Back in 1998 I had accompanied a talented group of Higher Secondary boys from St. Augustine’s to Mount Hermon for the ISC Fest.
Representing SAS in the solo song category of the Western Music Competition was Bipul Chettri, then a slightly intense, almost brooding musician, respected immensely by his cohorts for his virtuosity with the guitar. Bipul’s eclectic listening tastes was reflected in his choice of the song that he was covering- Hook by Blues Traveller. Bipul belted out the song like a rock star. As a performance it was rough, patchily brilliant.
Later when the results were declared the breathless announcer got carried away and breaching MC norms went well beyond the third position to declare that Bipul Chettri of SAS had been declared… last. Perhaps the judges (names available upon request) were looking at something else - a hill diva belting out something from the Titanic or a hymn.
Then about a decade or more later I heard Dadhelo. The link to the song on soundcloud was posted by Evan Manandhar another Sasonian who had made a perceptive comment about the Nepali accent of the singer.
This song was like no other Nepali song that I had ever heard. Musically taut, with evocative lyrics and a voice devoid of the million cliches that encumber pop singers.
It was as if a powerful energy of extraordinary benevolence and freshness was being unleashed upon the Nepali music firmament. Bipul sang of the wild fires. Back in an innocent time when nights were not consumed by the TV or internet one could see nocturnal hills necklaced by rings of forest fires. It is perhaps a rare hill child whose memory doesn’t flicker with the leaping tongues of these orange offerings . Bipul gave a music and a voice to that memory.
The empathy clicked and the song became a phenomenon.
Then others followed. Asar with its simple jhaurey beat that mimed the stacatto monsoon on tin roofs. A song embedded with a subtle yet ominous hint of that another hill memory- the hissing of the jhora as it bounded downhill with the gurgling bounty of the monsoon waters. There was life and death in that churning.
If Dadhelo was a visual song about the memory of light, asar unpacked a sound.
The other songs that were released one after the other did not disappoint. Deorali Dadha was tactile. It caressed your face with the cool whiff of the mountain breeze. The song was a vivacious dance of hill vapours scented with the artemesia and the pine.
My personal favourite Mountain High, of Sketches of Darjeeling reminds me of Sun Ra’s Yucatan in terms of the organic vision of the composition. While the idiosyncratic minimalism of Ra evokes of mountain animals swaying as they ascend a Mayan mountain, Mountain High recreates in its sonics, the piety of monks as they blow on their horns and ascend heights that are both real and metaphorical.
Later when I heard Syndicate, I told myself this was a song screaming to be included in Sketches of Darjeeling.
Syndicate is a word that has been appropriated by us. It is seldom heard without the prefix Darjeeling or Kalimpong or Siliguri and refers to a place from where you catch a vehicle.
It is noisy and chaotic. But sometimes above the fumes of exhaust, the squabble over tickets, or the dread of having to ride on the chameray (rear) seat, soars a hope that a transient infatuation may lead on to something more meaningful.
Till one realizes sadly that the syndicate is a crossroad. It is not a point of termination but an intersection from where lives and journeys diverge.
This song has a horn interlude and a passage that speaks of ‘darkey pani,’ a sudden downpour that settles the dust and if its evening creates a luminous freshness.
It is perhaps Bipul’s genius that in these brief melodious minutes he recreates a universe that will be teeming with Darjeelingays who carry in the recesses of their minds their own episodes of Syndicate memories.
Memories that Bipul’s music has a given a fresh new color, sound and lease of life.
If Darjeeling life has a musical locus then perhaps it will follow the trajectory of a Bipul Chettri song.
P.S: What I have heard of the latest album has been promising. But this one is Bipul turning inwards…but more on this at another time.