line up, always eager to meet me, hear me and know about my music. I have always received homely environment in Nepal. Like you just said, I also don’t find any difference between people here and the people in Darjeeling, particularly in terms of language, culture and lifestyle. I never feel alienated in this land.

Inhabitants of Darjeeling who have never visited Nepal may naturally have an image of this country in their mind. The same may or may not stay intact when they make their first visit.  When did you first come to Nepal? And during your first visit, did you find any gap between the Nepal of your imagination while in Darjeeling and the Nepal you encountered for the first time in reality?

Not many Indian writers were a part of our school texts those days. We grew up reading Nepali writers like Puskar Sumsher, Bal Krishna Sama, Bishweshwor Prasad Koirala, Lasxmi Prasad Devkota and a few of their contemporaries. We used to imagine Sundarijal, Dharhara and Sankhamul which often appeared in our literary readings. So our minds had already formed an image of Nepal largely shaped by reading literary works of Nepali writers. I was very much willing to come to Nepal, and the opportunity seemed to be at hand when Himalaya Kala Mandir, a cultural institute in Darjeeling, planned a visit for a musical event occasioning King Birendra’s birthday. But unfortunately, the trip did not take place. The other person who inspired me to come Nepal was Gopal Yongal, of whom am I am a disciple. We were accustomed to Radio Nepal. So an image of Nepal was already there.

It was in late 1970s, when Kalimpong-based St. Philomena School led a team of artists to Nepal to perform an opera at Rashtriya Naach Ghar. My dream of visiting Kathmandu eventually materialised. The event was hosted by Swor Samrat Narayan Gopal himself. Nagendra Thapa and Bal Krishna Sama were also a part of the audience. While entering Kathmandu from Thankot at night, Kathmandu occurred to us as a city of lights and colours. The glitter was a part of the celebration of King Birendra’s birthday. Seeing the colourful and vibrant Kathmandu for the first time, we sensed that the city we had read about in books was indeed full of life and vigour.

So your first visit to Nepal was with an opera team. When did you come to Nepal particularly for music?

After our opera show, we three—Dawa Gyalmo, Daisy Baraili and I—stayed in Kathmandu while the rest of our team members returned to Darjeeling.  Gopal Yongan, my revered guru, insisted me to record a song at Ratna Recording. Imagine the level of my excitement I had when I was offered to record a song on my very first visit. Since Ratna Recording did not have its own studio, we did the recording at Radio Nepal. It gave us a broader exposure to Nepali music industry.  Again in 1982, my brother Badri and I came to Kathmandu for two more songs: “Mero Maya Marsyangdiko Chhal Jastai Salala” and “Banki Pareko Maya Banki Pareko”, both offered by Ratna Recording. We came to know that Darjeeling-based singer Kumar Subba had also been invited by Ratna Recording at the same time, so we chanced to record three songs: “Aau Basa Najik”, “Himalko Chokho Hawama” and “Sabai Sodxa Tero Khabar” in collaboration with Kumar Subba. This was an exciting experience I had had in Nepal. Later in the 90s, we recorded the song “Nir Mayaka Maya Haru” at Music Nepal. And this followed a frequent visit to Nepal on different occasions doing back-to-back musical events and shows. We also had a memorable musical tour to Narayanghat with Swor Samrat Narayan Gopal. After that, we performed at Hetauda and Birjung. Today, I feel proud on knowing that our musical show with Narayan Gopal at Narayanghat is considered the foundation for the establishment of Narayani Kala Mandir that has become an acclaimed cultural centre of the country today.

Durga Kharel has many songs widely admired by the public, but he is most popularly known for his iconic song “Bolaun Bhane Timilai Papa Lagne Dara”. What were the contexts, exigencies and the stories behind this iconic song?

We did this song “Bolaun Bhane Timilai” right after our college days. The words were written by Jas Yonjan ‘Pyasi’ who always used pushed us into music. The song “Bolaun Bhane Timilai”, you know, is a romantic song that was also very akin to our age that time. We performed this song on various stages back in Darjeeling and received a lot of public appreciations. Some people even said, though jokingly, that the song was quite a ‘flirt’ with the maidens. Before long, we came to Kathmandu again to record other songs. This time, we wanted to promote talented singers Daisy Barailli and Dawa Galmo by getting some of their finest songs recorded. Actually, I was not at all prepared to record “Bolaun Bhane Timilai”. When the studio at Radio Nepal, which we had booked, was destined to remain vacant for a while owing to an unknown reason, Brother Badri asked me to try singing this song. I tried out with the notes, and the song was recorded. That very day in the evening, I heard Radio Nepal playing the song in its extremely popular programme ‘Bigyapan Seva’ hosted by singer Pandav Sunuwar. Soon it went popular reaching hundreds and thousands of ears. Today, wherever I go, “Bolaun Bhane Timilai” reaches much earlier than I do.

Wow, this is such a happy thing. Truly speaking, a creation always stands higher than its creator. Now, let’s bring into memory the struggling episode of your musical journey. You are such a fortunate artist who chanced to work with artistic geniuses like Gopal Yonjan, Karma Yonjan and Jas Yonjan Pyasi on one hand, while you had to combat a lot of hardship, being a member of an economically challenged family. These two exigencies, opportunities and financial difficulties, were the conditions that groomed today’s Durga Kharel. We would like to hear more about your hard days.

