Tara Devi, the last soprano at Radio Nepal
By PETER J KARTHAK
The Nepali world's iconic singer Tara Devi passed away on Monday January 23, 2006. She was just past 60 but sustained many misfortunes and illnesses before calling it a day. She was the last of the musical triumvirate of Nati Kazi, Shiva Shanker and herself at Radio Nepal for three decades. The trio dedicated more than 90 collective years to Nepali music. With her departure, all the old hands at Radio Nepal are also either dead or retired.
In my 10 years as a studio musician at Radio Nepal ending in 1975, Tara Devi was the only person I didn't exchange a single word of greeting with - no "Namaste!" or "Sanchai?" or "Thik-thak?" There are mainly two reasons for that. One was the then social status reserved for musicians in Nepal. They were supposed to be mainly Damais. So we too were taken as lowly members of the "chhotta" or "tallo" or "pani nachalne" "jaat" - one of the untouchable Hindu lowly castes known politely today in Nepal as the "Dalit" nations. This value system remained intact even when Radio Nepal's recording studios had such non-Damai musicians in Newars, Subbas, Rais, Gurungs, Karthaks and other Matwali Nepalis in our time.
Even then, everybody - the music directors, composers, lyricists and singers - marginalized us. We were not considered worth their attention. Only rare creative personalities, such as Amber Gurung, Gopal Yonzon, Narayan Gopal and a few others, recognised us as the salt of the recording studios. Self-anointed master chefs may create and compose excellent dishes with world-class spices and other ingredients. But without the cheapest item called salt, it renders their masterpieces tasteless, bland and useless. We the musicians were the salt, the most common and ordinary item. Yet we were the indispensable component without which there would only be "geet", not "sangeet".
This typical "class"-ification ran deep among the aristocrats and feudal of Kathmandu, so much so that the Samas were labelled "Damai Ranas" by the A-Class Ranas and the other subversive Thakuris. Bala Krishna Sama wrote and mounted plays, created literature, painted, photographed - all lowly occupations to the ruling class to which the non-A-Class Samas belonged, albeit in the lower rungs of the Ranarchy. Bala Krishna's son Janardan was a "jantu" Rana because he played harmonium, violin and sang - just like a Damai. While he wooed the desperate wives of powerful Ranas and Shahs with his rouged voice, their epauletted husbands booed him as a "pukka Damai Rana". So the "pakhe" Samas avenged themselves on their pretending cousins through their artistry. Were Subarna Shamsher born a First Class Rana, would he have joined and steered the Nepali Congress?
Lest I digress further. The second reason I never exchanged pleasantries with Tara Devi was due to her own inborn nature. She looked inscrutable, taciturn, vain - or plain shy. She went straight to her room at Radio Nepal and disappeared, only to reappear for recording in the studios. She didn't talk to anyone at length, never gossiped. She minded her own business and didn't bother anyone.
This shyness was manifest when she merely managed to read her four-sentence homage to Agam Singh Giri when he passed away. Radio Nepal paid its respects to the late Giri in a special program, and Tara Devi's valedictory statement took the longest to tape-record in the studio that particular evening.
But Tara Devi was in her ever best while recording her songs. Always fully rehearsed, she sang her songs without a single fault, never missed a beat and was never off key. That was her perfection; her professionalism never went amiss. And she recorded a song or two almost every week for thirty years as an employee at Radio Nepal.
But her last day at Radio Nepal was a bolt out of the blue, an utter humiliation that should shock Nepalis worldwide. This injustice can be through only what is known as made-in-Nepal intrigue and conspiracy.
She wasn't allowed to sign the attendance register that morning when she reported for work. The book was simply disappeared. She was fired!
But the spineless officials didn't have the guts to explain to her why she wasn't needed anymore. The routine official notification in advance of service termination or retirement, as per the rules and regulations of any land, was denied her in Nepal. The typical medieval Nepali "pajani" claimed her too, and she was to say later, "I went home that day in tears."
What Radio Nepal and His Majesty's Government of Nepal did to Tara Devi was to pay her in the old Rana way for the thousands of songs she left at Radio Nepal and elsewhere. The last straw that broke her back was ostensibly due to the rumours and speculations that she sang songs written by an unpopular lady with a nom de plume in the last days of the previous Panchayat Raj. Be that as it may, but was it just and right in the then new democracy rising and shining in Nepal that the thunder be hurled only at Tara Devi?
Also, the decision was made without warning or explanation. No chargesheets for wrongdoing, if that were the case. That, in resorting to this cowardly act, the applicable and decent norms and forms of officialdom and bureaucracy were thrown to the winds, and Tara Devi was bumped off just like a sacrificial animal. Moreover, nobody among her living colleagues came forward to register this injustice at the honourable court of the nation.
The Nepalis of Nepal are notorious for this kind of practice for centuries. It should be the Nepalis elsewhere who should know about the last gift Tara Devi received from her own country.
The farewell Tara Devi was given by Radio Nepal added to her own personal miseries and woes of already having lost her son and husband. The last bolt struck her nerves and she passed her final years in vegetative amnesia.
So much for the lilting lady to whose chair the late King Birendra walked to hand over the letter of felicitation to the semi-paralysed singer of the Nepali world.
Source: Kantipur Online