Reynoldsburg man’s music reflects his life as a Bhutanese-Nepalese refugee

When Dil Khadka was a boy in Bhutan, he made his first instrument – a bamboo flute – by hand.

Inspired by the music he heard on the radio, he cut bamboo in the forest and burned holes in it with a red-hot iron rod, then imitated the melodies from the broadcasts.

After the Bhutanese government confiscated her family’s land and revoked their citizenship based on their cultural identity, Khadka continued to practice music in a refugee camp in Nepal.

A teacher taught him to play the guitar, and in the evenings he joined the elders to sing bhajans (Hindu devotional songs) in a temple, accompanying them on the harmonium and the double-headed dholak drum.

Today Khadka, 40, lives in Reynoldsburg, where he runs a beauty salon, All Eyes On Me, and continues to produce music from his living room.

Dil Khadka: A refugee’s personal journey revealed through music

Khadka’s work has earned him a devoted following within the Nepali-speaking community – his songs have over 100,000 views on YouTube – and last month he released his second album, ‘Dilavash 2’.

Khadka says major life transitions — moving from Bhutan to Nepal in the early 1990s and from Nepal to the United States in 2010 – were the inspiration for much of his music. Her new album explores themes of desire, frustration and love.

“It was very painful to leave my birthplace,” Khadka said recently, sitting on the sofa next to his wife, Sarmila Gurung, 33, in their home. He spoke to The Dispatch in a mix of Nepali and English. “I think creativity comes from pain. When people have suffered, they have a lot to share.

After the Bhutanese government expelled them from their homes, around 100,000 Bhutanese-Nepalese were forced to settle in refugee camps in Nepal in the early 1990s. Relocation to other countries only began ‘in 2007.

According to the nonprofit Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio, approximately 30,000 Bhutanese-Nepalese now call Greater Columbus home.

Dil Khadka, pictured with his wife, Sarmila Gurung, at their Reynoldsberg home, released his second album last month.  Originally from Bhutan who lived in a Nepalese refugee camp, his latest work explores themes of desire, frustration and love.

Khadka and Gurung first resettled in Spokane, Washington. The country was in the middle of a recession, so it was difficult to find a good job, especially for a refugee with no work history in the United States.

In Nepal, Khadka had worked in construction outside the refugee camp. In Spokane, he worked in a restaurant and then as a cashier at a gas station.

“I thought I spoke decent English, but the people there didn’t understand me at all, nor did I understand their accents,” said Khadka, who has three children with Gurung. “Over time, I’ve gotten better, although my kids still tease me about my accent.”

Working hard to earn money and raise his then newborn daughter, Drishya, he initially gave up music. That changed during a trip to visit Gurung’s parents in Alberta, Canada, where Khadka had a musical epiphany of sorts.

Her in-laws had a temple in their basement where they kept a harmonium, a keyboard instrument that Khadka hadn’t touched for three years.

“I sat on the floor and just played,” he said.

Years of pent up creativity flowed from his hands and voice, and within two hours he had written the basis for a song, “Samjhera Sanu”. The song, written in Nepali, is about longing for home and loved ones during Dashain and Tihar, the two biggest Nepalese Hindu festivals of the year.

The translated lyrics state, in part: “Dashain is past, Tihar is past / Your springtime charm never came / Looking down the road, days and nights will pass / Happiness never shone upon you.”

Back in Spokane, Khadka began writing songs at work. During toilet breaks, he made recordings on his phone as snippets of lyrics streamed in to him.

Dil Khadka plays the harmonium in his living room in Reynoldsburg.  In addition to his musical work, he runs a beauty salon, All Eyes On Me.

Khadka said that, like many refugees, he was very excited about moving to America, only to feel alienated from the culture and frustrated with his career prospects after arriving. A composition from this time, titled “Fikka Fikka”, reflects the mental toll.

It states, translated into English: “These days everything is tasteless to me / I’m melting, my image is turning pale.”

Nepalese music: ‘Sugam sangeet’ genre combines poetic lyrics and traditional instruments

On Facebook, Khadka reached out to Deepak Jangam – a famous Nepalese composer who once composed songs with the late Nepalese monarch, King Mahendra – and shared some of his music. Khadka was nervous but excited when Jangam replied to say he was interested in an online collaboration.

Jangam composed new melodies for the lyrics Khadka had written, and they released their debut album, “Dilavash,” in 2018. (The title is a play on Khadka’s first name and means “Feelings of the Heart.” )

Most of the songs belong to the Nepalese genre of ‘sugam sangeet’, a variety of modern Nepalese music that combines poetic lyrics with melodies on traditional Nepalese and Indian instruments. Each song features a different Nepalese singer, which Khadka and Jangam selected.

Khadka composed many “Dilavash 2” songs in his living room in Reynoldsburg, where he often sits on the floor playing the harmonium. In addition to subam sangeet, her latest album features dohori – a classic Nepalese style of call-and-response love songs – and international influences. The song “Takka Takka”, for example, features a West African-inspired bluesy ostinato and guitar rhythm.

Economic circumstances have forced Bhutanese-Nepalese musicians to take jobs in other fields, but a growing number are producing new music, said Charon Bajgai, a board member of the Bhutanese American Music Association who lives in Pickerington.

“(However), few organizations or institutions pay attention to music produced by Bhutanese-Nepalese in America,” Bajgai said.

Khadka is already writing music for her next album, which will return to her roots in Hindu religious music. He hopes it will be enjoyed by future generations.

“I don’t care if my songs don’t do well commercially,” he said. “But I hope they will have a legacy.”

Peter Gill is a member of the Report for America corps and covers immigration issues for the Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ

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