Kheng Sonam Dorji (left) during his performance in Thimphu.
You’d expect that the dulcet notes escaping the mouth of a staid Bhutanese traditional folk musician — dressed in a gho — would be country folk. Instead, it’s an Indian song, a “romantic” Jagjit Singh ghazal: Tere baare mein jab socha nahin thha… Mere kamre mein aaina nahin thha. “I used to sing it,” says Kheng Sonam Dorji, recalling his student days in India, on the sidelines of 10th Mountain Echoes literature and culture festival in Thimphu, which concluded recently. At the event, Dorji deliberated on his guru Aku Tongmi (who composed Bhutan’s national anthem, Druk tsendhen), whose works he is digitising through the Music of Bhutan Research Center (MBRC) that he co-founded in 2008.
The MBRC team travels across Bhutan to find and archive practitioners of Bhutanese music (it has interviewed 500-600 of them till now) and collects traditional instruments, including the oldest dulcimer to be made, dating to 1965. “Bhutan doesn’t have any performing arts museum, so I want all these instruments to be displayed in the future,” says Dorji, 40, who plays multiple instruments, both Bhutanese and
Indian, including the drangyen (lute), the santoor-like yangchen (dulcimer), lim (flute), the tamuru and the tanpura.
Being “the first person to write and sing in Kheng dialect” earned him the title of Kheng. “I’m the only guy in the country who does in-depth studies of music — research, documenting and archiving,” he says, “We don’t have the finances, only four people are working on the field. I’m giving priority to national musicians, age-old traditional-music-practices keepers, royal court performers of yesteryear. For me, they are like a huge building that historians built, and if they are gone, it will be a great loss.”
Dorji, who was into contemporary music in his younger days, says the influx of Western music has led to the decline of traditional music. “Techno/EDM and contemporary noise masquerading as music has entered Bhutan, too, and youngsters are listening to them,” he says, “That’s why I started my journey here.” He formed the group Druk Folk Musicians to “revive old folk instruments and tunes, and apply them to our songs”.
He was 11 when the Bhutan Broadcasting Service went to his village school concert, recorded his singing and broadcasted it. The Third King’s younger brother, Prince Namgyel Wangchuck, saw that and adopted Dorji as his son. Dorji stayed at the royal court until adulthood and got a chance to learn from the masters. In 1996, the Indian ambassador to Bhutan suggested that Dorji come to India to further study music. So, he landed at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan, “where I chose vocal Hindustani classical, and took esraj. My fingers bled, as it’s a very difficult instrument,” he says. “Learning Hindustani classical was very difficult, because in Bhutan there’s no music institution; the music is in our first language, but there were a lot of things to learn in India: the sargam, to first get the ‘Sa’ right. In Bhutanese music, we don’t have sargam, we follow Do Re Mi,” he says.
During his four years at Visva Bharati, Dorji witnessed legends such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain perform. “Indian music is the mother of all music. I’m not talking about film songs, but Hindustan classical and raga-based songs,” he says, adding, “I love ghazals and baul songs.”
He returned to India in 2007 for his Masters at MS University, Baroda, where he switched to sitar. “Because Bhutan has lots of plucked-string instruments, and I wanted to experience it and apply the technique to the drangyen back home,” says Dorji, who trained under Rahul Barodia at MSU. He has been performing all over ever since — including the SAARC’s 2017 music festival in Mumbai.
Given a chance, Dorji says he would love to collaborate with AR Rahman, but for now, Delhi-based Kaushik Dutta, who coordinates the Musiconnect Asia, is prodding Dorji to set up an annual Bhutan Music Week, which would bring musicians from 30 countries together. Dorji sounds excited but adds, “It’s not easy in Bhutan to conduct such huge events because of financial constraints.”