Old Time musician Alan Kaufman and I were in Lowell to judge the 35th Annual Banjo & Fiddle Contest on September 6th. As the audience began to gather, Alan mentioned, “There is someone I want you to meet. A man from Nepal who plays the Himalayan fiddle (a four-stringed wooden instrument played with a bow), and jaw harp. His name is Sushil Gautam.” Alan explained that he had met Sushil at the local Dunkin’ Donuts in Arlington, where Sushil works. A few weeks earlier, Alan had walked in wearing a Banjo & Fiddle contest tee-shirt and the two got to talking. This is when Alan discovered that the man who serves him his ice tea is not only a Himalayan fiddle and jaw harp player, he also helped to establish The Music Museum of Nepal and published a book on the history, ethnic songs, and methods of playing the Nepalese sarangi.
Sushil, Alan, and I spoke briefly before the contest began. Although Sushil had brought his sarangi, he was not planning on entering the contest. I told Sushil I’d be in touch soon about interviewing him for the MCC Folk Arts & Heritage Program. He kindly gave me a copy of his paperback, Sarangee, A Guide Book. The book, in Nepalese, was published by Orbit International Education Culture Education Department in Kathmandu, Nepal. Before walking away, Sushil handed me his business card, saying “This is the view from my parent’s home.” It was a stunning panorama of the Himalayan Mountains with a small village in the foreground.
I stared at the picture, worthy of a travel brochure. Wrapped up in that little moment was the price of leaving home. The push/pull factors of limited economic opportunities, family, farm fresh food. . . .Why would someone leave such a place of physical beauty to resettle in a country halfway round the world. Clearly, it wasn’t the job. Or was it?
We scheduled a time for me to interview Sushil at his home in Somerville, where he lives with his wife and young daughter.
On September 12, I found my way to a rental house on a narrow side street off Somerville Avenue. I rang the doorbell. At first, there was no response. I rang again. The windows were open; orange silk curtains fluttered in the screenless windows. I rang once more. Sushil appeared with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the front room of the house. It was sparsely furnished. Around the room were reminders of home — photocopied color prints of family members and scenes from his parents’ village in Nepal. His daughter’s stuffed toys were piled in one corner. Several musical instruments were lined up against the back wall, resting on the carpeted floor; a few more hung from the walls. Sushil showed me two sarangis, one carved out of a lighter wood, and one of a darker, denser wood. The latter had an ornate carving of an elephant on the back. “Oh, Ganesha,” I remarked. Sushil, surprised, asked “You know of Ganesha?”
I asked if I could record our interview. He nodded and gestured to a small side table and two plastic chairs.
Economic opportunities and the chance to better his daughter’s future motivated Sushil and his wife to emigrate. Sushil Gautam came to this country with his wife and young daughter in January of 2013. “I grew up with tourism in my village.” Although the snow-capped Himalayas loom in the distance, snow never falls in his village. “All the year it is green.” Arriving in Boston, during the deep midwinter, came as somewhat of a shock. “I experience snow by my hand and leg here in Boston for the first time.”
Sushil had been selected by lottery for a green card and the opportunity to work and stay in the United States. Like many immigrants, he and his wife have university degrees, but can only find work in the food services. For now, Sushil is happy with his job at Dunkin’ Donuts, which provides an opportunity to improve his speaking skills in English. He has aspirations of finding a job as a teacher of languages and culture in the future.
The sarangi is a bowed chordophone, carved from solid or composite wood, rather than pieced together like a violin. It has four strings; nylon has replaced gut (sheep intestine), and a metal string is used for the highest pitched string. The sarangi is held vertically, much like a South Indian violin, or Chinese erhu. The outer two strings are tuned to an octave; the middle two strings are tuned a 4th up from the lowest string, e.g., G, C, C, G. In western parlance, we’d call this an open tuning, meaning that all the strings are tuned to harmonized notes. Some sarangi are highly ornamented, with carving depicting the God Ganesha or the Buddha.
The Gandharba, a caste of occupational musicians, consider the sarangi to be their instrument. Until fairly recently, it was possible for them to make a living in Nepal. Much like other hereditary musicians, they played a key role in society, traveling from village to village, spreading news and entertaining.
Sushil recalls their music from his childhood, “Before there was any communication, people used to come to the mountain to entertain a lot of people. And they used to collect a lot of food for them. It was the living for this musician caste, and entertainment for the farmers in the mountain. But time changes. A lot of radios and television came and the entertainment means are changed and these people lost their job.”