I belonged to a poor family. My father held a humble job with the District Commissioner’s office in Darjeeling. We are five siblings. It was really difficult for my father to educate all of his children. So we were sent to a nearby municipal primary school. Though a municipal school it was, it always helped children identify their real talents. Thus I owe my school a lot. Furba Sir, one of our senior teachers, taught us how to recite the verses from Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana which helped us a lot in our later days. He also groomed us in music. Jagat Rai, another teacher, inspired me to write stories. I had indeed written a story titled “Yeta Janti, Uta Malami” which got published in our school magazine. Yet my school life was a hotchpotch thing as the school could offer education only up to grade 9. After this, we had to go move to a private school.

These circumstances apart, I was truly mad for music. I would not skip any social function where I could have music. I used to reach hilltops and enjoy songs played on loudspeakers from a distant marriage function. Let me share an anecdote that may interest you. Living next to our house was a Bihari man, who owned a radio. He was the only one to own a radio in the entire street. Whenever his radio aired music, I used to sit still just below his room and listen. He would not tolerate me enjoying songs from his radio, so he would turn it off. That was truly humiliating. I resolved that I would buy a radio of my own if I earned enough money. My father was retiring from his job though the burden of educating all his children was still intact on his shoulders. So, I had to start working from a tender age. I remember my first salary was 69.35 rupees which I spent on buying a radio. I was deprived of listening to the radio during the daytime as I had to go to work, so upon returning from work, I used to ask my juniors what songs were played on the radio at daytime. See the level of craze! My father was well aware of our interest, Brother Badri’s and mine, in music; so he didn’t hesitate to send us to attend music class at Himalaya Kala Mandir. This is where we met Gopal Yonjan, our revered Guru.

Now, let’s look into your name. The public knows you as ‘Badri-Durga Kharel’.  Even I assumed you to be Badri Durga Kharel for a long time. It took me years to discover that ‘Badri’ and ‘Durga’ are actually two different individuals. How come this ‘Badri’ and ‘Durga’ turned into a compound word sharing a common idea of what people understand as today? 

Interesting question! This too was inspired by Karma-Gopal Yonjan. Once our entire family, including my elder brother Badri Kharel and I, went to attend a musical event that featured Gopal Yonjan and his brother Karma Yonjan, who were jointly introduced as ‘Karma-Gopal Yonjan’. Seeing the unity between Yonjan brothers and the works they had accomplished together, we asked ourselves why we should not think of a similar name for the two of us.  So we started claiming for ourselves the combined name ‘Badri Durga Kharel’. Though I am two years younger to my brother Badri, we are like best friends; we share everything. We eat, drink and smoke together. Later, we also married sisters from the same family.

This question might sound rather out-of-context, but I seek you permission of ask it. You cursorily mentioned your association with musical icons Gopal Yonjan, Karma Yonjan and Jas Yongan Pyasi. Darjeeling also produced another timeless singer, Aruna Lama. How intimate were you with late Aruna Didi?

A tragic incident brought me quite close to Aruna Didi.  My father passed away on 5 April 1974. Just a month later that is on 5 May the same year, Aruna Didi’s husband Sharan Pradhan expired. At that time, my mother and Aruna Didi had to endure such grief at the same time. This tragic loss brought our families very close. We visited Aruna Didi quite frequently and we consoled each other. Later, Didi sang songs of our compositions. We performed together in many events. I still remember when Aruna Didi was admitted to a hospital for a surgical operation; she had asked me and my wife to stay close to her at the time of the operation so that would feel confident. That was the degree of her trust in us. Didi took her last breath in Kathmandu. We received her body in Darjeeling some time later.  We were able to convince the local administration to offer a kind of state honour to Aruna Lama Didi at the time of her cremation. The shops pulled down their shutters, and the police gave her its tribute.

Living in Darjeeling and working for Nepali art and culture, you must have faced lots of challenges. How have the governments of India and West Bengal supported you and artist likes you, who have been promoting India’s art and culture?  What is the government’s presence like in art and culture in general at a time when India is claiming of doing a lot in the promotion of art and artists?

Truly speaking the government’s commitment hopelessly ends up in paper alone many a time. The elected representatives do not seem to be very optimistic towards art and culture. We are only given verbal assurances but they are never brought into action. We, the singers, are treated like mere minstrels. I would say traditional, untrained minstrels. I personally might be living an honourable life for I am an advocate too. But the artists, who are none other than only artists are not given adequate value and honour they deserve.

We are never satiated listening to your experiences, yet we have to conclude this conversation owing to the limitation of time and space. We will definitely look for other opportunities to listen to you in upcoming days. Finally, is there anything you wish to add for our readers?

Let’s not use the artists only for our personal interests. They deserve a respectable life. They should be financially secured so that they can wholeheartedly practise their work of art. It is a social responsibility too. The government should be more serious in this regard. I am sure our art and culture will add a unique identity if it is taken to the global arena.