The musical traditions of Nepal are as diverse as the various ethnic groups of the country. Arguably the most complex musical culture in the Himalayas is that of the Newar people in the Kathmandu Valley which in the course of the past two thousand years has absorbed mostly Indian influences shaping a unique musical tradition.
In the year 1996 the Department of Music was established as an academic platform for the musicians and ethnomusicologists with the main objective of conservation and transformation of Nepalese musical heritage in the Newar town of Bhaktapur. The Newar culture flourished during the late Malla dynasty from the 15th century up to the 18th century. The Malla kings of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur were devoted patrons of the arts and competed with one another in the beautification and cultural achievements of their kingdoms. Many of these Malla kings excelled as musicians, dancers, poets and town planners.
The Newar live in a Buddhist-Hindu area where the two religions coexist along with a strong influence of Tantric practices and local traditional cults. In the complex Newar caste system both Hindus and Buddhists have found their place. Many of these castes perform their own characteristic musical repertory and ritual duties during festivals and processions. Newar music and dances are always related to ritual and locality. A portion of Newar music is secretly performed during esoteric rites.
Bhaktapur, a Newar farmers’ town at the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley has been able so far to preserve much of its traditional heritage. In 1980ies there were still more than two hundred music and dance groups performing regularly. With the influx of tourism and Western and Far Eastern technologies this picture changes rapidly. It is conceivable that these living cultural treasures may vanish within one generation. For the future there needs to be an effective method for the preservation of traditional music and dance.
Dramatic changes can be seen not only among the Newar but also among all ethnic groups of Nepal – even in areas far from the Kathmandu Valley. What Nepalese perceive as ‘the loss of our culture’ happens at a rapid pace and goes along with the ravaging of the natural environment, an alarming population growth, unbalanced distribution of resources, rampant exploitation and corruption, political instability and a growing desperation and readiness to solve problems not through compromise but with violence. Current change devastates Nepal like a wild river. This must be controlled and channelled into a less destructive course. Preservation of culture and environment is a precondition for sustainable development. In this context, the academic discipline of Ethnomusicology could play an important part in healing and re-uniting the society.
The aim of the K.U. Department of Music is to train competent musicians and ethnomusicologists to document, preserve, and work creatively with the endangered musical traditions of Nepal. At present, the Department of Music is actively involved through various academic and practical concepts for the conservation and transformation of both tangible and intangible musical heritages across Nepal.