Print Edition - 2018-06-02  |  On Saturday

Music in their blood

  • The world around them might have changed since they first migrated to Kathmandu during the Malla period, but the Kul families of the Valley continue to preserve their family craft—music
- Shaleen Shah

Jun 2, 2018-

When Keshav Kulal was younger, it would take a whole week to produce a madal. These days it takes him a little over two hours. “We order the hollow, cylindrical pieces of wood—the Ghar—which are now factory produced in Dhading,” he says, “All we have to do is fasten the leather to the ends and strap them with leather strings and metal rings.”

Hari Lal Kul, a veteran musician and craftsman, however, has different ideas about the process. “Each detail is important,” he says, while on a break at his music shop, “The wood has to be aged to a certain extent and has to be of a certain quality. Same goes for the leather and the leather strings. Even a small difference could lead to the authentic sound being lost.”

Hari’s music store in Mangal Bazaar—NT Musical Centre—has an old, rustic feel to it. The bell jingles as you open the worn out door, and once inside, the air is cool and musty. On the walls of the dimly lit store, hang an assortment of Nepali instruments. Some of the older ones are stacked on dusty shelves. Here he has a work desk for crafting instruments, laden with tools, shaved pieces of wood, strings, and instruments.

The master madal maker’s concern for the loss of the authentic sound is understandable. However, he admits that that authenticity is a fluid concept. “With each new generation, the instruments tend to evolve,” he says, “Whether that is because the techniques and the materials used evolve, or because new methods are deliberately introduced.”

As an example, he points out that madal is a cousin of the assortment of drums found in the sub-continent—the South Indian maddalam for instance. But he says that the variety of madals made by his family seem to have originated in the Kule region before they migrated with the family to the Valley during the Malla era. Today the branches of his extended family—Kul, Kulu and Kulal, the names given to the makers of instruments—are based out of Kulu Chowk, Makhan Chowk, Yarkhal and Bhaktapur, and for the most part continue the family occupation. But if once the members worked in tandem by dividing labour in terms of preparing and crafting the wood, leather, or metal, as needed, today operations are largely run independently.

Keshav’s store, for instance, has a more modern feel to it and is open throughout the day. He and his mother, Gyanu, sit on chakatis, cutting, washing, and strapping the leather to the pre-made ghars. “We have been in this business for as far as I can remember,” Keshav says, “It is a good way to spend time. I have a brother, and we take turns working at the store. Work is always better with company.”

Hari Lal too is passing on the family craft and his son, Ashish Kulu, works alongside him at the store. Only here, Hari Lal insists on transferring his eye for detail as is. “There is a certain, authentic sound of the madal which has been passed down through the Kulu family,” Hari explains, “Even a slight deviation will change the sound. Which is why, it has taken me up to three years to produce one madal in some cases. Some things you just cannot rush.”

As a solution, Hari has made the effort to both record and write sheet music so that he can transcribe the original sounds for posterity. And it is his hope that the techniques and the sounds can be passed on accurately, unambiguously to the Kul family’s descendants.

To further preserve the concept of the different variations of Nepali drums, from the smallest damaru to the largest damakhi, with the madal falling in between, he has made small models of these instruments and placed it in a glass case. An ex-military man, and a former member of the Army band, Hari Lal says he will stick to his craft until the day he dies. “I have children who will continue the Kul family’s craft, and I am happy for that,” he says. 

- Shaleen Shah

Keshav Kulal.

Published: 02-06-2018 07:25

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