Gũlā: Music for a sacred time
Gũlā: Music of a Sacred Time arose from a collaboration between Chouette Films, run by two filmmakers Remi and Anna Sowa, and the ethnomusicologist Richard Widdess. The short film features two different Newar musical traditions in the ancient royal city of Bakhtapur in Nepal: dāphā devotional singing and a style of processional music performed during the Buddhist festival of Pancadān. Shot in a dramatic style that evokes the atmosphere and religious potency of the old city through vivid colours, contrasting illumination and slow-motion effects, the film combines footage of music performances with comments made by two interviewees: a 70-year-old man called Panchalal, who is a leading exponent of dāphā drumming, and a 19-year-old woman called Vishakha, who performs in the festival procession. The focus on these two musicians’ views about the meanings and sustainability of their traditions reflects the filmmakers’ stated aims to encourage community participation and to activate the potential of film to validate marginalised communities and their cultural heritage.
Authors: Remi Sowa (director), Anna Sowa (producer), and Richard Widdess (musicologist) · SOAS, University of London
Format: Short Film
Published: October 2022
Gũlā: Music for a sacred time results from an opportunity that arose in 2019 for a green film company and an ethnomusicologist to work together on a short project. Chouette Films (Anna Sowa and Remigiusz (Remi) Sowa) had been attached to SOAS University of London since 2017, and had previously completed a number of award-winning documentary films on social, environmental, and cultural topics (see filmography for examples). Chouette Films are committed to “bringing hidden questions into the public eye and raising the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard”, and to “increased impact on humanity with minimal impact on the planet”.
The ethnomusicologist—Richard Widdess, Emeritus Professor of Musicology at SOAS—had been researching musical traditions of India and Nepal for over four decades, mainly on the history and practice of classical and religious vocal music traditions. In Nepal, his research focuses on the music of the politically marginalised Newar ethnic group in the Kathmandu Valley, whose historic music traditions are endangered by socio-economic changes, natural disasters and land reform policies.
A small research grant from SOAS made it possible for Anna and Remi Sowa and Richard Widdess to visit the town of Bhaktapur, Nepal, in August 2019, for a period of two weeks, coinciding with the sacred month of Gũlā. Chouette Films, who contributed their time and expertise pro bono, had not previously visited Nepal, or covered an ethnomusicological subject; Widdess had not previously worked with professional film makers. Part of the research was therefore to discover what each could learn from the other: how a vibrant musical culture could be represented on film in a culturally sensitive manner, to reveal insights different from or complementary to those afforded by scholarly writing.
This film introduces the rich and varied religious and ritual musical heritage of the ancient royal Newar city of Bhaktapur, as it survives today. The film focuses on devotional singing (dāphā) at one of the main Hindu temples in the city, and processional music for the Buddhist festival of Pancadān. As the dāphā group featured in the film sing daily throughout the year, we were able to work with them over the period of our stay, film them on several occasions, and consult them about our results. By contrast, the Pancadān festival happened only on one day, with no opportunity to rehearse or re-take. In both contexts, our local research assistant, Mr Shamsher Nhuchen Pradhan, with whom Widdess has worked since 2003, was instrumental in facilitating our interactions with communities and musicians. We also benefited from the support of the Department of Music, Kathmandu University, and its Head, Dr Lochan Rijal, who provided us with official invitations to Nepal; in exchange we held a workshop on film techniques for graduate students.
In order to bring Newar voices directly into our film, we built it around interviews with two musicians: Panchalal, the leader of the dāphā group, a senior male musician (age 70 years) of the predominantly Hindu farmer community; and Vishakha, a young female musician (age 19 years) of the Buddhist community. From the perspective of a life-long commitment to devotional singing, hitherto a male-only genre, Panchalal laments the decline of the tradition and the lack of interest shown by younger generations, but is at a loss how to remedy this other than by extending group membership to women. Vishakha fiercely asserts the continuing importance of traditional music to Newar society, and is extremely positive about her musical experience in a genre to which female musicians now make a key contribution. These complementary but contrasting perspectives illustrate the complexity of issues surrounding intangible cultural heritage in contemporary Nepal and in the modern world more generally.
As a “way in” to the musical culture at the beginning of the film, we introduce Panchalal in his role as a senior musician and teacher in the local community, giving feedback to Krishna, a musician from another part of town, who had sought his guidance on how to improve his playing. Later we see Panchalal as a singer and leader of the local dāphā group, the Dattatreya temple group, accompanied on the drum lālākhĩ by his son Gopal, who is continuing the family musical tradition. Our second interviewee was a dedicated young participant in a Gũlābājā (processional music) group that we filmed on the day of Pancadān.
