Kathmandu: One day in 1997, Salil Subedi, then a journalist in his early 20s, came across a strange instrument while covering an Australian band on tour. The instrument was the didgeridoo—an Australian aboriginal wind instrument, foreign to Nepal in name and timbre. Subedi followed the band backstage and eventually asked if he could have a go at the organ. Apart from its long slender shape and resonant sound it produced, one other thing about the instrument made a lasting impression on Subedi: it smelled of decay. Subedi came across the instrument again, this time at a cafe in Freak Street. The cafe’s owner let him know that the instrument was called didgeridoo and that a foreigner had ordered a few but never collected them. Subedi gave it a go again and, to his own surprise, managed to make a sound out of it. It smelled again, as didgeridoos do, of decay. Subedi bought one of them for Rs500.
Since then, the smell has followed him all his life. It has helped him travel throughout Nepal and to foreign lands, where he has played and mixed the sound of the didgeridoo with other instruments. More than anything, the instrument opened for him the door to art and a spontaneous life.
Subedi wears many hats; he is a multi-instrumentalist, a theater actor, a performance artist, and a teacher. He co-founded the rock band Ionika in his younger days and was the frontman for the instrumental band Trikaal. He has directed and appeared in a number of plays, including Sandaju ko Mahabharat, a one-act play based on the life of BP Koirala, and Anupasthit Teen, a virtual adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. His stint as an actor led him to do arguably the first nude performance in Nepal, in 2004, when he experimented with voyeurism at the Osho Tapoban. All along, he rarely ever left his didgeridoo.
When Salil Subedi bid farewell to Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, in 2002, he was parting ways with both his vocation and the magazine of which he was a part of since its dummy edition. He had already found the Australian aboriginal organ by then and was living a dual life, as a journalist and a student of music. By then, he had discovered the circular breathing technique which made him able to play the instrument for hours on end.
When Subedi announced to Dixit that he was leaving the job, Dixit asked, “Where are you going?,” Subedi remembers. He didn’t have an answer. He was venturing into the unknown, trying to live a “romantic” life. What he was certain of then was that the organ made him feel alive. As a young man with plenty of angst and ukus mukus—suffocation—he decided to dive deep into instrumental music with a belief that, if nothing else, he would survive doing shows. Reflecting back on his choice, Subedi says that he finds a dash of ego in his younger self, one stemming from the fact of being the only Nepali didgeridoo player. But what really sealed the deal for him was that he had found something that touched him deeply.
In 2004, two years after leaving his journalism job, Subedi performed a nude art show in Tapoban. When Subedi stripped, got into a stream, and came out crawling along the rocks stream-side, leeches were mounting his naked body in the process, he recalls. There was a window at a distance on a hill by the stream and an enclosure, both of which his team had strategically placed. The intention of the show, according to Subedi, was to make people look at nature with a renewed curiosity. The sight caught people’s eyes and suddenly they raced to where he was, trampling the enclosure, shrieking, even murmuring, following him as he crawled along the rocks. “People normally don’t shy away to look at their neighbors dressing up through their windows. We were trying to invite this voyeurism into nature,” he remarks, “The fact is that arousal is a bare truth and people needed that to be interested in nature in the way they did.”
In Nepal, engaging in art and theater remains a vocation of passion. To eke out a living, artists have to rely on shows sponsored by NGOs. This risks leading the artists to lose their creative freedom, Subedi laments. “All avant garde art is possible when there is freedom,” he says, adding that he has also had to lose his creative freedom but seeks to curb the phenomena.
Subedi acknowledges that being “true to your art” is a tricky subject. He rejects the notion that there are “judges” to art, he thinks that the only true metric of success is whether or not one’s work communicates what one intends to and touches the observer. “Persistence, respect, steering clear of jealousy, non-judgement (except in politics) are habits that help artists, apart from their skills,” he says.
Subedi is a purveyor of adventure. There were times in Subedi’s life when he felt like Bilbo Baggins, the J. R. R. Tolkien’s character, he says. Coming back home from his adventures, he would face questions from relatives and friends about what he was actually doing with his life. Sharing the intrepid Bilbo’s predicament, he struggled to answer why he enjoyed doing the things he did. If nothing else, it has led him to travel widely. He has performed in Darchula, Manang, Humla, and Solukhumbu, and also in London, Barcelona, and Mongolia, among other places. Each of his performances and travel is an adventure, Subedi says. He would return from these trips satisfied but also empty-handed. A nagging doubt if he was doing the right thing would follow. “I realized that I had to embrace loneliness and neurosis,” he says, adding that at one point, he realized that as long as he continued to exist, crises would follow him like a shadow.
To resolve the crippling crises that hold onto man’s existence like stubborn leeches, he needed to accept and let go of attachments and hence, parts of himself, he says.
This brush with malaise and melancholy drew him, he says, to act in Nepal’s first virtual play, Anupasthit Teen, the Nepali adaptation of Sartre’s No Exit. The play was translated to Nepali by Awatar Gautam and directed by Ghimire Yubaraj. No Exit’s three characters became Anupasthit’s Aajad (Subedi ), Ichchha (Usha Rajak), and Abhilasha (Pabitra Khadka).
The play was written in 1944 at a time when death and devastation of the two world wars had blurred the lines between right and wrong and philosophers like Sartre tried to articulate the dilemma.
Today, Nepali society is going through something similar, Salil says. Lockdowns have halted normal life and the fear of the virus has slowly been changing what was normal. For fear of catching the virus, people are cautious of each other. Sartre’s “Hell is other people” rings true even more because the virus is transmitted through other people. In Sartre’s Hell, there was no official torturer. The people in it were torturers to each other. “For every man, there is someone whose very existence will torture him,” Subedi says. “Isn’t that weird?”
He found it very difficult to play Aajad’s role because of the character’s many idiosyncrasies. Aajad constantly questions his own motives, treats his wife badly because she admired him too much, is curious about opinions of people he hates, cannot love people if he knows them too much, and is desperate for someone to hold him, have faith in him, and tell him that he isn’t a coward. The character seems to be an antithesis of the life Salil wants to live, of someone who doesn’t believe in judges, deliberately seeks accidents, embraces loneliness, keeps his vanity in check, and wants to experience all that life has to offer.
Subedi is currently working on his upcoming musical projects where he is trying to blend the sound of the didgeridoo with rock music. He is also ideating projects where he blends different artforms. “Prioritizing spadework over everything else and consistently honing one’s skills makes artistic accidents possible,” he says.
After all these adventures and experiments in sound and space, he now feels that people most close to nature have the ability to “accept the world for what it is”.
“In all these years of searching what makes me feel alive, I’ve realized that the final answer has always been nature,” Subedi says. “It lets you let go of ideas you so rigidly hold onto.”