In generations past, the Gandharba caste were considered low and experienced discrimination. Although Sushil is from a historically higher caste, he plays the Gandharba’s instrument and has worked hard to elevate the musicians’ status and preserve their traditions. Sushil feels fortunate that he got to study with a very good teacher, Khim Bahadur Gandharba, who is a well-known sarangi player. In fact, he was the first sarangi player, selected by the king, to travel outside of Nepal to perform on a royal visit to Hong Kong and China. Today, Khim Bahadur Gandharba is nearing 80, and is no longer physically able to play.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Sushil moved to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to pursue his masters in music. Before leaving Nepal, Sushil was teaching sarangi, performing, and making recordings. He also helped establish the Music Museum of Nepal, and wrote his guide to playing the sarangi. One of his motivations is to change the hereditary system of learning sarangi in Nepal, opening the instrument up to everyone.
“When the father wanted the child to chance to learn, even in the same ethnic group, if the caste, if somebody’s father does not know how to play sarangi, even though they belong to the same caste, they have no chance to learn. Because they don’t have a teacher. And they don’t have a book. With the generation gap, now, from my book, everybody can learn sarangi. Even if their father is not a sarangi player.”
13 thoughts on “The Price and Promise of Leaving Home”
What amazing instruments, I would love to play on one of these.
Very nice write ups !
Sushil ji is very brillient and is very nice traditional musician indeed !, his contribution in this field should be acknowledged/ recognized nationally and internationally where he lives ! (in US),
Wish him all the best !
i know him .Sushil is a good teacher and sarangi performer his book would helped alot in playing the sarangi to those who would love to play sarangi .
Sushil is outstanding folk musician from Nepal and he is popular in Nepali community here in the USA.
Thank you so much for this beautiful blog about him. He is a Nepali folk ambassador for the West.
I truly enjoy this exploration about him.
Sushil ji is a great and humble personality, very talent and deserving traditional musician indeed !
A great musician from Nepal, feels great to have him around in Boston. Nepali community is benefiting a lot.
I would like to thank and appreciate the author for bringing “Sarangi”, a typical Nepali musical instrument into spotlight. Hats off to Sushil Gautam, you are such an inspiration for generations to follow. I could totally feel and understand the price of leaving home. However, I hope you will always carry on your passion towards music no matter whichever business you have to embrace for living. Music is life!
Sushil Gautam is also my music guru. Thank you author for bringing traditional Nepali musical instrument “Sarangi” into spotlight.
Sushil’s contribution to Nepali folk music especially in the Sarangi has established a turning point for the advancement and reestablishment of the almost deserted music in Nepal and eventually all over the world. In the past when the modern technologies like radios, Tvs and cellular phones hadn’t that much influence , Sarangi playing had its own importance because of its traditional way of conveying the message and spreading the news and awareness from village to village . Introducing a book on how to play Sarangi to the new generation and inspiring them that from Sarangi— an older version of violin— , we can tune up melodies;Sushil was able to awaken the music amateur to realize the importance of it in the Nepali folk music.
I really appreciate his overwhelming passion for the folk music and especially that of Sarangi and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.
His devotion toward tradition instrument (Sarangi)is incredible even with domination of loud sound / Noise music instrumemts today. I have seen him carrying these instrument like Sarangi, murchunga by heart. Also ,he named himself as first sarangi Book writer in Nepal. Lastly ,it is not so easy to carry such traditional music residing in challenging world . I wish him to balance his music and new career of technology field.
In my view, if we are not aware of our culutral music then find such men who just make us feel proud by their extra ordinary talent. One of them is Mr Sushil Gautam. He is the example of old tradional musician. All People love their country but no one want to accept for old tradional things and doesnt feel free to follow. Mr Sushil Gautam shows his talent everywhere whether it is IT related field or Musical field. I hope he will get more sucess in future in both field.. Best of luck and proud to feel that i know him ?? … Ekdam Ramro cha Daju
Sushil is a true inspiration to the people who love music and traditional instruments. The book on how to learn Sarangi is a huge contribution to preserve the culture. Not only Sarangi, he plays Jaw Harp equally well, and you can meditate on it!. Thank you author, for the article, and keep going, Sushil.
Thanks for the author for sharing Sushil’s achievements and contributions to Nepali folk music. It is heartening to know he is continuing his good work even after migrating to the USA.