For over a decade, dohori songs have dominated the Nepali music scene. These playful, improvised duets – dohori means ‘back and forth’ – form the backbone of the commercial recording industry. You hear dohori everywhere: blaring on buses traversing the country, requested on countless call-in shows, and broadcast by FM channels to settlements large and small dotting the Nepali hills and plains. Dohori has even spawned a new kind of nightlife in Nepal’s urban centres, where audiences comprising mostly male patrons eat, drink and dance to stage performances in restaurants advertising themselves as dohori sanjh (dohori evening) or rodhi ghar (club house). The distance between these spaces and the original rodhi ghars of rural Nepal is at once significant and understandable.
Village in the city : A dohori sanjh restaurant singer (centre) eyes her audience
Photo credit: Sanjaal
The now ubiquitous rodhi ghar refers to a tradition of the ethnic Gurung community, which is said to have migrated to the central mid-hills of present-day Nepal from the Tibetan plateau around the sixth century AD. In Gurung villages, the rodhi ghar was essentially a place to relax, a house in the village where the community gathered after a full day’s work to sing, dance and be festive. At the rodhi ghar, the otherwise rigid norms defining gender relations were set aside. Young, unmarried men and women gathered at the rodhi ghar sat on two opposing sides, and engaged in a playful battle of wit deep into the night.
With talk of love and marriage forming the basis of the singing, the proceedings inevitably tilted to the erotic. The strong sexual undertones were expected, and acceptable, so long as they did not cross the line from innuendo to more explicit expression. These gatherings were also an opportunity for the young to arrange marriages on their own terms – though it was not necessarily the case, as popular belief has it, that the winner of the singing competition could automatically marry the loser. Rather, the rodhi ghars were a sort of pre-dating spot, where familiarity between two people increased, often resulting in marriage.
The rodhi ghar has today become synonymous with dohori, likely because those in the power centre of Kathmandu had relatively greater access to the culture of the Gurung people. Also known as Tamu, the Gurung are also among the more comfortable of Nepal’s ethnic communities, having acquired economic wellbeing, particularly through Gorkha recruitment in the Indian and British armies. The Gurung community is, however, not the only one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups with a tradition of improvised back-and-forth singings. Duets cross barriers of geography and ethnicity, whether as Deuda in the mid-west, Hakpare in the eastern hills or the Tamang selo of the central region. Though similar forms also exist in the southern Tarai plains, such as the jat-jatin of Mithila, with the exception of the significant population of pahadi settlers from the hills, this region has remained relatively untouched by the dohori craze. Nevertheless, the beginnings of the contemporary dohori genre and its subsequent widespread popularity are both directly linked to the fact that the practice had deep roots in large parts of the country.
The process by which the diverse duet traditions of Nepal came to become today’s dohori began in 1951. The year was a watershed, marking the end of the longstanding Rana autocracy and ending the country’s isolation from the rest of the world. It was in 1951 that the first radio station, the state-run Radio Nepal, was established, as part of larger modernisation efforts. With its monopoly over the airwaves, the station pushed two genres of music as being ‘Nepali’. One was adhunik, meaning modern, music, a form that combined aspects of Western, light Hindustani classical and Nepali folk instruments and melodies with Nepali lyrics. This has come to be known as ‘Nepali Adhunik’. The other, of course, was the folk traditions, inherent in the term ‘lok sangeet’, including dohori.
The real genesis of the genre as we know it today occurred in 1983, when Sharad Chandra Shah, then member-secretary of the National Sports Council, first organised dohori competitions throughout Nepal, as part of the country’s national games. State patronage thus brought a range of distinct traditions under one umbrella, giving dohori structure and prestige. Such competitions have mushroomed today, no longer organised just by the state and with substantial cash prizes for the winners. Placing well at these competitions can also open the recording studio doors, even if the artist is an unknown newcomer.
The basic format and judging criteria of dohori competitions established during the first years remain. Each team comprises six members, three men and women each, who duel with other groups of similar size, with the men of one team pitted against the women of the other. While each team’s ability to formulate responses is the most important factor, teams are also judged on their vocals, clothing and overall presentation. Alongside these competitions, dohori initially also extended its reach through extensive airtime on Radio Nepal, which continued to be the sole station through the 1980s.
