The drumming in your heart sometimes syncs with the beating of a drum. The first time you are near one, you will wonder, in awe — what is this awful sound that is like noise, but creates rhythm. Yes, rhythm. Soon, it begins to merge with the beating of your heart and your adrenalin will gush, then you gush and you linger, listening.
Always, the massive nagara drums have been the messenger from the kings. To summon people to court, to listen to disseminate. Every time I walk past the Hanuman Dhoka, I look up at the nagara and wonder how many good and bad news it must have been messenger to. But I have never heard a nagara play — only in the films, often two men flanking one another, beating down.
What came closest to drums for me were the madal. Growing up, the schools I went to always had one. Then the homes of neighbours who liked to sing some evenings. Whenever I lived with my grandfather, there was his tabala to touch. With no ear for playing music, I would still hold the instrument and slap it, creating light sounds.
Not like that, my grandfather would say. If you want to learn, sit down and I will show you. Again, the girl in me with no ear for music, never took the offer.
On the school ground the beatings transformed into something that reminded me of long, hot mornings, when the students would stand in a file and march to the beating of the drum. Intriguing how sounds become tied to memory too.
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Year after year, I shoulder my backpack and walk through crowded old Kathmandu during the Indra Jatra festival. I like being alone in the crowd. You are not alone at all, but alone among strangers — the perfect place for introverts to hide. No surveillance. Just strangers, walking past you, sometimes shoving you without apology. The sauntering is lit up with a refreshing interruption when a troupe of young local musicians walk past you. Young women and men with the dhimay (drums) and the khin (cymbals). The first time I watched a girl perform at the dhimay, my heart beat quickly, my jaws stretched into a grin, I tried to conceal it and a knot quickly formed in my throat, moving up to my eyes to be released as tears.
I followed one such group across the town one time. I caught up with one Yuvraj Shahi, who told me he and his friends had been training girls in the community to play. “बहिनीहरुलाई पनि गर्न दिनु पर्यो नि,” he told me. Our sisters should also get a chance.
Year after year, I visit the jatra and stalk one of these troupes. Every year, more girls are out in the evening playing, pausing to perform in circles and then playing their way to another part of town.
Septuagenarian Nuchhe Bahadur Dangol is a charmer. He stands before the crowd in Kirtipur, making eye contact with the audience, smiling as his arms work at the dhimay. The crowd responds by hollering his beats back to him, their fingers meeting at the centre of their palms in soft but sure beats.
These are my students who will take forward my legacy, he tells the crowd, pointing at a group of young men. And these are my students, he says, gesturing at the orchestra — comprising boys and girls at the flute.
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