We sought community involvement wherever possible. Thus we showed initial results to leaders of the dāphā group (see picture), who criticised them on the grounds that the audio privileged some voices over others. This response clearly reflected the egalitarian ethos and aesthetic preference of the group, which we took into account in subsequent filming. On the day of the Panchadān festival, we were invited to enter private houses to film the procession from different angles. This gave us a full-flavour, rounded understanding of the celebration that we could not have accessed without the help of the community. The interviewees were keen to participate and offered their views with enthusiasm. Mr Shashi Chandra Amatya, a Newar community member living in London, kindly provided English translations of both interviews in full.
Thus the act of making the film became a process of research, bringing to light many issues at stake, and involving collaboration between a diverse team of participants.Left to Right: Remi Sowa, Shamsher Nhuchen Pradhan, and Dattātreya temple dāphā group leaders Panchalal Lachimasyu and Man Bahadur discuss the first takes.
Our initial project was to experiment with 360-degree Virtual Reality (VR) film techniques in recording devotional singing. Because performance of this genre takes place in the round, only a centrally-placed camera can capture all the interactions within the group. 360-degree film de-centers the film maker, allowing the viewer to select the focus of attention, and captures both the performance itself and aspects of the surrounding context. We were successful in recording one dāphā performance in VR. We are seeking funding to continue this project.
We also planned to make a short conventional film while we were in the research field, and accordingly timed our visit to coincide with a festive period. We did not start with a fixed plan for this film, but our intention was to focus on the musical genres being performed during Gũlā, and to take a decolonising approach focussing on the experience and perspectives of participants rather than our own. This, Gũlā: Music for a Sacred Time, is the film we are presenting here. It does not include any VR footage, as we are still exploring ways to use that material and technology.
Our research questions relating to Gũlā included:
– How can the skills and knowledge of the filmmakers and ethnomusicologist complement each other so as to generate and communicate insights into the role of music in Newar religion and society?
– How can film techniques enhance the communication of musicological research by evoking place, occasion, social context and religious/musical experience?
– How can the experience and perspectives of the community, rather than the filmmakers or ethnomusicologist, be elicited and expressed in film?
– How do musicians from different backgrounds understand their own musical traditions, experience and methods of transmission? What are the issues that concern them?
While this research statement provides some background information for those interested to know more about context, motivation and methods, we intend that the film should make sense by itself, without reference to this text.
Music in Bhaktapur has been extensively documented in ethnomusicological writing (eg Wegner 1986, 2009; Widdess 2013), and in three films made in the 1980s (Wegner 1985, 1987, 1989). The latter are based on a scripted explanatory commentary by the ethnomusicologist (Wegner). Our aim was to adopt a more inclusive style of film, in which communities would speak for themselves, and advanced film techniques would help convey place, occasion, context and experience without explicit verbal narrative. Thus for example the use of slow motion at selected points in the film invites the viewer to focus on moments that might otherwise have passed unnoticed, affords a variety of pace, and in particular, brings out the awesome aspect of the more-than-life-size, serene Buddha statues. Similarly the use of light and shadow and other techniques bring out the inherent beauty and drama, not only of grand festive enactments, but also of the ordinary, everyday environment.
The potential of film to validate communities is the purpose at the heart of Chouette Films. Anna and Remi Sowa believe that documentary filmmakers have to open up their sensitivity to diverse forms of storytelling (Juhasz and Lebow 2018), and to collaborative methods of working, in order to reflect the experience of communities as well as individuals. As argued by Childress (2017): “When we use film to build empathy for marginalised groups, we normalise whiteness by confirming the notion that whiteness is the lens through which others are viewed, understood and judged”. The same author critiques the use of film to engender empathy with particular individuals: “the overemphasis on attitudinal change towards individuals leaves less room for films that push audiences to grapple with the structures and systems that reinforce inequality”. The solution is to involve the community in the production: “By focusing on collaboration and the idea of ‘creating something together’, agency becomes shared between researcher and informant…in this model both the researcher and the informants invest in, and are rewarded by the project” (Pink 2007: 57).
This does not mean that all documentaries need to have ambitious and large-scale goals like changing the status quo or influencing public policy: more “modest impact” objectives such as the self-valorisation of the communities that we work with, or the documentation of lives, festivals, rituals and stories for posterity are equally valid. In Gũlā: Music for a Sacred Time, our relationship of co-creation with the community in Nepal enabled us to dissolve colonial narratives of filmmakers exoticising social actors, and instead to create a research film together, which both provides an authentic and insightful resource and helps the community to celebrate and value their cultural heritage.
The ethnomusicologist in the team is fully in sympathy with these objectives and concerns, but had not previously had the opportunity to explore film as a medium for research. Participating in making the film was thus a rich learning experience. On the other hand, his relationships with communities in Bhaktapur, and those of his research assistant, established over decades, were essential to engaging communities in the project. Similarly his prior analysis of performance practice (for example, the complex pattern of antiphonal repetition in dāphā singing) was key to filming performances; and his prior experience of the Pancadān festival complex enabled its multiplicity of events to be captured without rehearsal.
