AP PHOTOS: Nepal women keep the art of traditional instruments alive despite their past stigma


KATHMANDU, Nepal — As a child, Shanti Chaudhari was scolded by her parents for standing too close to a group of musicians playing the naumati baja, Nepal‘s nine traditional instruments, because they were identified with the Damai, part of the lowest caste that was formerly known as “untouchables.”

Chaudhari, now 41, eventually overcame her family’s opposition and today performs in a band of her own called Shrijanshil Mahila Sanstha, or the Self-Reliant Women’s Group. Her husband, who also was initially against her participation, now supports her musical pursuit and cooks meals when she gets home late from a performance.

Bal Kumari Bhusal, the band’s founder, says she was criticized when she first set up the band, which includes members from various castes. The band was tutored by Dalit musicians — the formerly untouchable class — when it was formed in 2021.

“Previously, there were few women musicians, but now we’re growing in numbers on this journey. It’s not just about preserving our cultural heritage. It’s also about empowering women in today’s challenging world,” Bhusal said.

Despite increased representation in society and more progressive laws, women in Nepal continue to face gender discrimination in the patriarchal society.

Nepal’s parliament in 2017 passed a bill that aimed to make women safer by strengthening laws against acid attacks, limiting the ancient Hindu custom of demanding dowry payments for marriage, and ending the practice of exiling women who are menstruating.

Discrimination based on caste is also believed to have caused some Dalit musicians to quit playing naumati baja. Today, people from different castes help keep the art alive.

Shrinanshil Mahila Sanstha performs a range of songs, from religious to folk and popular tunes, on percussion and wind instruments. They play at weddings, birthdays, religious ceremonies and even political gatherings.

The nine members, wearing black saris and matching blazers, recently led a groom’s procession to the wedding venue through the lanes of old Kathmandu. The music they played ranged from raucous — catering to the mood of the dancers in the group — to somber, with the wind instruments slow and heavy.

A band member earns $30-40 per show. Those who were previously confined to domestic chores say they are happy to see more of the world outside their homes.


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