Songs | Music | Migration | Foreign employment | art

People thronging at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu to leave for their respective destinations | Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
People thronging at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu to leave for their respective destinations | Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Art & Culture

Foreign employment and songs of separation

Songs in Nepal, for years, have depicted societal needs and predicaments, including the struggles and hardships of Nepali migrant workers in foreign lands.

By Shristi Thapa |

Songs are not just entertainment. They are cultural artefacts that reflect the values, beliefs, and struggles of society. They provide a window into the human experience.

— Bruce Springsteen

Sunko Baala’ by Abhinas Ghising and Ram Chandra Kafley, and lyrics by Kiran Ghimire (Michael), released in 2004, narrates the story of ‘Saila’, who returns home in a coffin.

Sunko Baala lagauney dhoko,
Fukaaunuchha rinko poko

Jaau Saila dhan kamaauna, kati baachnu garibima 
Dhan kamauney mitho aasma, pardesh ko biraano thauma

Saila leaves the country with the hope of earning money, repaying debts, and fulfilling his desires. He moves in pursuit of better opportunities that would enable him to improve his financial standing.

Another verse in the song says:

sara sapana pal mai rityo,
bal bachcha bane tuhuro, garibile bityo Sailo

Saila’s dream of fulfilling the wishes of his loved ones and paying off debts by earning abroad vanishes just as he perishes in a foreign land. He leaves the country primarily due to poverty which eventually takes his life.

Sarangi Retaula, a song with a heavy background of Nepali musical instrument — Saarangi tells the story of a couple about to separate. 

Released in 2009, the lyrics crafted by Khadga Neupane feature legendary Hari Bansa Acharya (who is also the singer of the song) as a husband, who is about to leave his family for foreign employment, as his son and wife watch him go away from the house in the hills. His wife is having a hard time while she ganders him departing and then runs toward the path he travelled to catch another glimpse of her husband before he leaves.

On his way towards the bus station ready to leave for Kathmandu where he has a flight to catch, he reminisces about his life back home and time with his wife. Acharya also notices another couple at the bus station — both bidding farewell to each other for the same reason as his.

In the first verse, the song sings:

Sarangi retaula..
Mauka miley feri bhetaula..

The implicit meaning of the lyrics suggests that the husband’s chances of reuniting with his family are contingent on his success in the job abroad which is mostly fraught with exploitation and abuse. Thus rendering his return uncertain.

The song further goes on:

Chhodi jana maan thiyena, gharko chulae balena..
Gaau ma maanchhey basnae chhodey, anna paatai falena..

This verse expresses his agony as [he is] compelled to leave the country due to dire economic circumstances and factors beyond resolve like the lack of basic necessities like food. The husband laments that the villages are emptying while agricultural lands are barren. The lack of basic necessities, like food, has already driven many residents of the village to seek greener pastures elsewhere, as they struggle to eke out a living in the face of poverty and unemployment.

In the final scene of the song, the family is together — the couple and their son — which symbolises the family’s desire to spend their life together, but in reality his wife and his child are left behind in the village as he leaves. 

To pursue a quality life, there are many stories where family members have surrendered the closeness and unity of their family.

Sunko Jutta, music by Night and lyrics by Jason Kunwar, released in 2014, begins with distant sounds at midnight. In a glimmering light of the torch, villagers with a heavy heart across the river await to receive the coffin of a fellow villager, who went abroad for work. One group secures the coffin while the other stands on the other side of the river, waiting their turn to pull via Tuin.

The wife of the deceased worker is weeping on the other side [of the river] as her husband’s body sails to her. The coffin finally reaches the other side and she runs to it with grief and desperation to get a final glimpse of him. 

The Tuin then makes its way back to the other side.

Sunko jutta jo lagaauchhan,
Ragatako butta banaauchhan

This last verse of the song poignantly reflects the sacrifices that migrant workers make in pursuit of their dreams.

Foreign employment is a major source of livelihood for many Nepali families — almost 50% of Nepal’s total households depend on remittance income, says the recent census (2021). But it comes with a bunch of obstacles, hardships, and sacrifices.

Many migrant workers have lost their lives in foreign lands. Sometimes, their dead bodies are brought back to Nepal, while sometimes they are difficult to retain. 

