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Home » Richard Widdess – Pulling chariots, singing songs: Musical structure, performance and cultural meaning in a dāphā song from Nepal

Richard Widdess – Pulling chariots, singing songs: Musical structure, performance and cultural meaning in a dāphā song from Nepal

Richard Widdess

How does music embody cultural meaning? What is the cultural significance of musical structure? How is music linked with other domains of human behaviour, meaning and experience in oral cultures?

An approach to these questions might be based on the concept of schema as used in cognitive psychology (Bartlett 1932, Neisser 1976, Mandler 1984 etc.), cognitive anthropology (D’Andrade 1995, Shore 1996, Bloch 1998, 2012) and music cognition (Rosner and Meyer 1982, Gjerdingen 1988, 2007, Byros 2012). The term refers to an array of cognitive categories in a flexible relationship, which is acquired in memory through repeated experience and deployed in everyday life. Music employs highly specialised schemas that generate expectations (Huron 2006); they may be especially significant in orally transmitted music where the role of memory is paramount (cf Rubin 1995). Schemas can also carry meanings, explicit or implicit, and may re-appear in different, apparently unrelated cultural domains: such “foundational schemas” (Shore 1996) can link music, psychological experience, and other domains of culture – social, religious, architectural etc. (Widdess 2012, Lewis 2013).

To illustrate this approach I here analyse one example of a dāphā song, showing how its schematic structure can be related to schemas in other cultural domains. Dāphā is a tradition of sacred singing performed in the city of Bhaktapur, in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal (Widdess 2013).  It is performed by neighbourhood groups of male singers of the farmer castes (Ill. 1, p. 11), who live in the town, but go out to work in their fields during the day; they belong to the Newar ethnic group, whose ancestors built the impressive temples and palaces of the cities of Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Kathmandu. Their music is transmitted orally, and its performance is deeply embedded in local social and religious culture.

Unājā hyāmu: structure, performance and meaning

fig1 widdess c

Figure 1

Fig. 1 shows the musical materials required for singing a popular dāphā song, Unajā hyāmu.[1] The song is dedicated to the Buddhist divinity Avalokiteśvara, who is popularly known as Karuṇāmaya, and believed to bring the monsoon rain on which the rice harvest depends. Hence this song is sung in Bhaktapur in the late monsoon period, from Gāijātrā until the rice harvest (approximately August–October).

The song describes an annual festival held in the neighbouring city of Lalitpur, in which an image of Karuṇāmaya is placed aboard a huge chariot and pulled through the streets. This occurs in June, and in the course of the procession the first drops of monsoon rain are expected to fall. The song refers, in its opening refrain, to the red colour of the image (Ill. 2), and to the green colour of the chariot, whose immensely tall spire is decorated with juniper foliage (Ill. 3). Later the song refers to the movement of the chariot, which starts slowly (“Slowly creeping the wheels of the chariot move”), but through the strenuous efforts of the long lines of pullers (“The pullers tremble”) it eventually gains momentum (“not stopping even for a moment”). The height of the chariot makes itsomewhat unstable, and the song refers to the excitement of the crowds being tinged with anxiety (“the watchers are afraid”). The royal dedication shows that the song was composed between 1816 and 1841, but the festival was probably already old at that time and still continues today. (See Appendix 1 for a translation of the song-text.)

The music of the song comprises three sections or melody–text blocks, a typical structure for dāphā songs (Fig. 1). The first (Dhuvā̃, A) sets the first line of the song-text, the refrain, which is repeated after each verse. The second block (Pad, B) sets the first line of each couplet, and the third block (Nhyāḥ, C) sets the second. The terms dhuvā̃ (dhruva) and pad (pada) are familiar Indic terms for the refrain and verse sections of vocal compositions, but nhyāḥ is a local vernacular (Newari) word meaning “flowing”: this refers to an increase in tempo from slow, in the Pad, to fast, and also perhaps to the descending octave contour that typically occurs in this section. Unlike the other blocks, the Nhyāḥ cannot be immediately repeated, but invariably flows into a repeat of the Dhuvā̃ at the same tempo; in Unajā hyāmu, the two blocks are linked by the interpolated exclamation “Karuṇāmaya!”. Thus the sequence of blocks is A B C A for the first verse, followed by B C A for each of the remaining verses.

