NEPAL MANDALA: Sacred Music and Dance of the Kathmandu Valley
Ed. Note: On November 5 the Institute hosted an extraordinary and spellbinding performance by the Singhini Ensemble from the Kathmandu Valley. The director of the Singhini Ensemble and the architect of the program is Franck Bernède, an ethnomusicologist and world-class cellist who is a Fellow in Sacred Music, Worship and the Arts at the Institute for the 2010-11 year. These are his notes for that program, together with some photographs that give an idea of the wonder, beauty, and vibrancy of the experience.
The fusion of popular Tibeto-Burman elements with ancestral traditions of the Hindu world, such as those exercised on the subcontinent before the Muslim invasions, has led to the development in the Kathmandu Valley of the rich and highly original culture of the Newars, a people whose golden age dates back to the time of the Malla rulers (13th - 18th centuries). Ethnic Newars, numbering roughly one million today, speaking a language of the Tibeto-Burman family, and heavily influenced by the Indian world, form the oldest society of the Kathmandu Valley. Here, music and dance seem in many respects to superimpose metaphysical concepts upon an urban structure. Harking back to a cosmological ideal, the ancient divisions of the Newari city-states are present as numerous musical microcosms. Music and dance hold a privileged place among a multitude of ritual activities as vital tools weaving together the organization of the urban fabric, understood as an essentially ritual space. If the musical practices here cannot, strictly speaking, be classified as professional, they nevertheless do represent parallel activities harmoniously incorporated into daily life. The entire spectrum of these ritual and artistic practices is gathered here under the banner of Nasahdyah, the ancient god of music, dance, and drama. This is the archetype central to the spectacle you are about to experience, combining the most representative elements from the vast repertoire of devotional chants, instrumental music, and sacred dances of Newari Tantric Buddhism.
The rich and highly distinctive culture of the Newar of the Kathmandu Valley has emerged from the fusion of popular Tibeto-Burman elements with ancestral traditions of the Hindu world. Elements of the Hindu heritage are ancient, predating the Indian invasion of the subcontinent. Their golden age is seen to date back to the time of the Malla rulers (13th-18th centuries). Numbering roughly one million today, they are the oldest society in the valley. Newari music and dance superimposes metaphysical and cosmological concepts upon urban spaces. The ancient, idealized divisions within Newari city-states are represented in various musical microcosms. Holding a privileged place in ritual activities, music and dance weave the urban fabric into an organized whole. Not strictly speaking a professional pursuit, music is harmoniously incorporated into daily life. Numerous castes and organizations take part in a wide range of instrumental and vocal groups and dance ensembles, according to well-defined roles. The entire spectrum of ritual and artistic practices are gathered under the banner of Nasahdyah, the ancient god of music, dance and drama. This is the archetype central to the spectacle you are about to experience, combining the most representative elements from the vast repertoire of devotional chants, instrumental music, and sacred dances of Newari Tantric Buddhism.
The Newar ethnic group numbers roughly one million people. One of the most ancient societies of the Kathmandu Valley, it has been deeply immersed in the Indian world. Its history has been recorded since the 5th century, with a Golden Age during the period of the Malla kings (13th-18th centuries). Newari society is divided into more than thirty hierarchical and interdependant castes. Their religious traditions bear witness to a harmonious synthesis of Hinduism and Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism. Their religion also conserves, despite the recent upheavals of modernity, all of its specific qualities. This is indeed the case of music and dance, forms of which are practiced by most social groups; each caste has become renowned in repertoires that have quite circumscribed musical and ritual functions. Among these, the Maharjan peasants and the Vajracharya Buddhist priests occupy an important place in the cultural life of former royal Nepalese cities. It is essentially to their repertoire of chants, instrumental music and sacred dances that this program is consecrated.