Sailireleased in 2017, sung by Hemanta Rana is yet another song that depicts the pain of separation of two lovers due to foreign employment — characters played by Menuka Pradhan and Gaurav Pahari.

In the final dawn of the night of separation, the couple struggles to sleep. With tears in their eyes, they bid farewell the next morning.

Menuka subsequently gets busy with her regular household work, while Gaurav faces challenges with labouring abroad. He calls his wife and shares that it has been difficult. 

Suna Saili suna Saili, pardesh baata Ma aaula..
Suna Saili suna Saili, chaalis katesi ramaula..

The first lyrics shed light on a telling plan of migrant families who plan to be together after crossing the age of 40. Until then, the plan is to toil in foreign lands for future security.

Udai Lanchhu’ by Wayam, released in 2020, depicts two women from Terai – a mother and a wife, whose son and husband went missing in Malaysia. The husband had migrated to Malaysia merely two months after their marriage. 

They had a conversation for two months after his departure to the foreign land, but then he stopped communicating. Despite their best efforts to search for him, he remained untraceable.

Unable to bear the pain of her son’s disappearance, the mother loses her sanity and begins imagining his presence around her. But with time, she gradually accepts his absence, which is symbolised by her removal of hay from her window, allowing light to enter her home. 

The scenes convey the immense emotional turmoil that a family experiences and the devastating effect of migration on families left behind.

In the end, the song mentions names of individuals who went missing in foreign lands for varying lengths of time, including Ram Krishna Khatri for 14.5 years, Pushpa Bahadur Thapa for eight years, Dinesh Paswan for four years, Satya Narayan Chaudhary for four months — all in Malaysia; and Sunita Shrestha for eight years in Saudi Arabia, among many others, who were mentioned during the time of the song release.  

Dui Kinara, a Tharu language song written by Krishna Baukhahi and sung by Sushan Ratgainya and Annu Chaudhary, released in February this year, opens up with a married couple, ready to go to sleep. The husband and wife have a conversation where the husband looks towards their daughter and tells her that her future should be bright, so he should leave for a foreign land.

Set in Manghra village of Bardiya district during the cold winter, a family of three — husband, wife, and daughter walks on the street,  the next day. The daughter leaves for school while her father leaves for abroad. 

Behati Hui Ladiyakey Hamrey Dui Kinaara  
Bikalpa K Bina Huiti, Ek Arkakey Sahara

The lyrics show couples separated from each other like the opposite shores of the river. They do not have options. Before departing, they hug each other and bid farewell. The boat from the opposite shore comes to them and the husband leaves on it. 

The husband toils in a foreign land — India, while the wife struggles at home.

Ek Man Mutukey, Dui Jyaan Sadhda Huil Dur Dur
Garibi Ma Jalam Hokey, Pardeshi Jindagi Bitataa Pir Ma 

The lyrics depict the separation caused by poverty and the song centres around their modest desire to break free from loans and secure a brighter future for their offspring.

All these songs were released at different time periods —  Sunko Baala 2004, Sarangi Retaula 2009, Sunko Jutta 2014, Saili 2017, Udai Laanchu 2020, and the most recent Dui Kinara 2023, and they convey a similar message under similar pretext — the struggles of Nepalis compelled to leave the country due to intense economic difficulties, lack of rewarding employment opportunities and dream of living an economically stable life.

These songs stipulate that while the system may have undergone changes, the fundamental situation in the country remains the same.

Another common feature in these songs is the display of how families separate while some are left behind. However, these songs have missed out on covering other social effects of migration — for instance, the societal burden for women who are left behind, their spiking workloads (for instance, feminisation of agriculture and family workloads including care to the elderly), increasing family disintegration that is happening and cultural loss.

However, despite awareness of the challenges and undesirable outcomes of foreign employment, Nepali youths often migrate out of preference or as their last resort due to limited opportunities for economic and social upward mobility. Many migrant workers and their families do achieve financial stability and improve their lives through remittances.

In fact, the remittance’s role in the country's economy and the country's increasing economic reliance on remittance is undeniable. Remittances from migrant workers have strengthened the economy, improved living standards, and boosted entrepreneurship. But there are immense social costs too — these songs are a few examples of artistic representation of those experiences.


Edit by Vivek Baranwal

Shristi Thapa is a Writer and Researcher at the_farsight. She is a student of Journalism & Mass Communication.

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