Rabi Kapali was quite young when his father first taught him the basics of the Muhali. Now 23, he remembers being taken with the instrument—a traditional flute variant that is only played by the Jugi musicians from Bhaktapur—from the moment he laid hands on it. Fifty-year-old Bahun Kaji Darshandhari (Kapali), on the other hand, had learned the instrument from his maternal uncle when he was just seven years old. He had played continuously for many years, taking part in the numerous festivals that dot Bhaktapur’s yearly calendar.
Rabi and Bahun Kaji are the last of the Jugis to play the Muhali today.
In the past, the sounds of the Muhali could be heard at particular times in the morning and evenings in temples in the area, and often during festivals or ceremonies. Although there are an estimated 50 or more Jugi families in Bhaktapur, the instrument has been more or less shunned by younger generations, a mark, they believe, of the discrimination that their community has borne over time. The Jugi community was deemed ‘untouchable’ by higher castes, a stigma that has even extended to present times. “The Muhali distinguishes us as Jugis, and it makes it easier for the upper-caste folks to look down upon us,” 23-year-old Rabi says by way of explanation.
It was similar fears that had led Bahun Kaji to give up playing the Muhali for more than three decades. “But when something is such a big part of your identity, you can’t help but go back to it,” he says, explaining the decision to resume playing at the age of 45.
Bahun Kaji talks about the rituals involved in becoming a Muhali player. “Following a three-month long training with a guru, the trainee has to prove his merits by spending a night at the Nasa Dya temple playing the instrument,” he says. Besides this, there are alms to be begged and a feast to be given to neighbours before the guthi can offer the player its approval to play at temples, festivals and funerals.
While Bahun Kaji is a businessman today, as well as being the treasurer of the Kapali/Jugi Samaaj in Bhaktapur, Rabi has been employed as a security guard at Kathmandu University’s Music Department for close to three years now, a job he was given by British ex-pat Simon Bailey, who was studying ethnomusicology at KU and learning to play the Muhali from Rabi’s father. Rabi says the job has allowed him proximity to traditional music, something he cherishes. “I actually picked up a few technical and theoretical pointers just listening to the sounds coming out of the classrooms.”
Besides the Muhali, Rabi has tried his hand at more than eight instruments including the sarangi and the trumpet, and he wants to learn as much as possible. Lochan Rijal, a lecturer in KU’s music department says that Rabi’s dedication is incredible, and he hopes it will encourage others to take a similar interest in preservation. “A lot of traditional instruments continue to remain in the shadows because stakeholders undermine their significance, which is unfortunate,” says Rijal. “So in this context, what Rabi is doing is inspirational.”
Having re-joined school after a gap of 14 years, Rabi will also be giving his SLC soon. “We couldn’t afford to pay the school fees when I was younger, so I’m hoping to catch up now,” he says. “Once I’m finished with school I’ll study music.” Besides this, Rabi is a taekwondo enthusiast—a third-degree player—and has won a silver medal in the Second Good Will International Tournament in 2007.
As far as the community’s status is concerned, Bahun Kaji believes that implications of being a Muhali player are different today than they were before and Rabi, too, is hopeful that things will continue to change for the better. “Just a couple of years back, people from our community wouldn’t even be let inside restaurants and hotels; even when we were, we would be made to wash our dishes ourselves,” he says. And while he agrees that the mindsets of older generations remain rooted in prejudices, younger people, he says, are less concerned about such things. “I think a person should be judged based on the skills they have, not the name they bear.” He says this isn’t simply directed to those who oppress others but to those who are oppressed as well.
“The Jugi community needs to continue to work hard, acquire new skills, stretch our limits, if we are to ever leave our pasts behind.”
The band Night has been collecting funds to provide an opportunity to those interested in learning to play the Muhali for three months
The Kantipur Daily, 29 June 2012