The principal fields of practice are Ethnographic Film and Ethnomusicology.
The film demonstrates how culturally sensitive filming and editing techniques can elicit and represent performers’ perspectives and experiences, and give the viewer an implicit understanding of place, occasion, social context and religious/musical experience, without imposing an explicit commentary.
The reflections by two contrasting musicians convey new insights into the cultural meanings and problems of transmission of intangible musical heritage in Nepal.
The film has been made publicly accessible via Vimeo, and has been well received by viewers in Nepal, including the musicians who appear in it. It is of interest particularly to people concerned about the decline of Newar musical traditions. For example, since we made the film, a group of enthusiasts in Kathmandu have started promoting the revival of dāphā devotional singing (see https://qcbookshop.com/post/dapha-calling-revitalizing-our-music-heritage).
The film was presented on line at the SOAS Festival of Ideas (23rd Oct 2020), and at the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival (26th March 2021). The film has been selected for inclusion in the RAI film catalogue. The URL is publicised in personal media profiles and the SOAS Research Online website.
In these and similar ways, we expect the film to continue to help disseminate knowledge about Newar musical culture and encourage the revival and transmission of its endangered traditions. We hope it will help to foreground the voices of the musical communities concerned.
We wish to thank all the friends and collaborators who helped us create this film, in particular: Shamsher Nhuchen Pradhan, Shashi Amatya, Dr Nutandhar Sharma, staff of the Department of Music, Kathmandu University, and all those who appear in the film, especially Panchalal Lachimasyu and Vishakha Shakya. We also thank the Research Office, SOAS University of London, for the funding that made this project possible.
Childress, S. (2017) “Beyond Empathy.” Firelight Media. https://firelightmedia.medium.com/beyond-empathy-ad6b5ad8a1d8
Juhasz, A. and Lebow A. (2018) “Beyond Story: Ways to engage.” World Records. Vol II, Article 3. https://worldrecordsjournal.org/wp-content/Article%20PDFs/Vol2_Art3_Beyond%20Story.pdf Accessed: 27/01/2022
Pink, S. (2007) Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Wegner, G.-M.(1986) The dhimaybājā of Bhaktapur. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.
— (2009) “Music in urban space: Newar Buddhist processional music in the Kathmandu Valley”, in R. Wolf (ed.), Theorizing the local: music practice and experience in South Asia and beyond. New York: Oxford University Press.
Widdess, R. (2013) Dāphā: Sacred singing in a South Asian city. SOAS Musicology Series. Farnham: Ashgate.
Wegner, G.-M. (1985) Navabājā von Bhaktapur (Navabājā of Bhaktapur), 38′. https://youtu.be/S8jkdFkOY2I
— (1987) Endzeitmusik (Music for the end of time), 28′. https://youtu.be/2F_17TXut4U
— (1989) Totentanz von Bhaktapur (Dance for the dead of Bhaktapur), 20′. https://youtu.be/OxE8WTlWQys
Chouette Films (https://www.chouettefilms.co.uk/):
Kanji Swami – Pure Soul (R. Sowa, 2022, London)
Catadores – The Trailblazers (R. Sowa, 2021, London)
Nobody’s metaphor (R. Sowa, 2020, London)
Kanraxël – The Confluence of Agnack (R. Sowa, 2015, London)
Aghbalou – The Source of Water (R. Sowa, 2014, London)
With thanks to all our friends and collaborators.
Production team with Caṇḍeśvarī temple dāphā group and VR camera.
