Gandharbas are a caste of musicians who travel from village to village, house to house, singing and playing the Sarangi. Prior to the advent and prevalence of radio in Nepal, they used to disseminate entertainment and news, even playing a significant role in spreading a sense of nation-hood not long after the nation’s unification by the late king Prithvi Narayan Shah.
Due to their traditional role as itinerant musicians, researchers often compare them with minstrel singers, The troubadours of Western Europe which existed 800 years ago. Due to urbanization and growth in modern multimedia technology the traditional role of Gandharbas is shrinking. Old Gandharbas are physically challenged to travel across the country and play Sarangis. The young generation is gradually loosing interest in this traditional occupation. However people across the country love the Gandharbas and Sarangis as they did in the past.
Gandharbas are an occupational caste found across Nepal, even in Sikkim and Bhutan. According to National Bureau of Statistics, there are nearly 6000 Gandharbas in Nepal, although many stress that their number is far more than that. Traditionally Gandharbas travelled from village to village, house to house performing in groups or as individuals, with the hope for payment in rice, lentils or rupees from their hosts.
The best of the Gandharbas are masters of song and improvisation. An individual Gandharba’s level of skill is defined by the music he creates and the style of his performance. Some are proficient in a number of instruments and genres of song. Regarding the different categories found within the Gandharba repertoire, some examples are kharka songs-epic songs about gods, public figures, or soldiers; ghatana songs- describing local events often with social or moral commentary; and mangal songs – auspicious songs, often relating stories of the gods.
The sarangi is the primary instrument played by the Gandharba. It is a wooden fiddle with no fixed size, played upright. Since sarangis are generally produced at all stages by hand, each is unique. Generally a good average-sized sarangi may sell on the streets of Kathmandu anywhere from NRS. 1800 to 3000 depending on the craftsmanship and toil invested in the piece. The strings for the sarangi were traditionally made from the intestines of goats or other animals, although many Gandharbas use nylon strings. The bow is made of horse hair.