Newar music is classified in two categories, like its closely related complement, dance: secret and public (Newar: agam and nigam). This division refers essentially to modes of knowledge acquisition, placing a clear boundary between the frameworks reserved for education and performance. Music in the first category is inaccessible to non-initiates, an interdiction that applies to sacred dances of Buddhist priests as it does to the musical education of peasants. It is also inscribed in a strict relation from master to disciple. Music in the second category, on the other hand, is intended for the general public. Thus, artistic practices are underpinned by an important system of ritualized training, which helps to unify different social groups. The three large centers of the valley, once separate kingdoms, are distinguished by highly diverse musical education systems and styles. Music there is not properly speaking a separate professional activity; it is a collective, socially integrating endeavor that parallels everyday life. Its principal goal is to punctuate the calendar of communal festivals. The presence – known since the 18th century – of more than thirty drums among its instruments attests to the importance accorded to percussion instruments in this society. They express themselves freely during religious processions and sacralize the urban space with their profound sonorities.
NEWAR TANTRIC BUDDHIST DANCE
Dance seems to have always held a privileged place in the expression of the religious life of Newar Buddhist castes (Vajracharya and Shakya). Called Chacha pyakham (in Sankrit, carya nrtya), the priestly art of dance is not entirely original to the Newari. It seems to have been widely spread among groups of Mahayana (“the Great Vehicle”) and Vajrayana Buddhists throughout the entire Indian subcontinent. Today, however, it is still practiced only in Nepal. Much more than just a venerable art, it is a kind of spiritual exercise (Sankrit: sadhana). In the Nepalese context, the term sadhana, which refers to the idea of asceticism, incorporates diverse practices such as techniques of visualization, accompanied by profoundly symbolic bodily schemas. The postures representing specific deities are intended to usher the dancer into an active form of meditation. They are accompanied by sung texts, punctuated by the sonority of small cymbals, or in certain cases, the hourglass drum damaru. The function of the chacha dances as sacred initiation has left them in obscurity for centuries. They were performed in public for the first time only in 1957, on the occasion of a conference on Buddhism in Kathmandu. Today, although they form one of the jewels of Newari culture in their rare presentations to the public, deep comprehension of them remains the privilege of initiates who perpetuate the tradition in the care of holy establishments (agamche).
-translated from the French by Aaron Judd
THE SINGHINI RESEARCH CENTER
Founded in Nepal in March 2001 under the impetus of the cellist and ethnomusicologist Franck Bernède, the Singhini Anusandhan Kendra (Singhini Research Center) is a cultural association intended for the preservation and promotion of the Himalayan musical heritage. Combining applied musicology with an anthropological vision, the objectives of the center are organized around three convergent axes: research, preservation, and promotion of patrimony. Its staff is electively constituted of musical artists, singers and dancers, as well as audiovisual and live performance professionals. The Center works equally in close collaboration with scholars of diverse fields such as linguistics, musicology, ethnology, history, visual anthropology and instrument-making. It maintains privileged relations with the masters of the oral tradition. A space of reflection and experimentation assigned to the different artistic disciplines of the Indo-Himalayan domain, the Center is positioned as a privileged place for encounters and exchanges between artists and scholars.
THE SINGHINI ENSEMBLE
The Singhini Ensemble is a flexible and multi-dimensional company. Under the coordination of Franck Bernède, it brings together musical artists, dancers, and singers of different regions of Himalaya. Its members are active in research, teaching, making musical recordings and giving concerts. As individuals or in groups (Ensembles Maha Yantra, Vajra, Dance Mandal, Sukarma, Kala Mandapa, etc.), they are the ambassadors of Himalayan music and dance abroad and are regularly invited to perform at International Festivals in Europe (Settembre Musica of Torino, Festival d'Ile de France, Festival of Traditional Music in Berlin, Festival of Asia in Basel, etc.), in the United States (Princeton, UCLA, California's Strawberry Festival, Arizona State University, etc.), and in diverse festivals in Asia (Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, China, etc.). Among their recent productions, welcomed unanimously by the public and the press, can be mentioned the shows “Newah Nakhah”, at the International Festival of Radio-France in Montpellier, as well as “Gandharva Vidya,” at the Cité de la Musique in Paris.
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