Music from the Margins: Performing and (Re)Defining Gorkha Cultural and Political Identity at India’s Borderlands

Extending over an area of 3,149 square kilometers, Darjeeling district, located in sub-Himalayan northeast India, is the site of my research. Flanked by the international boundaries of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Tibet (China), this region is politically sensitive to India and culturally strategic to Gorkhas, the ethnic group of Darjeeling. Gorkhas are Nepali-speaking Indian citizens, who have been struggling for recognition since 1907. They call themselves “Gorkhas” to differentiate themselves from Nepalese, citizens of Nepal, with whom they share linguistic and cultural similarities. As part of their current movement for a home-state in India to secure their Indian identity, music performed in culture festivals such as Mahadasai Sanskritic Utsav during Dasai/Dusshera (October), a ten day annual festival celebrating the female power, Goddess Shakti, and Diwali (November) has emerged as a powerful medium for voicing the Gorkha cause in India.

My research includes both archival and ethnographic work. Historically, I look into the musical and lyrical repertoires of Gorkha songs to determine how they establish and/or contradict definitions of Gorkha identity inscribed by colonial and nationalist discourses, and inform contemporary productions of Gorkha music at India’s margins. The bulk of my archival research was conducted at the Central Library, North Bengal University, Paras Mani Pradhan library, Darjeeling, and All India Radio, Kurseong. Ethnographically, I first investigate the role of Gorkha music as it is performed in music festivals to represent Gorkha identity. Second, considering media – radio and television – as “leaky” medium seeping beyond and through ideological boundaries, I study the borderlands as a place of untethered possibilities engendering works of imagination that influence Gorkha movement at India’s borders. Third, I study Gorkha musicians and their agency to note how they are able to subjectively represent and re-present Gorkha identity from their respective positions as Gorkha subjects located at and from India’s borders. Lastly, approaching borderlands as an in-between space where culture is in a state of constant flux, I identify Gorkha borderland music as a dynamic voice that urges us to cross borders in order to allow new passages of awareness and self-representation.