When Deepti D’Cunha was on her maiden visit to Sikkim in 2011, she found herself being chased by a song everywhere. The “immensely hummable” tune put her in “a skippy, joyous mood” every time, even though all she could catch was the refrain Resham Firiri, Resham Firiri. “It was such a catchy tune, and it seemed to be omnipresent,” recalled D’Cunha, a Mumbai-based film programmer. “It got stuck in my head, and I wanted to hear it everywhere.”

So enamoured was D’Cunha that during a jeep ride through the mountains, she asked her friend and host Chetan Raj Shrestha to translate it for her. The request stumped Shrestha, although the Sydney-based author had grown up with the Nepali folk number. “It was an ingrained melody,” he said in an email interview. “I knew the lyrics but had never questioned it.” His attempts at translating it for D’Cunha inspired an important passage in his novella Open and Shut Case.

Much like D’Cunha, one of Shrestha’s characters, Straun, a European tourist travelling from Nepal to Sikkim, is captivated by Resham Firiri and wants to hear it in “all the recesses of its founding environment”. Even when travelling in the “cushioned unity” of an over-crowded shared taxi, he asks the driver to play the song and requests his fellow passengers to translate it.

What follows in the story mirrors the real-life experiences of non-Nepali speakers when they ask someone to translate the lyrics of Resham Firiri: a mix of laughter, disbelief and disappointment. Written in nonsense verse, Resham Firiri is an incongruous mesh of absurd expressions, non-sequiturs and incoherent images. It resists all rational interpretations and confounds any consensus on its meaning. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the most famous Nepali song.

Resham Firiri’s popularity extends not only in Nepal, India (mainly Darjeeling, Sikkim and Assam) and Bhutan, where the language is spoken by millions, but throughout the globe. From Japanese singer Aoi Sano’s lively rendition to South Korean musician Narsha’s soulful fusion to India’s Arko Mukhaerjee reggae-style version, Resham Firiri has travelled from culture to culture with consummate ease. In 2018, Germany’s Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra gave the number a classical touch with a performance by its 47-member ensemble.

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“It has a universal tune,” said Mukhaerjee of the Kolkata band Fiddler’s Green. “It...exists in all parts of the world in some form or the other…Susanna [by The Art Company] has a Resham Firiri in it.”

Origin story

For a song so famous, its origins are rather fuzzy. The exact date of its recording is not available, although it is widely believed that the year was 1969. In the manually-entered records of Radio Nepal, the track’s serial number is 26 and the cartridge/tape number is 846. From this, “it can be roughly estimated that the song was recorded in the late ’60s or early ’70s,” said Aavaas, a Kathmandu-based musician and musicologist.

The original recording at Radio Nepal featured vocals by Sunder Shreshta and Santosh Basnet, accompanied by an ensemble of sarangi, basuri and a traditional drum called madal. It is said that Shrestha also recorded the song with musician Dwarikalal Joshi, but if he did, the details of their collaboration are lost to time. None of the original creators are alive today.

The song was composed a few years earlier, presumably in the mid-’60s, by Buddhi Pariyar, a singer and musician from Pokhara in Nepal. It is said that Pariyar could dance so well that upon seeing him shake a leg, actor Jeetendra invited him to Bombay and King Birendra offered him a job with the police band. But in the end, his legacy was built on his music.

“I don’t know how I wrote it [Resham Firiri],” Pariyar told Amrit Gurung when the lead singer of Nepal’s most famous folk rock band Nepathya met him in the late 1990s. Gurung remembers Pariyar sharing with him “the story of how he had to walk a long distance to attend a wedding in Pokhara Bhanjyang”: “He was very tired after the long walk. At the wedding, he performed the song impromptu, drawing upon his experiences on the way.”

Buddhi Pariyar. Photo credit: Dharmendra Sewan.
Buddhi Pariyar. Photo credit: Dharmendra Sewan.

The refrain Pariyar conjured up on that trek was a head-scratcher. What did Resham Firiri mean? The question persists till today and has even been featured on the question-and-answer website Quora.

According to one interpretation, the refrain has an obvious romantic message. Resham means silk in Nepali and firiri is an onomatopoeic word imitating the fluttering sound. Going by this version, Resham Firiri means a silk (scarf or something similar) fluttering in the wind or a heart fluttering like silk in the wind.

But Pariyar’s son Dharmendra Sewan, a singer and songwriter, insists it’s got nothing to do with silk or fluttering. “It’s actually an insect, a bee-like insect,” he said over the phone from Kathmandu, offering a novel interpretation. “My father wrote this song while walking to his friend’s place, [which was] very far away, through the treacherous mountains. Then he saw an insect buzz past by him, and he [thought that] if he [too] could flutter like the insect, he could reach his destination soon and without much difficulty.”

