For Amber Gurung, 73, music is not entertainment.
If it were, Gurung, who doesn´t watch television because he has a taste for more serious things—reading, thinking—would probably have listened to his father and become a soldier.“Music is serious art,” said Gurung, stressing the last two words before throwing a quick, piercing look at his interviewer to discern whether his statement had been taken with the gravity he intended. It was the look of a man exhausted by many decades of persistent effort to make people take music seriously. “Good music consoles, communicates words and feelings echoing in the deepest crypts of human heart, and carries the message of universality of human emotions,” he explained.
The music maestro, who taught, hobnobbed with, wrote and composed for, and inspired legends such as Narayan Gopal, Gopal Yonzon, Karma Yonzon, Ranjit Gazmer, Jitendra Bardewa, and Aruna Lama, insists that the music form he creates has to be understood.
“My music has to shake the very foundations of my listeners,” said the chancellor of Nepal Music and Theater Academy making it loud and clear that the music he listens to, writes, composes, and sings is different from what passes for music in Nepal today.
This distinction is important for Gurung whose approach to music has been disciplined and uncompromising, making him the terror of his pupils.
But his refusal to create music that sells was often financially calamitous to his family. To this day, his well-wishers fondly remember the bygone years when they dropped gifts in kind at the Gurung household to make sure that the family did not have to make do without vegetables.
It is for his perfectionism that Gurung has been very choosy when it comes to people who lend their voice to his compositions. If he does not find the right voice, he would rather not have his songs sung.
Now ailing from symptoms that doctors have suspected as that of Parkinson´s disease, Gurung says the biggest failure of musicians and lyricists and singers of his league has been their inability to explain music to people.
“It is the artistes´ responsibility to educate people´s taste. Today, artistes themselves take music lightly,” said Gurung, who often feels lonely and not understood. “I feel like standing alone in an island,” he said.
Gurung was born on February 26, 1938 in Darjeeling. His father Ujir Singh Gurung, who was born in Tanahun district and served in the British Indian Army and later in British Indian Police Force, was a strict family patriarch who wasn´t impressed by his son´s love for music.
“He wanted me to join the armed forces,” said Gurung, whose parents as well as four siblings passed away a long time ago.
Gurung studied in Turnbull High School where, in the course of singing Bible hymns during the school assembly, he fell in love with music.
His formal education stopped at matriculation, after which Gurung worked at Turnbull. And in the early 1960s, he recorded his tour de force “Nau Lakh Tara”, written by Agam Singh Giri. Back then, finding studios to record Nepali song was an ordeal. For recording the song, Gurung had to agree to difficult conditions set by Hindustan Recording Company. He agreed to purchase the first 500 records himself, submit a deposit of Rs 500, pay remuneration to his musicians, and bear transportation costs of his troupe of musicians.
Fortunately, the song about the sufferings of Nepali diaspora in India created ripples in India and Nepal.
Alarmed by the song, the government of West Bengal offered him a job at the Folk Entertainment Station in 1962. At the station, Gurung was paid handsomely but barred from singing outside or recording new songs. The job was a way of the government there to stop Gurung from creating songs that stoked Nepali nationalism.
“It was a clever trap,” said Gurung, chuckling.
Not surprisingly, Gurung gave up the job in 1965 and spent several difficult jobless years, until he was invited in 1968 by King Mahendra to permanently live in Nepal and chair the Music Department of Nepal Academy. Abused, Misused, Unused Genius Gurung, who has been described by Peter J Karthak in a DarjeelingTimes article as an “abused, misused and unused genius”, admits that his 28 years as director at the Music Department were unproductive.
“Despite leading the department, I wasn´t a policy maker at the academy and could do little in the way of enriching Nepali music,” said Gurung, who is the composer of Nepal´s new national anthem.
As Chancellor of Nepal Music and Theater Academy where he was appointed nearly four months ago, Gurung wants to make up for those years by devoting his energy on developing orchestra, apart from researching, analyzing, exhibiting and popularizing the music of indigenous nationalities.
For Gurung, a nation that has not developed an orchestra cannot claim to have world-class music.
“The best thing about orchestra is it does not have a language barrier,” he said, adding, “The worst part is it needs decades of practice.”
Gurung is planning to perform a symphonic orchestra, the first from Nepal, in Hong Kong, apart from kick-starting a ten-year project to train Nepali musicians to perform orchestras. He wrote the symphonic orchestra that he plans to perform in Hong Kong 40 years ago.
Despite his physical condition, Gurung actively writes and composes music, and a yet unnamed album of his songs is being released later this year.
With these initiatives, he hopes to keep the torch of what he calls “creative music” burning brightly.
Utility of Hardship
Looking back, Gurung is proud of the hardships he went through as an uncompromising artiste. In fact, he believes any artiste must go through terrible hardships in life.
“Hardship teaches you empathy. And empathy is essential for good art,” he said.
Despite having made his family suffer for his passion, Gurung feels he is lucky his children studied well and take him as their role model.
Gurung´s three sons – Kishore, Raju and Sharad – were all inspired by their father and are into music. Kishore, a Fulbright scholar, is Nepal´s only Ethnomusicologist, while the other two sons are Berkeley College graduates.
For Amber Gurung, 73, music is not entertainment.