1st Edition

Dāphā: Sacred Singing in a South Asian City Music, Performance and Meaning in Bhaktapur, Nepal

By Richard Widdess Copyright 2013

    Dāphā, or dāphā bhajan, is a genre of Hindu-Buddhist devotional singing, performed by male, non-professional musicians of the farmer and other castes belonging to the Newar ethnic group, in the towns and villages of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. The songs, their texts, and their characteristic responsorial performance-style represent an extension of pan-South Asian traditions of rāga- and tāla-based devotional song, but at the same time embody distinctive characteristics of Newar culture. This culture is of unique importance as an urban South Asian society in which many traditional models survive into the modern age.

    There are few book-length studies of non-classical vocal music in South Asia, and none of dāphā. Richard Widdess describes the music and musical practices of dāphā, accounts for their historical origins and later transformations, investigates links with other South Asian traditions, and describes a cultural world in which music is an integral part of everyday social and religious life. The book focusses particularly on the musical system and structures of dāphā, but aims to integrate their analysis with that of the cultural and historical context of the music, in order to address the question of what music means in a traditional South Asian society.

    Contents: Preface; Introduction; Dapha from past to present; Temporal order: time, music and rhythm; The singing community: dapha and the social order; Melody and raga; Encounter with the divine: dapha and the sacred order; Songs and meanings; Conclusion: music and meaning; Bibliography; Index.


    Richard Widdess is Professor of Musicology in the Department of Music, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He writes about the music of South Asia, especially traditions of vocal music, with reference to the structure, theoretical systems, performance analysis, cognition, history and cultural meanings of music.

    ‘Richard Widdess’s study of Dāphā combines long-term ethnographic engagement, meticulous historical investigation and typically elegant musical analyses to paint a richly detailed and multi-faceted picture of this sacred singing tradition. Much more than a vivid description of a regional curiosity, however, this book is full of insights and observations that will resonate with anyone interested in musical performance and its meanings in South Asia.’

    Martin Clayton, Durham University, UK