The Gandharba People of Nepal

I resolved to being more deliberate with my vacations, do more volunteering, and I was Jonesing to do something artistic. A photo project focussed on people sounded really good. I ended up contacting an organization in Kathmandu, Nepal that has established a restaurant, Sarangi, from which all profits go to benefit a marginal community of musicians called the Gandharba. I was hopeful that my photography could serve their organization and I was eager to make some images of these beautiful people that would do honor to their culture and traditions. They were keen to have me.

So I packed up some gear. I opted for the smaller body of my Nikon D700, my 24-70, 70-200, and my new 85 f1.4g which would be delivered to me on my trip. I took some radio triggers, a grip of Vivitar 285 flashes, and a small lightbox.  Honestly, this was about as light as I could travel, but it was still a bit of a pain since I would be in Vietnam first and then connect in India for a night. I was carting around too much, but in the end, I feel it was worth it. I started to read up on the people I would be meeting there.

Historically, the Gandharba have been the a lower caste of musicians who travel from town to town, singing Nepali folk songs and sharing current events and news in the form of music. As things have evolved, cell phones and computers have begun to replace the Gandharba, making it more and more difficult to make a living by traditional means. They have had to resort to looking for other sources of income. Many now walk the streets of Kathmandu pedaling instruments and CDs of their music. Others work in brick factories, taking their children out of school to work alongside them for up to six months out of the year. Some farm. Some do random manual labor jobs that result in incomes of one to two dollars a day. Communities are left impoverished and stripped of their culture.

The sarangi is the four-stringed instrument played by the Gandharba people.

I arrived in Kathmandu and met with Kedar, my contact at the Sarangi Restaurant. We made plans to leave a couple days later for the Dang region is Southern Nepal. We would be visiting three Gandharba communities to introduce the organization and talk to them about their needs and their desires for income generation projects. I would record the visit through photographs.

This Gandharba man sings a song about his people's dreams for the future.

From Kathmandu we drove for about eleven hours before arriving to the small community of Narayan Chour where we would be starting our community work. We arrived just after dark, and the kids of the neighborhood and several adults from the community were there waiting when we pulled up. They had never had a foreigner in their community before, so I was the center of attention. We settled down to a dinner of rice, chicken, and lentils, some of the most delicious food I've ever eaten. Then came the Raksi - a homemade distilled spirit much like Japanese sake. It wasn't long before the sarangis were broken out, and we were treated to some wonderful Gandharba folk tunes. The moment was truly memorable. 

 Traditional Nepali dining is done sitting on the floor. There is generally rice, lentils, radishes and onions, and sometimes meat. Flavors are spicy and complex, and food is eaten without utensils.

Traditional Nepali dining is done sitting on the floor. There is generally rice, lentils, radishes and onions, and sometimes meat. Flavors are spicy and complex, and food is eaten without utensils.

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The next morning I woke up and wandered outside. I only had few hours to photograph the community before we had to attend our scheduled meetings.  

The morning is about a trip to the river to wash and collect water.

A fire cuts the cold edge while the sun tries to gain momentum.

 

This is the kitchen. Pans are heated over a wood-burning fire. In the corner is a stone where ingredients are ground up to make "pickle", a kind of spicy paste that accompanies meals.

Just over half of the children in this community go to school regularly. The rest either don't attend at all or are pulled out for up to sixth months in order to go to Kathmandu to work in brick factories with their families.

Mother looks on angrily as the young man playful tosses her baby into the air.

I really hoped to set up a studio and photograph several men from the community and their children who were continuing in the musical traditions of the Gandharba. I was only able to coordinate with a couple, but I'm pleased with the images I got. There is so much passion, so much history behind each song. I was honored to try to capture this passion on film.

This is one of the patriarchs of the community. He is a skilled sarangi player and is adept at improvising songs and chants to communicate news and tell stories tailored to his audience.

This is his son who is carrying on the Gandharba tradition by playing the drum. I knew I wanted to photograph him because he lights up while performing. Most Gandharba children are not learning to play instruments anymore.

This younger brother doesn't play an instrument and doesn't attend school. 

We met with a couple hundred people in a schoolhouse of a neighboring Gandharba community. They squeezed into the building and those who couldn't fit, peered in windows and doors. I love the interest shown in their eyes, and in many of these photos, the love that they demonstrate for their children.

During our meeting, we were blessed to watch a performance of singing and dancing by a community youth club. This gentleman played the sarangi during the performance.

Community members shared their hopes and concerns about potential development projects. Many organizations have made promises to them that were never kept, they said.

The Gandharba delight in their children.

The people are hungry for change and are eager for opportunities to improve their socio-economic realities. After the meeting ended, I was mobbed by young people with their cell phones who wanted to take a selfie with me. It was obvious they hadn't had too many giant white guys in their community before. When I could finally break away, we, accompanied by our large entourage, took a tour of the community before heading off to the next village. We were touched by our warm send-off.  

If you go to Kathmandu, make sure to visit the Sarangi Restaurant right next door to the famous Kathmandu Guesthouse. All profits from the business go to support projects that benefit the Gandharba people. Visit their website to find out how to get involved in other ways. There is more information here, as well.