The government’s promotion of dohori was not motivated simply by the wit and spontaneity characteristic of the genre, which make it an easy sell. According to Shah, dohori was marketed as distinctly ‘Nepali’, part of a cohesive national culture with which all the country’s peoples could identify. This underlying impetus meant that the idea of what constitutes dohori was purposefully kept flexible. Except for a question-answer format and rhyming couplets punctuated by a chorus, dohori numbers are not restricted to any particular melody or instrumental arrangement. Consequently, dohori lyrics can be set to a range of musical forms, with each melody associated with a particular region or ethnic group – thus having the desired effect, making it easy for a variety of communities to adopt dohori as their own.
The overarching power of the state in defining ‘Nepali culture’ ended in 1990, with the establishment of multi-party democracy and the subsequent rise of ethnic assertion against the Panchayat regime’s emphasis on ‘on language, one people’. By this time, dohori had already struck roots, which only grew deeper as it was adopted by the plethora of new private FM stations, TV channels and recording companies. Even as genres such as Nepali pop and rock began to make inroads into the industry, dohori albums formed the bulk of the output – as they continue to do today.
Dohori albums do not, however, sell equally well across the country. The Tarai, of course, sees low sales due to the limited popularity of the genre amidst the speakers of Maithali, Bhojpuri and Awadhi, as do the high mountains, in part due to the inaccessible terrain. The highest sale numbers are reported from areas in close proximity to Kathmandu – again related to the state’s earlier extensive promotion of the traditional melodies from these areas, which are used in the vast number of dohori albums released.
While the early backing of the state undoubtedly played a crucial role in driving dohori to prominence, it is the content of the songs themselves that sustains the genre’s popularity. Due to their improvisational nature, dohori songs can touch a wide range of subjects – love, of course, but also caste, politics, migration, economic hardship and even communication and transport, given the regular references to bus travel and mobile phones. In this sense, dohori can remain relevant to any number of contemporary concerns while continuing to posit itself as an organic folk tradition. Consider, for instance, that Nepalis working as migrant labour overseas, be it in the Gulf, Malaysia or North America, form a significant chunk of dohori consumers. It is the genre’s ability to lyrically incorporate aspects of the migrant experience while remaining an ‘authentic’ sound reminiscent of home that makes it so beloved to this demographic.
Indeed, dohori’s broader popularity is also a consequence of the large-scale migration out of rural Nepal that has taken place over the last decade. With few employment opportunities and a decade of conflict, large numbers of young men and women left their villages, heading either to Kathmandu or to jobs overseas. For these migrants, many financially strapped and unable to return to their families for many years, the easily accessible dohori songs form a poignant connection to home. The demand for dohori among the large number of migrants is so high that regular performances occur in cities such as Doha, Bahrain and New York. Celebrity dohori singers such as Komal Oli, Raju Pariyar and Bishnu Majhi, among others, perform at well-attended concerts for the diaspora. The distancing from the ethnic heartland means that many music consumers find the Nepali language renditions acceptable, as long as the music retains the flavour of the home hillside.
Despite its penetration of the national music market, dohori is still considered a rural form, with the urbanised and well-off tending to look down upon the genre. Moreover, the performers and regular consumers of the genre tend to retain strong connection to the village – almost all dohori singers have moved from their villages to the cities as adults, in the hopes of getting recording deals. An indicator of the continuing connection between dohori and the village is the dohori sanjh restaurant, spaces for live performances that emerged in many urban centres around the mid-1990s.
Today, there are some sixty such establishments in Kathmandu alone. As is evident in the décor of most dohori sanjh restaurants – with the stage set-up to look like a village house, utensils and instruments hung around the room and the singers dressed in an assortment of traditional clothes – the venues attempt to recreate a feeling of the mid-hill village, capitalising on the nostalgia of rural migrants. The performances at these restaurants do not, however, mirror those of the village. The stage shows at these bars are naturally more about entertaining the patron, rather than about the lyrics or the singing.
While advertising as a dohori sanjh is what pulls in patrons, other acts at such venues include folk dances, performances to Nepali film songs, and the singing of popular non-dohori numbers. Even when the duets are sung, the performer’s couplets are targeted at engaging the customers, rather than at each other. With most of the patrons being men, and playful flirting a key part of singing dohori, this essential business strategy can be problematic for the female singers. Along with concerns about harassment, dohori restaurants are also often criticised for promoting or allowing sex work to flourish. Such a generalisation does not, however, account for the variety in dohori restaurants, which range from grimy, seedy watering holes to high-end family restaurants. Whatever their quality, making it big as a dohori singer, a journey that for most begins in the restaurants, is a dream that brings thousands to the cities of Nepal.
Surabhi Pudasaini is the Programme Manager at Hri Institute of Southasian Research & Exchange in Kathmandu, Nepal.
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