This sequence of blocks is a standard formal schema applied to all songs of a particular type called cālī; this type accounts for probably 70–80% of the current working repertoire of dāphā groups in Bhaktapur. It is clearly related to the sthāyī–antarā schema of classical Indian vocal compositions such as dhrupad and khyāl (the dhuvā̃  is equivalent to sthāyī, the pad and nhyāḥ together equate to antarā). But while songs may be taught as a simple succession of blocks, they are performed in a very different way in the daily singing session, involving multiple repetitions and re-ordering of blocks, antiphonal repetition by two groups of singers, changes of tempo, and instrumental opening and closing patterns. Unajā hyāmu, which has 6 or 7 verses (depending on the group), will take some 15–20 minutes to sing in this expanded form. The pattern of antiphonal repetitions and tempo changes is broadly the same for all cālī songs, and I therefore refer to it as the cālī performance schema. However, this schema is articulated slightly differently for each song. In addition, therefore, to the melody–text blocks, the performer has to know how to apply the standard performance schema to each individual song.

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Figure 2

The cālī performance schema as adapted for Unajā hyāmu is displayed diagrammatically in fig. 2. It shows how successive renditions of  melody–text blocks A, B, or C are distributed between the Right and Left sides (jvaḥpā, depā) of the singing group. The vertical bars represent instrumental interjections or cadences separating melody–text blocks: these are called khĩ tvāllhāyegu, “segmentation by the drum”, although the cymbals also take part. These cadential patterns, of which the cymbal patterns are shown in fig. 1 as K1, K2 and K3, do not necessarily conform to the metre of the tāla; they may constitute a temporary suspension of the metrical structure (as in K1). They occur frequently in the early part of the schema, but much less frequently in the later part.

Below the sequence of melody–text blocks I indicate the tempo, which accelerates from slow to fast at the beginning of the Nhyāḥ section. Note that the C block always leads into a reprise of A, now at fast tempo, and sung by the same side of singers. The fast-tempo sections are accompanied by the copper natural-trumpet (pvaṅā), and by a special fast pattern on the thin-walled cymbals (jhyālīcā). Thus the performance schema for the song combines metre, melody, song-text, tempo, and instrumental interjections and accompaniment practices in a generic pattern, broadly similar for all cālī songs, but adapted to the particular dimensions and character of the specific song.

The performance of Dhuvā̃, Pad and Nhyāḥ (A, B, C+A) with their repetitions is followed by a further series of repetitions of these blocks, following a different pattern of repetition, called thalāḥ-kvalāḥ, meaning “inverted” or “mixed-up”. Thus far the two sides of the singing group have sung alternately, the Left group repeating whatever the Right group has just sung. Now the two sides sing three times each, alternately, but do not repeat what the previous group has sung, or only partially. The Right side sing B in slow tempo, but the Left follow immediately with C+A in fast tempo, after which the Right side repeat only A. This B C+A A sequence is then repeated, in fast tempo throughout, but with the order of the two sides reversed—Left, Right, Left.

Music and cultural meaning

The performance schema in Fig. 2 exhibits four salient and typical features:

  • extension: the performance is extended by multiple repetition of each block, either immediate repetition or in “mixed-up” order;
  • alternation: the R and L sides of singers alternate regularly and make an equal contribution to the performance, although in the “mixed-up” section they do not immediately replicate each other;
  • intensification: this takes several forms:
    • increase in tempo from slow to fast
    • rapid instrumental accompaniment patterns and participation of the pvaṅā in fast tempo
    • increased structural complexity in the “mixed-up” ordering;
  • interruption: instrumental interjections, in which the tāla structure may be suspended, interrupting the continuity of vocal sound and metrical continuity at the conclusion of slow-tempo blocks, at each return from fast to slow tempo, and at the end of the performance (note also the ghvasā pauses in slow tempo: see p. 5).

What meaning can we attribute  to these features of performance and the schema in which they are embedded? Singers themselves have little to say about the performance schema: that is just how a dāphā song should be sung (although there are other song types besides cālī, which have different schemas). The multiple repetitions of each line of the song-text are typical of religious singing in South Asia generally, and can be seen as a process of intensification of the act of prayer and praise that the singing represents, engendering feelings of heightened spiritual awareness and enjoyment in the singers and listeners as each portion of the text is savoured for its meanings. But the meanings of the words are seldom fully understood, if at all, by dāphā singers, and few bystanders pay attention to them. There must be additional reasons why this method of performance is rewarding and meaningful for its performers. Here I make two suggestions.