With Buddhist music group.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
This film documents gũlā religious singing and drumming in Nepal with an eye toward contemporary community perspectives on the art and the possibilities afforded by a collaboration between professional filmmakers and Richard Widdess, an ethnomusicologist with extensive experience researching gũlā. The film adds a dimension to the description, analysis, photographs, and audio recordings of Gũlā currently available. By focusing on two contrasting perspectives within the community, one offered by the elder male Hindu musician Panchalal and one by the young Buddhist female musician Vishaka, the film’s form encapsulates some of the debates surrounding the tradition in the community today. The written statement was ambiguous as to whether 360-degree Virtual Reality film techniques were present in this film, or whether this film was exclusively the “short conventional film.” Are viewers supposed to rely on the film alone or is “the work” a combination of film and text? Either way, I am left with questions. At the beginning, we seem to be viewing a lesson. The master laughs as he teaches. The student, whose persona we are accustomed to seeing in other films as young and earnest, is here an adult. The master explains that this genre is dying out and that young people are not interested in it. Is the “student” portrayed in the film a member of the community who came to realize the value of this tradition late in life and has now come for lessons? Or is he a trained musician who is playing the part of a student? Is this the way the tradition of drumming is typically taught or is it a demonstration? It would help to give some agency to this young man and understand his place, and also to give a clearer picture of musical transmission (assuming some of the drumming is not taught formally like this). Some of the film techniques, while beautiful and helpful in giving the viewer a chance to see the actors, instruments, and objects clearly, do not necessarily help in conveying a sense of presence. Every shot was controlled as if in a studio. Was the use of light and shadow meant to convey a perspective in relation to the overall intent of the film, or was it dramatic for its own sake? The master, when shown narrating, did not sound like he was in the room where he was sitting; ambient sounds could be heard, but they did not convey a convincing picture of that man in that room. Throughout the performances and processions the actions and stunning scenes were sometimes slowed down, thereby masking the movement, speed, multiplicity, and chaos one normally encounters in public processions. Was this sense of suspended animation supposed to relate to the message of the film, the precarious state of the tradition? Or was it a matter of aestheticization? This collaboration succeeds in staging gũlā in respectful and elegant artistic terms, while leaving the relation of art to scholarship a question to be pondered.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments
Gũlā: Music for a Sacred Time is a 14-minute film directed by Remi Sowa and produced by Anna Sowa in collaboration with ethnomusicologist Richard Widdess. Shot in 2019, Gũlā is a striking aural-visual portrait of the status of two ritual genres of the politically marginalized Newar ethnic group in Bhaktapur, Nepal. The film has two distinct sections featuring Hindu devotional practices that occur during the Nepali sacred month of Gũlā. The first focuses on dāphā (devotional singing) and its accompanying percussion (barrel drum and hand cymbals) performed by the group Dattāreya Navadāphā at a Hindu temple in the city. The second features processional music for the Buddhist festival of Pancadān performed by Buddha Samākrit Vihāra Gũlābājā. Each section focuses on a practitioner/narrator, successfully bringing Newar voices into the film and decentering the filmmaker. The film’s format shifts between close ups of performance footage and the narrator/interviewee discussing issues related to the contemporary viability of their genre.
Section one features Panchalal, a 70-year-old male musician of the Hindu farmer community and leader of the dāphā group. The opening scene features Panchalal and his student practicing the barrel drum that accompanies dāphā. It portrays a typical practice room of a South Asian guru in which lusciously articulated drum syllables are spoken to tala hand slaps followed by playing the equivalent resonant drum patterns. There are no subtitles for the pedagogical sections of the film, which disappointed this ethnomusicologist who wanted to understand more about how the music is organized. The film’s purpose focuses more on the social associations of the genres and their potential for survival. Between lesson scenes, Panchalal discusses dāphā’s association with life, the performer’s goal of attaining greater respect through their performance, and dāphā’s impending death for lack of interest by youth. His dialogue ends with an assertion that if young women start playing dāphā, it might survive.
Long shots of men outside a temple encourage us to engage their subjectivity and serve as a shift to a two-minute temple performance of dāphā. This includes beautiful close ups of hands playing small cymbals, of drum strikes, and of older musician’s faces. Unfortunately, the lyrics are not translated, so we get little sense of the devotional content.
Section two serves as the remedy to Panchalal’s dilemma of continuation. It features Vishakha, a 19-year-old female Buddhist musician, who narrates her experience of equality with male students playing the cylindrical drum of the Gũlābājā ritual. She asserts that the duty of youth is preservation for the sake of identity. A traditional city courtyard frames their performance featuring gorgeous wide shots from apartments above and close ups of the performer’s hands (and technique) playing drums, cymbals, trumpets, and clarinets, along with women worshipers in bright red saris. A deity procession follows accompanied by a non-diegetic drum pattern. The section ends with Vishakha describing music’s connection to life trailed by wooden flute music, long brass trumpets accompanying the procession, and a return to vocal music behind the credits. Gũlā provides a rare contemporary snapshot of ritual music in Nepal useful for world music or music of South Asia courses.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.
Richard Widdess FBA is Emeritus Professor of Musicology, SOAS University of London. He specialises in the musicology of South Asia, with particular reference to the history, theory, ethnography and analysis of vocal music traditions in North India and Nepal. He is the author of The rāgas of early Indian music (1995), Dāphā: sacred singing in a South Asian city (2013), and (with Ritwik Sanyal) Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004).
Anna Sowa is the Creative Producer of Project Films in the ERC-funded research project Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies. She is a documentary film producer and PhD by practice candidate at the London Film School/ University of Exeter, researching the role of the producer in collaborative documentary filmmaking.
Remi Sowa is an Advisory Board member of the ERC-funded research project Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies. He is an award-winning social documentarian and the founder and creative director of Chouette Films – a green film production company committed to using film as a tool for social change, specialised in working with NGOs and academia.