The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Dhiraj Rai is an oversized coat. Light brown in colour, it’s one that Rai wears while atop a barren brown hill. It’s a scene from one of Rai’s music videos, but I can’t recall exactly which song it was. I do, however, remember being glued to the TV set, watching as Rai faced the camera above him, moving his shoulders ever so slowly (it wasn’t one of his energetic dance numbers, after all), as he crooned—the kind of music that was then called ‘sentimental pop’. Most will, of course, know him for his more famous number—Luki Luki—the video for which features a troupe of dancers clad in orange pants, blue t-shirts and leather boots. Rai himself dons a black t-shirt and jeans, slipping into a number of bright yellow and light orange jackets in different scenes. Whether he’d been inspired by Govinda, who reigned over Bollywood in yellow back then, only Rai can tell.
Those were nevertheless interesting times. The release of Rai’s first album Priyasi I had coincided with the restoration of democracy in the country. And though there were the likes of Om Bikram Bista—also called the King of Nepali Pop—for the generation that grew up in the 1990s, it was Rai who ruled. In case anyone’s forgotten, Rai’s dance and video for Luki Luki, released much later, is a slightly modified version of the original, which starts with ‘Shake it, shake it’. In ‘shaking’ it and not hiding, as implied by the word ‘luki’, Rai’s music reflected both the growing openness of Nepali society and its acceptance of Western fads. At the same time, the song could also be seen as depicting society’s struggle with leaving behind the older notions of love and romance and embracing the new. Or wishing for the coexistence of the contradictory notion of only stealing glances and openly ‘shaking’ it.
A few years later, Rai would go on to launch Mysterious Girl, definitely inspired by the Peter Andre song of the same name that was a big hit in the mid-90s. Rai’s rendition, as wrought by his ‘dancer’ fame, boasts a faster tempo and Nepali lyrics, apart from the chorus that goes, ‘My mysterious girl ooo…’ In what was the heyday of his career, the song exemplified Rai’s ability to unfailingly capture popular sentiment, or sell to the masses what they’d already endorsed in the first place.
My grasp of and the need to stay updated on the Nepali pop music scene, however, declined with age. I’d kept abreast of new releases and the like until high school, and even the first and second years of college. Soon after, I lost track, though I’d lost track of Rai long before that. One thing I did know was that Nepali artists—those who were naturals on stage and those who suffered vocal blow-outs while performing—were both making money touring the Arab nations and America alike.
But a few weeks ago, on the day #BuddhawasborninNepal as we Nepalis like to stress, a colleague told me of the song and album titled Buddha Was Born in Nepal by Rai himself. The singer, his hair still silky but longer than his Luki Luki days, eyes hidden behind a pair of shades and clad in an orange t-shirt saunters around Lumbini, singing,
“Buddha was born in Nepal
Ashoka Pillar, it is the proof
The sun and moon, witness the truth
Let no one dare to erase this earthly truth.”
Apparently, the Rabi Lamichhane ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ 62 hours 12 minutes live talk show has not helped get the message across to the intended audiences overseas or even across the border; Rai’s album had come out a few months after the mindboggling undertaking by Lamichhane. But Rai, trendsetter that he is, does not stop at the Buddha. He attempts to set the record straight about the Gurkhas and Tenzing Norgay too.
“Gurkha was born in Nepal
His bravery and honesty
Credibility and loyalty
He would rather die than bow head to surrender,” go the lyrics, as images of Gurkha soldiers fighting plays out in the background.
Lastly, it is Tenzing’s turn,
“Tenzing was born in Nepal
He is the best among the rest
He is the first to climb Mount Everest
Let no one ever dare to twist this fact.”
This song, among other things, is testimony to Rai’s mastery over his art. Being in the music business for over two decades has taught him well about what sells. Just as he localised the already popular Mysterious Girl years ago, he has now cashed in on Nepalis’ obsession with the Buddha (only where he was born, though, not his teachings). The song is undoubtedly straightforward but also revealing of our society’s inherent paradoxes, much like Luki Luki. The Buddha was born in Nepal but at a time when no one even knew a country called Nepal would be in possession of that stretch of land. The Gurkhas, who were born in Nepal, would—well, most of them, anyway—rather not come back to their birthplace. We are nonetheless intent on highlighting the association. As for Tenzing, aren’t there stories—although difficult to tell how true—that say he’d gotten an Indian citizenship later in life?
What better way to sing we are a country of contradictions?
A Subway branch manager in Baltimore who runs a show called Ma Rastrako Sewak on the Internet comes to his birthplace to talk non-stop and ensure that the world knows Nepal for something it had absolutely no role to play in. The country makes him a star, dirties cities with hoarding boards. He goes back to the US leaving behind the impression that Nepal is a nation stuck in time. It’s a landmass whose only identity is a few cascading rivers, snow-capped mountains and an Enlightened Soul born over 2,500 years ago. It’s a picture-perfect portrait Non-Residential Nepalis can hang in their living rooms and retain the connection to the place they never want to return to. It is equally appealing to Nepalis who know that the country is far from perfect but wish it were. So it should come as no surprise that on May 14, a group of Nepalis submitted one million signatures clarifying that the Buddha was born in Nepal to the UN in New York. Four days later, on May 18, Rai clad in a blue jacket and black jeans led a ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ peace rally in Toronto with the support of the Nepali community in Canada.
So if the world still does not know where Buddha was born, it should ask Dhiraj Rai, or better still, listen to his song. What this song reveals about us Nepalis or of the Nepal in 2014 is for the kids of today to ponder on later.
For now, all that matters is, whether in a brown coat, a black t-shirt or a blue jacket, Rai does what a pop gayak does best—repackage popular Nepali sentiments and sell it back to the audience.
Published on the May 31st edition of The Kathmandu Post (On Saturday) (Click on the photo to enlarge)