1. Complementarity and reciprocity

The balanced alternation of Right and Left sides of the singing group is one of the distinguishing features of dāphā as opposed to other forms of devotional singing in Bhaktapur. The co-operation of equal groups is at first sight contrary to the rigidly hierarchical structure of Newar society, which has an elaborate caste system, and many internal hierarchies within local institutions (for example, dāphā groups have a hierarchy of office-holders). But dāphā is sung principally by the farmer castes, and is also localised within small neighbourhood communities, each comprising a single caste or group of castes of similar status. The alternation of equal singing groups mirrors the co-operation between individuals and families of equal status that is necessary within a small farming community: major agricultural tasks must be shared on a reciprocal basis, and a willingness to accept mutual dependence and fulfil mutual obligations is seen both as a moral good and as essential to social and economic survival in this closely-knit urban community (Parish 1994). Indeed music is valued in this culture precisely because it is seen as leading to the enculturation of (male) children into society and into appropriate patterns of social and moral behaviour. In dāphā, the notion of everyone taking a turn, of making an equal and fair contribution, is enshrined not only in the musical alternation of Right and Left sides, but also in the allocation of onerous or expensive tasks (for example, organizing a feast for the group) on a rota basis; the rotas are strictly enforced, and failure to take one’s due turn, or even to attend the feast, is punishable by fine.

In dāphā, the alternation of Right and Left groups, where the Left group initially repeats whatever has been sung by the Right, suggests a degree of priority for the Right group, which takes the lead in initiating each verse, each section and each tempo change. But in the thalāḥ-kvalāḥ or “mixed-up” section, even this minimal hierarchy between the two groups is subverted, and the Left group initiates changes of block and tempo. The addition of thalāḥ-kvalāḥ to the preceding multiple repetitions of Pad and Nhyāḥ is perhaps intended to re-balance the division of roles between singers.

A tendency to emphasise complementarity and reciprocity runs throughout Newar culture. For example,  the subject of Unajā hyāmu, Karuṇāmaya, is seen as both Buddhist and Hindu (he is equated with the Hindu divinity Macchendranāth), and as both male and female (the exclamation re īśvarī “O Goddess!” is interpolated into the Nhyāḥ section of each verse of Unajā hyāmu) (Locke 1980). A similar chariot festival is held annually in Bhaktapur for the god Bhairav, where two teams of pullers initially pull in opposite directions, embodying the rivalry between the complementary Upper and Lower divisions of the city. The tug-of-war won, the two teams co-operate in pulling the chariot from one end of the city to the other (Widdess 2013). Thus a pattern of binary complementarity can be seen as a foundational schema common to musical and non-musical domains of culture.

2. Effort, interruption and flow

A gradual or terraced intensification of musical stimuli (such as high pitch, loud volume, and/or fast tempo) and consequent psychological arousal is another pervasive feature of South Asian devotional and classical music (Henry 2002). But another feature of the cālī performance schema is the punctuation of the sequence of melody–text blocks by instrumental cadences, which interrupt or delay processes of intensification, and may even temporarily disrupt the metrical structure (in K1). These are frequent in the initial, slow-tempo Dhuvā̃ and Pad, but mark only the conclusion of the Nhyāḥ and thalāḥ-kvalāḥ sections. An additional interruption occurs at two points in the Pad, at slow tempo, where a particular beat is prolonged, the drum playing a roll until the group are ready to move on; this is called ghvasā (“a blow”), and is characteristic of Ektāl (see Figs. 1 and 4).

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Figure 3

Fig. 3 interprets the cālī performance schema as an effort-interruption-flow schema. I hypothesise that the musical structure is designed to lead to the establishment of “flow”, a psychological state of intense concentration, both absorbing and satisfying, typical of participatory music genres (Czikzentmihalyi 2002, Turino 2008). Singers comment that they experience freedom from everyday cares and anxieties while singing, and do not feel tired or bored even after a long singing session, suggesting that they do enjoy an experience of flow. This state is generated in dāphā performance by a combination of socio-musical collaboration, repetition of text and music, and musical intensification (fast tempo, rapid accompaniment patterns, melodic contour descending from an initial high pitch, loud volume). It is established in each verse in the Nhyāḥ section (from nhyāyegu “to flow”), after an initial acceleration, and is re-established, after a brief interruption, in the thalāḥ-kvalāḥ. In these sections, in contrast with the slow tempo and hesitations of the Pad (including the ghvasā pauses), the music flows uninterruptedly, each group overlapping the start of their block with the last note of the previous block so that there is no gap in the stream of sound (fig. 5).

The opening Pad section of each verse, in slow tempo and with frequent instrumental interruptions, can be heard as a process of repeated collaborative effort, with the object of establishing flow, but repeatedly thwarted. This effortful phase may be presumed to intensify further the successful establishment of flow in the Nhyāḥ. At the same time the interruptions and changes of tempo provide variety balancing the repetition of words and music, and encourage the mindful alertness and awareness of the present that are said to be characteristic of “flow”.

