Mediating the Migrant Experience: Dukha, Viraha, and Nostalgia in Nepali Lok Dohori Songs
Nepal’s Lok Dohori industry is based on migration. The majority of performers, arrangers, producers, investors, and even most of its audience are rural-urban migrants within Nepal, and many have spent time working abroad. Song production is a collaborative process involving many different individuals, most of whom will have personal experience engaging with popular songs as migrants themselves. Based on ethnographic research in Nepal’s music industry and among migrant performers and fans in the UK, US, and Bahrain, this paper examines how artists in the music industry contribute to shaping the experience of migrant life by highlighting particular emotional states, particularly those of suffering, longing, and nostalgia, in the songs and music videos they produce. I suggest that modern Nepali popular songs about migration draw on poetic tropes of dukha (suffering) and viraha (longing) that are hundreds of years old, and that these poetic tropes and the musical and visual tropes used along with them emphasize a particular structure of feeling around the dialectic of home and away. Yet to argue that all migration songs are only about dukha would not be accurate – the equally popular narrative of the migrant’s triumphant return home is one counter-example, and the popularity of humorous improvised couplets juxtaposed with sad refrains in live Dohori performance, underscored by the fast danceable beats that characterize many of these songs, shows that a greater range of emotion is present. Grounding my analysis of migration songs in the idea of sharing dukha and sukha that undergirds the tradition of songfests in Nepal’s rural areas, and Georgina Born’s ideas about music and mediation, I argue that the process of producing and further engaging with these songs is a way for migrants and their families to manage this bittersweet range of emotions.