This thought was what inspired the three verses that made up the original song, says Sewan. More verses were added in subsequent recreations.

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Resham Firiri, Resham Firiri,
Oodera jaunki, danra ma bhanjyang Resham Firiri
Fluttering silk, fluttering silk
Shall we fly over or sit at the hilltop? Fluttering silk

Sano ma sano, gaai ko bachho, bheeriama Ram Ram
Chodera jana sakina maile, baru maya sangai jaun
The poor little calf fell off the cliff,
I cannot leave you, my love, so let us go together

Ek nale bandook, dui nale bandook, mirga lai taakeko
Mirga lai maile taakeko haina, maya lai daake ko.
Single-barrel gun, double-barrel gun, aimed at the deer
It’s not the deer I aim at, I’m calling my beloved.

Kukura lai kuti ma kuti, biralo lai suri
Timro hamro maya preeti, do bato ma kuri.”
Call the dog kuti kuti and the cat suri,
Your love and my love are waiting at the crossroads.

In Shrestha’s Open and Shut Case, the European traveller’s giggling co-passenger interprets the last stanza differently: “Tickle the chicken and give the cat chicken shit. Your love and my love came up in mid-way.”

D’Cunha, like Straun, was disheartened on hearing the translation. “I first thought Chetan was pulling my leg,” she said. “Then I asked his father for confirmation. I had created images in my head of a lovesick shepherd waiting for his girlfriend from another village to cross the mountain for him. But then it was about chickens or chicken shit or cats. A song so famous, without a philosophical thought [behind it] – how could that be possible?”

It is this very unpretentiousness that makes Resham Firiri an ideal folk song for the musician Aavaas. “The basic characteristics of a folk song are its simplicity and its ability to reflect local life,” he said. “Resham Firiri captures our Nepali life, the everyday life of the hill people beautifully. It contains images of love that happens in our society, with all its traces of humour. It is about our ability to laugh even in difficult times.”

Though D’Cunha may have felt let down by the translation, Resham Firiri remains special to her. The song once helped her gain access to a restricted area in Dubai to shoot a documentary film. “A member of the staff there was Nepali,” she said. “I knew if I told him that I knew Resham Firiri and asked him to hum a few lines, it would break the ice and he would help. It worked.”

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In Open and Shut Case, Resham Firiri is described as a Nepali Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the perfect testimony to the song’s simplicity and versatility. These two attributes, say Sewan and Gurung, are responsible for the song’s success. “It is so simple that everyone can sing it,” said Sewan.

The versatility was the reason the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra chose to perform Resham Firiri to mark the 50th anniversary of Germany-Nepal diplomatic relations at an event in December. “I liked the possibility of a free introduction followed by this melody where everybody could play and sing together,” said Ulrike Stortz, who oversaw the collaboration that had 17 musicians from Germany performing with 30 Nepali musicians.

Pariyar’s other songs, such as Herda Machhapuchhare named after the Machhapuchhare mountain in Nepal, are also popular – but none like Resham Firiri. Sewan rues that his father is not as well-known as his creations. “So many people from all over the world have sung this song [Resham Firiri] in the last 50 years,” said Sewan, who has also sung a version as a tribute to his late father. “But few have cared to even give any credit to him, the original creator.” Sewan plans to fight this, and intends to produce a documentary to tell the world the story of his father and his Resham Firiri.

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One reason for the song’s global reach is how it travelled with the tourists. “Gaineys [or Gandarbhas, street musicians by caste profession] bowing their sarangis in Thamel and other tourist areas of Nepal played a major role,” said Amar Dhoj Lama, a senior programme officer at Radio Nepal. “They played the tune and sold sarangis to the visitors, who were taken in by the melody.”

But the biggest contributors to the global marketing of Resham Firiri have been the trekking guides of Nepal. The doggedness with which they hammer the song into the heads of hikers is evident in this video, in which a guide is frantically gesticulating, like a music conductor, with two Spanish tourists singing Resham Firiri. “Little wonder that Resham Firiri is called the Trekkers’ Anthem,” said Aavaas. The song has been discussed on Tripadvisor, and many travel websites like Magical Nepal carry the lyrics of the song, with an English translation, so that tourists come prepared.

Mukhaerjee first heard the song from a Sherpa guide at Manebhanjyang, near Darjeeling, during a trek to Sandakphu when he was 11. He immediately liked its tune. An avid hiker, the Kolkata boy kept returning to the areas along the India-Nepal border, and with every trip his bond with Resham Firiri strengthened.

Fifty years on, Resham Firiri continues to echo in the very mountains where it was created, with its warm hilarity intact. Pariyar could not have asked for a better epitaph.

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