A solitary journey: Indian-Nepali singer Bipul Chettri on his new lockdown EP, Samaya
“It was very odd, to say the least,” says the Kalimpong-born singer on writing and recording his third collection of songs amidst the pandemic.
Bipul Chettri wrote 'Samsara' in English seven years ago but never released it. Back then, the 40-year-old Nepali singer could not have predicted the misery of today nor the prescience of his lyrics. He had to rewrite the song in Nepali for his latest five-song EP, Samaya, upon the insistence of his manager, and because “it fit in extremely well with the mood of the album”. “Darkness has descended here/ I wish to go/ to the distant hill where there is brightness” — the seeming hopelessness of the past few months lends the Nepali lyrics, originally written as a meditation on the cyclic trap of life, death and rebirth, an air of desperation. “Don’t stop me/ I really have to go”.
In Chettri’s first two albums Sketches of Darjeeling (2014) and Maya (2016), the Kalimpong-born, New Delhi-based musician heart-warmingly evokes scenes of life and love in his beloved mountains. But in Samaya, he laments; albeit in his distinct velvety voice — a heady palliative.
Having composed Samaya during the 2020 lockdown, he says, “every song was written with a purpose to describe the sense of my or the world’s being at that particular point in time, which is also why it is called Samaya (time)”.
Chettri describes the writing of the EP as a solitary journey, throughout which he did not have the luxury of meeting with his bandmates and bouncing his ideas off them. Recollecting the difficulties in recording this EP, he says, “I predominantly use my phone to record all my early demos, after which our guitarist Pranai Gurung who lives close by, helps with recording some proper demos at his music school. Gaining access to our regular recording studio was a major problem, so we had to take every little opportunity we got to go and record the music in the studio. Most of the time, we didn’t even meet our engineer Anindo Bose, while recording. He sat in his control room upstairs while we played and recorded our music on a different floor, communicating through video call. It was very odd, to say the least.”
The seclusion of lockdown — the despair and loneliness of it — led Chettri to prefer a minimalistic rhythmic approach, performing each song on a single acoustic guitar, only sometimes accompanied by another instrument. The title track, which dwells on the futile exercise of competing against time, is delivered to the throbbing cadence of his fingerstyle classical guitar technique. In ‘Naya Din’ (new day), together with guitarist Pranai Gurung, Chettri plucks a buoyant melody that carries forth a message of hope for a better tomorrow. The stripping down of instrumental elements lends a certain nakedness to his music — the remarkable quality that has captivated his listeners from the beginning.
In Chettri’s very first solo track ‘Dadhelo’ (wildfire), he evokes the wildfires of his native Kalimpong to describe the smouldering anguish of love lost. Within a few days of its release in 2013, it was played over 1,00,000 times on SoundCloud. When he released his EP Sketches of Darjeeling the following year, it became the top-selling album on the indie music website OK Listen!, outperforming established indie bands like Indian Ocean and Scribe.
Within indie music circles, Chettri’s music is appreciated for its harmonious melding of Nepali folk music with western elements. This is what comes naturally to him. Growing up in Kalimpong in the heyday of local rock band culture and attending Catholic school where he came across choir music, he trained for most of his life as a classical guitarist.
“Listening to music on a cassette player or even owning a good music system was a luxury in a small town like Kalimpong. I spent most of my childhood listening to and emulating local musicians and guitar heroes who were just regular people — those that lived in my village or were brothers or some friends of an uncle or seniors in school. I heard the original versions of songs only much later in life, most of the time,” he says. “Hometown musicians like Mr Anmol Prasad, Mr Jeewan Pradhan, Mr Brian Moktan, The Flames, Sonam Sherpa, Albert Gurung, to name a few, have had a big part to play in my musical upbringing.” He also counts Bob Dylan and the legendary Nepali singer Narayan Gopal as influences in his music. But above all, his late father and avid musician Nirendra Mohan Chettri, to whom he has dedicated one of his earlier songs, ‘Ram Sailee’.
Before the lockdown, Chettri and his band lived the peripatetic musician life. They toured the US twice in 2016 and 2018, Australia in 2019, headlined a music festival at London’s SSE Wembley Arena, and played shows in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, the UAE and Nepal besides various cities within India. In the Nepali-speaking Indian regions of Darjeeling and Sikkim, Nepal, and amidst the Nepali diaspora scattered across the globe, Bipul Chettri or Bipul da (‘big brother’) is a household name. Detached from all the adulation, “‘success’ is such a subjective word,” he says. “If it means that my music has touched even a few lives, that should suffice as and define success for me”.
Unbeknownst to many of Chettri’s fans, he has a full-time day job as head of the Arts Department at the elite Vasant Valley School in New Delhi, which he joined in 1999. “I have mentored a whole generation of children, most of whom are adults with children of their own. There is nothing more fulfilling than bringing music into someone’s life regardless of whether they take it up as a hobby or professionally later. I am thankful to all those who taught me and brought music into my life as well.” He still recognises his own school music teacher, Chandra Mohan Ghising — who also taught Nepali singer Adrian Pradhan and Parikrama lead guitarist Sonam Sherpa, who sadly died last year — as pivotal to his musical training.
Chettri draws from his experiences of growing up in Kalimpong to write songs, predominantly about love and loss, that ground those universal emotions within the local soundscapes and idioms of his native hills. Like the distant “daanda” (hilltop), which in Nepali music and literature is the romanticised site of poetic rumination. In his final track ‘Baas Ghari,’ (bamboo grove) the most poignant of his songs in Samaya, Chettri gently fingers his guitar strings to ease his listeners into a hilltop bamboo grove rustling in the wind, using it as a counterpoint to the suffering that he so wants to escape (“I have to escape, but where do I go/who here can I share this with, there is no one who understands/where do I get my complaints heard”). As the perennial winds blow through the bamboos trees, the solitary singer figure helplessly mourns the precariousness of our lives surrounded by so much death (“I have been waiting here for a long time/ should the time come for me to leave”).
Last year, when the musician targeted this April or May for the release of Samaya, he could not have known that it would coincide with the second wave of COVID-19 in India. “It’s just a peculiar and sad coincidence,” he says. “It feels surreal to have to relive a similar situation as that of last year or, in fact, even worse this time around. With the pandemic at its peak and so many of us losing someone or the other we loved or even knew in passing, it has been a period of quiet, loneliness, despair, and disillusionment.”
A sign of the times, Samaya is heart-breaking in its eloquence yet exquisitely beautiful in its delivery.
Samaya has had a staggered release since 24 April, with one song being released each week on Bipul Chettri’s YouTube channel for online streaming and for purchase on Noodle Rex. All songs are now available on streaming platforms.
All quoted lyrics are rough translations done by the writer, and pale in comparison to the melody of the actual Nepali phrases.
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