Music of his life
The world is full of extraordinary people doing extraordinary work. And amidst all these extraordinary doers stands and ordinary man with ordinary dreams which made him special in many ways.
At the age of 70, music maestro Amber Gurung still has the mischievous smile of a schoolboy and his eyes twinkle with delight as he shares his journey and his greatest passion — music.
Describing him as a maestro sits well with this veteran musician’s enigmatic personality, but for the dedication he has shown and contribution he has made to the contemporary music scenario of Nepal, superlatives comes short in describing him.
Born in Darjeeling on February 26, 1938 to Uzir Singh and Renuka Devi Gurung, Amber was their fourth child. Little did they know that this son would grow up to become one of the most sort after singer-cum-composers in the history of Nepali music.
Gurung was influenced by music from an early age. “When I was growing up, Darjeeling had a very musical environment. I was very much into music but there wasn’t any institute that taught music or books that helped you in self-learning,” recalls Gurung.
He remembers the Himalayan Kala Mandir where dance and music were taught. Entertainment was just Hindi songs on Radio Shillong and he used to listen to songs by Mitra Sen and Ratna Das. Nepali songs were rare, and with no recording, it was mostly in live performances that one could get to hear Nepali songs. Hira K Singh and Dal Singh Ghatraj used to compose songs back then. “Later on with some friends we started an Art Academy where we learnt and taught music,” says Gurung, who composed his first song without any knowledge of music at the age of 12 which became an instant hit among his friends.
After completing his Class X, Gurung immersed himself totally into music and dedicated his life and time to learn music. “We never got paid for any composition or performance, but getting the platform to play our music was a great achievement and we were satisfied,” says Gurung.
Around 1961, he went to Kolkata to record the classic Nau lakh tara penned by Agam Singh Giri, and sung and composed by Gurung. “At that time, there weren’t any Nepali musicians in the studio except for a maadal player whom we had kept to give Nepali flavour,” says Gurung.
The song was an instant hit and became the anthem for Nepali diaspora. According to Gurung, after its immense popularity the song was banned fearing that might trigger a revolution.
Having well-known musicians like Rudra Gurung, Gagan Gurung, Karma Yonjan and Nayan Subba as friends, Gurung’s interest in music and thirst for musical knowledge grew. His hard work was paid off when the government of West Bengal appointed him the Music Chief, Folk Entertainment Unit in the mid ‘60’s. After working there for some time, he returned to Darjeeling and started teaching music at Dr Graham’s Homes, Kalimpong.
He made friends with Bhupi Sherchan, Shankar Lamichane and Uttam Kunwar during his visit to Nepal on king Mahendra’s request. “With so many Anglos and Scots around, I felt that I was losing my Nepalipan. So I decided to shift base to Nepal and came here for good in 1968, and worked as music director at the Nepal Academy (of Arts and Literature),” he says.
He composed classics like Ma Amber hun, Ae Kanchha, Ghaam Joon among many others. From 1968 till 1996, he was involved with the Nepal Academy and worked in the development of Nepali music industry composing around 1,200 songs.
He also composed the first Nepali operas, Malati Mangale (1986), Muna Madan, (1979) and Kunjini (1963), and also the first Nepali music cantatas, Smriti (1964) and Brave Gorkhas (1972).
The commercial aspect of music never interested him and disappointed by people’s attitude towards musicians and the disrespect they showed to the work, he almost decided to leave music. But he says, “The life of a musician is hard. You don’t get much in return, but when you once fall in love with music, you can never give it up. I went through a lot and learned a lot, but I am always dedicated to it.”
He feels disappointed looking at the trend Nepali music is taking in recent years. “When we were young, there was no pop music and less Western influence. Now everything has gone haywire. Music today is less emotional and more commercial. I agree that we are from the old generation and music is changeable, but that does not mean youngsters can just remix our piece. They have to make something different that has Nepalipan,” insists Gurung.
“Make music that never grows old or bores you. Make music that is about you and everyone else. That’s the real music,” he adds.
It’s not only music that excites the man who has composed the national anthem of a republic Nepal, which was chosen as one of the Top 10 anthems at the Beijing Olympics 2008. A nature lover, photography fascinated Gurung and he even thought of taking it up as profession. “I was born in the mountains and brought up there. I loved capturing the essence of mountains and lifestyle through the lenses, but it turned out to be an expensive hobby,” he admits with smile.
He loves reading books in his free time; one of his favourites is Lust for Life by Irving Stone and also loves works by Bhupi Sherchan and Laxmi Prasad Devkota. He himself has published three books Samaalera Raakha, Akcharkaa Awajharu and Kahaa Gae Ti Dinharu, which won the Uttam Shanti Shahitya Puraskar for 2007.
Married to Bina Gurung at the young age of 18, Gurung has three sons and a daughter. “All my sons — Kishor, Raju and Sharadh studied music in the US, and my daughter too did her degree in sociology from there,” says the proud father.
Nowadays he teaches music to a handful of students at home. “I try to do yoga everyday because as you grow old you body does not work as it use to, and I am trying to take extra care,” says Gurung.
Gurung ends our conversation talking about the reaction for his composition of the national anthem. “Some people congratulate me, while some say they did not like it. I had given a couple of compositions and the committee chose the one they liked. It’s our national anthem and it’s our pride. We should respect it. I am very proud to be the one to compose it and it’s a historical achievement for me,” he says.