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Profile | The man behind Nepal’s most popular protest song

Kumudini Pant

Kumudini Pant

Profile | The man behind Nepal’s most popular protest song

The signature song became a protest anthem during both first and second Jana Andolan

Raamesh Shrestha’s musical journey has been closely tied with politics. The song ‘Gau Gau Bata Utha, Basti Basti Bata Utha’ (a call for everyone to rise up for national development) has become synonymous with him and continues to reverberate on radio in small village neighborhoods, and at political rallies and protests.

The song became a protest anthem during the anti-Panchayat protests in 1990, as well as a rallying call for demonstrators during the Second People’s Movement in 2006. It continues to be the song of choice for any form of protest across the country.

“The song carries emotions that transcend time,” says 77-year-old Shrestha. “It resonates with most people—regardless of their age, ethnicity, or nationality.” Perhaps that is why it has been translated into 17 languages, including Chinese, Hindi and English.

And Shrestha sang from experiences. The singer grew up during politically tumultuous times. Born in 1944, he witnessed the fall of the Rana regime, the rise and fall of Panchayat, the decade-long Maoist insurgency, and the overthrow of the Shah monarchy. In these defining moments in Nepal’s history, Shrestha found solace in making music while his audience felt energized listening to them.

His music-making career began long before he released his first song. As a child, he was constantly surrounded by music-lovers. Shrestha’s father was an avid fan of Nepali songs and his sisters used to play sitar. At nine years of age, he had already learned how to play tabla. At 11, one of his school friends recommended that he be allowed to play at school programs and thus his semi-professional musical journey began.

Following his passion, in 1962, he took part in Radio Nepal’s folk song competition.

After the contest, he returned to Okhaldhunga where he taught in schools. But as more people fell victim to the Panchayat regime’s injustices in the mid-60s, Shrestha along with his friends Raayan, Manjul, and Aarim created a leftists group called Ralfa that traveled across the country singing progressive songs about social justice, equality, and patriotism.

“Fighting for our country was our duty,” he tells ApEx. “We hid and ran from the government so we wouldn’t be killed. During the anti-Panchayat movement, we lost countless friends and comrades who were murdered by the government.” It’s essential that these sacrifices be talked about, he adds.

This is why Shrestha has authored Baalapan Jeevanko, an in-depth account of Shrestha’s life and journey from an aspiring musician to being called ‘Janata ka Gayak’ (people’s singer.)

He’s also writing a second and a third book—a continuation of his life’s story which will encompass everything from the friends he lost while fighting for his country, to the cultural diversity he came across during his travel years, to the lost patrons of Nepali music.

Musicians today are considered celebrities while up until a few hundred years ago, traditional wandering singers were so looked down upon that they would have trouble getting shelter during their travels. But the celebrity status that is entrusted upon musicians doesn’t interest Shrestha.

“What we do is important,” he says. In his opinion, musicians deserve celebrity status only if they have a role in lifting up the lives of the common people by filling them with joy and awareness. Even though that’s becoming rare, he’s fascinated with the evolution of the industry over the past two decades. There are countless genres and subgenres to listen to, he says, and each brings a new story to the table.

“Music will always find a way to resonate with people—whether they’re from old vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs as in our times, or snippets on social media apps now,” he says. If there had been a video-sharing app during his youth, he’s sure he too would have put it to full use. Even today, Shrestha is uploading his old songs to the YouTube channel (Sarthak Academy Nepal) so that the golden oldies are always listened to and never forgotten.

What bothers Shrestha is the trend of producing songs with the sole purpose of going viral and making money. “Nepali music will lose its charm and quality if this continues,” he warns.

He is determined not to let that happen. Shrestha, who has written 25 songs, composed music for around 150 songs, and lent his voice to more than 300, has five albums to his credit. He is still busy making music. The pandemic has put a stop to his work, as he can’t record in a studio now. But he is in the process of composing music for iconic old poems from celebrated poets and turning them into songs.

Even though the music industry’s future is unpredictable, Shrestha is at peace with the progress so far. “There will always be hurdles on the way. Songs will incite deep rage in people and then quell it like a balm. Some music will disgust the audience and then disappear into crevices of the internet and some will be revisited and sung decades after its making,” he says. But Shrestha has complete faith in today’s youths: “I believe they will do justice to our political as well as musical legacy.”