I suggest that this musical process could be seen as manifesting a foundational, cross-domain effort–interruption–flow schema. It is a process that must underlie many everyday and agricultural tasks, and some less frequent but highly visible activities, such as the pulling of the Bhairav chariot in Bhaktapur or the Karuṇāmaya chariot in Lalitpur. In the present case, there is an obvious parallel with the efforts of the chariot-pullers to set their huge vehicle in lumbering motion, referred to in the song-text. While the parallel might appear entirely fortuitous, both the musical and the physical efforts concerned are examples of concerted religious exertion, and both result in a comparatively effort-free momentum or “flow” that is emotionally satisfying or exciting. The song itself refers to the strenuous phase of pulling the chariot—the wheels “slowly creeping”, the pullers “trembling” (with exertion?)—and the subsequent momentum of the chariot—“not stopping even for a moment”. The very expression ghusuhuna nhyāka, “slowly creeping”, suggests the alternation of resistance and free movement: ghusu ghusu is an onomatopoeic representation of “the sound of something dragging on a hard surface” (Manandhar 1986:54), and features consonantal sounds that iconically suggest alternate grating (gh-) and slipping (s-). Consequently ghusuhuṃ means “in a dragging manner”. The verb nhyāyegu means to move on or flow, as a chariot or a river (Manandhar 1986:140); it is the same root as the musical term nhyāḥ, meaning the very musical section of a dāphā song in which rhythmic momentum is achieved.

It must be emphasised that the musical processes analysed here occur not only in songs about pulling chariots, but in all cālī songs. Their occurrence in this song along with references to pulling a chariot may be fortuitous, but this coincidence brings to our attention the fact that similar processes or schemas may operate in different domains, both musical and non-musical. The importance of such schemas is suggested by the anthropologist Jerome Lewis (2013):

“It is suggested that participation in music and dance activities provides experiences of aethetic principles which in turn may influence “foundational cultural schemas” affecting multiple cultural domains…Musical foundational schemas may have extraordinary resilience, and this resilience is likely due to their special aesthetic, incorporative, adaptive, and stylistic qualities that ensure continuity with change.”


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Fig. 1         Unajā hyāmu: song (in text) 

Fig. 2         Cālī performance schema as adapted for Unajā hyāmu (in text) 

Fig. 3         Cālī performance schema as an effort–interruption–flow schema (in text)

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Fig. 4         Unajā hyāmu: ghvasā

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Fig. 5         Unajā hyāmu: overlap in fast tempo


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1. The Dattātreya Navadāphā group, Bhaktapur (2012). Photo: author.

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2. “His colour is red (Unajā hyāmu)”: the processional image of Karuṇāmaya (Rāṭo Matsyendranāth). Photo: Franck Bernède

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3. “The chariot is green”: the chariot of Karuṇāmaya in the streets of Lalitpur. Photo: F. Bernède.

Appendix 1

Unajā hyāmu

Language: Old Newari
Dedicatees: Rājendra Bikram Shāh, ruled 1816–47; Queen Rājeśvarī (d. 1841)
Rāg: Korā
Tāl: Ektāḥ
Text reconstruction and translation: Nutandhar Sharma

Refrain: [His] colour is red, the chariot is green.

1. [He] has himself been taking care of his people, accepting pujās and giving boons. Now the King having erected the chariot has beautified the deity. [Karuṇāmaya!]

2. [He] has the ornaments of a god in his ears, his essence and [facial] expression are beyond [imagination]. His face with its necklace of serpents and flashing jewel has to be seen. [Karuṇāmaya!]

3. [I offered] the tantra of flowers, the yantra of incense, the mantra of camphor, the tantra of lamps. Having obtained only him, I [thereby] obtained salvation, sūryamantra, and [all the] virtues. [Karuṇāmaya!]

4. [He has a] diamond shawl shining brightly and the Ketakī is his flower. The shape of his face is beautiful like the sun.  He [has] a golden sacred thread and wears a [lower] garment. [Karuṇāmaya!]

5. Slowly creeping the wheels of the chariot move. The pullers tremble, the watchers are afraid. I wanted to see more, [but with its wheels] engaged in the dirt (= drainage channels?), not stopping even for a moment, [the chariot] has gone far from me. [Karuṇāmaya!]

6. The nāga of the Taudaha pond has come to the chariot and takes the form of the chariot-master. The beauty of the chariot! The appearance of the nāga! Karuṇāmaya saves [us]! [Karuṇāmaya!

7. O mind, be passionate! O mind be on him! The meditation of my heart [be focussed] on his feet. My devotion to Lokanātha is clear. He alone has shown me the world. [Karuṇāmaya!]

8. King Rajendra is like Macchindranāth, the King of the Gods and brave Great King. Venerable Queen Rājeśvarī, ruler of the world, [I ask] only such a small favour. Victory O Queen! [Karuṇāmaya!]

[1] A recording of the first two verses of the song, from a complete performance by the Dattātreya Navadāphā group of Bhaktapur (2012), can be accessed at

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