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Nikkei Asia Prizes

Saving Nepal's musical instruments from fading into the past

Ram Prasad Kadel wins Nikkei Asia Prize for funding folk music museum

Ram Prasad Kadel of Nepal collected traditional music instruments and established a private museum in the capital city of Kathmandu, giving these historical objects a new lease of life.

TOKYO -- Nepal is known for folk music enjoyed by generations of locals living across the South Asian country -- from the Himalayan foothills in the north to the subtropical lowlands in the south.

Once-endangered traditional musical instruments are now on display for people from around the world to see, thanks to the self-funded efforts of Ram Prasad Kadel to save and pass down these treasures to future generations.

The son of a farmer, Kadel graduated from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University in 1992 and started working at a studio producing and selling thangka Buddhist scroll paintings. He understood that a deep understanding of not only Buddhism but also other religious views was important to selling these pieces of art. He learned a great deal about sacred texts from a religious scholar introduced to him by a friend.

Feeling indebted to the master, Kadel in 1995 asked him how he could return the favor. Then came a surprise response from the scholar: "I don't need anything. One thing I want from you is to do something for the country." Kadel thought about diminishing opportunities for playing traditional music and the state of music schools teaching traditional culture.

"I'll build a museum dedicated to folk musical instruments in Nepal," he told the master, and soon set to work.

The first step was to identify all native musical instruments of the country and make a catalog. Lacking a strong knowledge of music, Kadel desperately hunted down experts in the field and did all he could to gather information. He funded the effort with proceeds from thangka sales -- a trade in which he is still engaged today -- and was able to acquire instruments and conduct research.

After about five years, Kadel opened the Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum to the public in 2002. The facility in Kathmandu was run by three people, including Kadel and a volunteer, and exhibited 150 types of instruments from across Nepal.

In 2007, the museum was moved to the current site on the premises of Tripureshwor Mahadev Temple and was renamed the Music Museum of Nepal. Today it boasts a collection of more than 1,000 pieces of 655 types of instruments.

Kadel traveled across Nepal to study instrument materials and recorded approximately when they were made. He kept a humble attitude when asking people for help, aware that the instruments are used as tools to heal illness, feelings of sadness and emotional wounds. All while remaining mindful of the different customs and cultures in different regions.

As Kadel's collection grew, so did his appreciation of the rich and diverse heritage of traditional Nepali music, which was played in different parts of the country and inspired by insects, birds, animals and even wind. He learned that folk music instruments were made of tree bark, animal bones and other locally available materials.

Kadel also came to realize that traditional music was closely related to the topography of different regions. Music native to plains areas generally featured fast tempos, most likely because flat surfaces made it easier to walk and dance, whereas slower rhythms were prominent in hillside and mountaintop villages. Traditional Nepali music, unlike its counterparts in other countries, followed a distinct course of development depending on geographical conditions and regional lifestyles, Kadel learned.

Today, Kadel works to promote the development of music culture, maintaining an archive of video recordings and regularly holding concerts at the museum. He also actively communicates with experts in other countries.

"Kadel has diligently engaged in grassroots efforts and achieved astonishing success in researching, recording and archiving traditional Nepali music and spreading the culture," said Yoshitaka Terada, a friend and professor emeritus of Japan's National Museum of Ethnology.

Kadel says he is happy that his many years of work have helped to protect precious musical instruments inherited from ancestors and facilitated their passing to younger generations. His next goal? To add musical instruments from other parts of South Asia to the museum's collection.

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