Embodied Theories of Melody in Nepali Music: A Case Study from Central Dhading
Scholars of South Asian music have often discussed local traditions using the terms of the region’s dominant classical traditions, obscuring vernacular theories and practices (Ayyagari 2012). In Nepal, this way of thinking emphasizes music-theoretical influences from India and leaves little room for attention to how artistic practices and their associated theories have developed locally. In addition, it is also common in Nepal to assert that folk performers have little theoretical knowledge. Our paper aims to disprove both of these common assumptions through critical ethnomusicological analysis of Subi Shah’s unpublished treatise on melody, Introduction to Nepali Tunes [Nepali Dhunko Parichaya]. Our analysis draws on decades of combined experience as musicians and ethnomusicologists in various Nepali musical traditions, and is based in a well-established phenomenological approach to ethnomusicology that focuses on “embodied theory” (Berger 2015, 2019; Feld 1994; Rahaim 2012; Rice 1994, 2008). Additionally, as the lead author’s own experience as a flutist has been central to her understanding of Shah’s theories of melody, we follow the time-honored practice in ethnomusicology of drawing on our own embodied interaction with a musical instrument to gain understanding of elements of a musical tradition. Once known as “bimusicality” (Hood 1960) this practice has also been described as instrumental “autoethnography” (Varoni de Castro 2016).
A decorated scholar-practitioner with a lifetime of music and dance training in the traditions of his village and their national-level iterations in the Nepal Army, Subi Shah wrote this manuscript based on his own experience as a flute player. He did additional research with the sahanai players of the naumati baja of his home village, Jyamrung, in Dhading. Introduction to Nepali Tunes offers a theory of melodic modes based on the musical instruments bansuri, murali, and sahanai, and discusses the relation of vernacular traditions with those holding “classical” status, illustrating his music-theoretical and social-theoretical claims with two or three notated example songs for each mode, plus his own written commentary. We assert that these instruments take on the role of “epistemic things” (Rheinberger, 1997) not simply technical objects used to produce pre-conceived sounds, but the sensory, experiential basis for understanding melody. Our broader argument, building on those of multiple ethnomusicological studies on embodiment, is that theories are not only articulated verbally, and attention to the act of performance and its technical and sensory aspects are also a way to develop, determine, and transmit theories. Subi Shah’s manuscript begins to translate this embodied musical theory into words and music notation. Our scholarship aims to carry its insights forward, explaining their relevance outside the case study of Shah’s central Nepali musical traditions toward a more expansive concept of what constitutes theory, and a greater appreciation for the depth of knowledge found in the vernacular artistic traditions of Nepal. This in turn is important for these traditions’ cultural sustainability and continued vitality.
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