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Diwali shines a rare spotlight on Nepal’s untouchables

As modern times sweep Nepal, members of the ancient musician caste find themselves grasping at an old way of life — or racing to catch up.

Many young Gandharbas are eager to change with the times. Kishwor Gandharba hopes to study forestry or agriculture in university so as to eventually find work with a development organization in Nepal.

Kishwor’s father, Sanu Kanchha Gandharba, 45, is better off than some. A tour in Japan a few years ago, at the invitation of a Japanese sponsor, provided him with the funds to purchase a small parcel of land in his home village. It was not enough, though, to pay for the construction of a house, and the family cannot afford the fee for his son’s university entrance application. They are looking for a foreign sponsor to support Kishwor’s education.

Still, a university education is hardly a guarantee of job security, and Kishwor, like countless young Nepalis, aspires to study and work overseas.

“Even for someone with a master’s degree there’s no employment [in Nepal]. All the Nepali students are unemployed, so they are going abroad to study. But Gandharbas are very poor so they can’t afford to study abroad,” he said.

Kishwor is keen to celebrate to his cultural roots but also recognizes there’s little future in wandering from town to town. His plight is one shared by many Gandharbas and Nepalis, regardless of caste or ethnicity— a continuing negotiation between their traditional culture and the forces of modernity.

The Gandharbas are hardly the first walk this tightrope, and many in the caste would gladly trade their sarangees for economic stability, Spray said. She believes the threat posed by modern life to Gandharba traditions could be ameliorated if Nepalis once again view Gaaines as relevant to their national identity. In this way, the caste’s cultural heritage could translate into capital — as was the case for early American blues musicians.

Meanwhile, Gandharbas like Kishwor and his father Sanu Kanchha struggle to survive in this rapidly changing country. While money is the first concern, equally important is a vision for improving the caste’s standing without forsaking their identity.

“Sometimes you need money, sometimes you need ideas,” Sanu Kanchha said. “Right now we need someone with ideas.”