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Bipul Chettri performing in Delhi, on 28 June. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Bipul Chettri performing in Delhi, on 28 June. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

How Bipul Chettri’s hillside idiom is going places

After the success of his songs on the online indie circuit, the Nepali singer releases his second album

Two albums down, the only words non-Nepali speakers can discern in Bipul Chettri’s music are the aching “home, home, calling home" appearing on the opening track, Mountain High, of his debut album, Sketches Of Darjeeling (2014).

Without providing non-Nepali listeners the handle for lyrical indulgence, Chettri is sometimes “overwhelmed" by the reception accorded to his music. In India’s independent music circles, it has become part of folklore, with Wildfire (Dadhelo)—a mid-tempo Nepali song on the annual forest fires that visit Chettri’s native Darjeeling hills that is pivoted on a simple staccato guitar line and muted soloing—notching up over 100,000 hits within a few days on SoundCloud. Till date, the track has been played more than 357,000 times on SoundCloud.

“I was amazed and thought it was a fluke," says Chettri. He followed it up with yet another SoundCloud release, Asaar, a song that begins in a slow, contemplative mood but soon moves into celebratory gear with vibrant keys and rhythm playing, evocatively welcoming the rains in the hills. Asaar did even better and has been played 373,000 times so far. Time for an album, Chettri felt.

By the end of 2014, Sketches Of Darjeeling—a six-song Nepali album from a little-known Delhi-based musician from Darjeeling—was on the “best of the year" lists of many critics. In a major musical coup, Chettri became the top-selling artiste of 2014 on Oklisten.com, one of India’s foremost online indie music vendors. He outperformed biggies such as Indian Ocean, who had released Tandanu the same year.

Just as well, for Sketches Of Darjeeling signalled the arrival of yet another crossover artiste on the indie music horizon. Following the trail of multilingual acts such as Susheela Raman (Tamil), Rabbi Shergill (Punjabi), Raghu Dixit (Kannada), Avial (Malayalam), Swarathma and Indian Ocean (Hindi), the Nepali language, and the distinct melodic lilt of the North-Eastern Darjeeling hills, reserved a place with Chettri’s music. Attesting to the “universality of music", Chettri has performed in Pune and Delhi (at the high-profile NH7 Weekender festival in 2015), Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne and Sydney, besides the Nepali-speaking belt of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kathmandu. When we spoke on the phone last week, the musician and his backing band were scheduled to fly to the US for a six-city concert tour (4-23 July).

Looking back, it does seem that his wishful chant of “home calling, home" on his first album, backed by wah-wah pedal guitar effects and a loopy didgeridoo, set the agenda for Chettri’s music—global in its musical skin, looking inward at its core.

Maya, his recent eight-track album, which is being released as a one-song-per-week free download on the website of a sponsoring automobile giant (Mint Lounge has been given access to the full album), follows the trail back to the hills. A correspondence graduate in Western classical guitar from Trinity College, London, somebody who trained as a tenor in opera for two years, besides having an active ear for rock, pop, jazz and Hindustani classical music forms, Chettri lets it all coalesce around a folksy heart.

“Over time, I realized that the soul of all music is with folk. I don’t sit down to write folk-folk songs as such, but somehow it comes out of me," says Chettri. While songs such as Siriri on the new album showcase his fingerstyle classical guitar technique before turning out as a full-blown pop-rock confection, and Allarey Jovan blends in folk opera with a jingly-jangly rhythm and guitar distortion, it is numbers such as Mann, based on a baul-bluesy groove and vocal harmonies woven around a quintessentially pahari melody, and the pensive Junkeri, that most evoke Chettri’s roots.

An attempt at moving out of the folk musician straitjacket, the jazz-inflected Kahiley Kahi is an interesting inclusion but pales in comparison to the buoyancy of the straight-ahead pop sounds of Syndicate, a vibrant melody decked up with colourful keyboard lines and pulsating drumming. Maya ends with the meditative and hypnotic Nau Lakhey Tara, a song that evokes a starry night and the glow of lights behind a hill that is not so distant, he says.

In both his albums, Chettri stands apart with an unpretentiousness that reflects the simplicity of mountain life. Eschewing studio over-production, his music has a rare transportable quality, and not just for the guileless singing or the effortless blending of instruments such as the Nepali sarangi. Indeed, a blog writer mentions having travelled to the Darjeeling hills on the strength of Chettri’s music alone—and without knowing a word of Nepali. Only 35, Bipul Chettri serves well music’s raison d’être—to bridge.

Bipul Chettri’s songs can be downloaded from SoundCloud; Sketches Of Darjeeling can be bought from Oklisten.com; and single songs from the new album Maya, being released every week, can be downloaded from the Facebook page of Honda Nepal.

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