Reynoldsburg man's music reflects life as Bhutanese-Nepali refugee

2022-07-18 10:15:22 By : Mr. Chan Base

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 from the forest and burnt holes into it using a red-hot iron rod, then imitated the melodies of the broadcasts.

After the Bhutanese government confiscated his family’s land and revoked their citizenship because of their cultural identity, Khadka continued to pursue music in a refugee camp in Nepal.

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

Khadka's work has earned him a dedicated following among the Nepali-speaking community — his songs have more than 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 U.S. in 2010 — have been been the source of inspiration for much of his music. His new album explores themes of longing, frustration and love.

“It was very painful to leave my birthplace,” Khadka said recently, sitting on the sofa beside 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 evicted them from their homes, around 100,000 Bhutanese-Nepalis were forced into refugee camps in Nepal in the early 1990s. Relocation to other countries didn't begin until 2007. 

Around 30,000 Bhutanese-Nepalis now call Greater Columbus home, according to the nonprofit Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio.

Khadka and Gurung first resettled in Spokane, Washington. The country was in the middle of a recession, so finding a good job was difficult, especially for a refugee with no work history in the U.S.

In Nepal, Khadka had labored in construction outside the refugee camp. In Spokane, he worked at 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, and I didn’t understand their accents, either,” said Khadka, who has three children with Gurung. “Over time, I got better at it — although my kids still tease me about my accent.”

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

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

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

Years’ worth of pent-up creativity flowed out of his hands and voice, and in 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 largest Nepali Hindu festivals of the year.

The translated lyrics state, in part: “Dashain went by, Tihar went by / Your springtime charm never came / Watching the road, days and nights will pass / Happiness never shined on you.”

Returning to Spokane, Khadka began writing songs at work. During bathroom breaks, he made recordings on his phone as snippets of lyrics came to him.

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

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

On Facebook, Khadka reached out to Deepak Jangam — a famous Nepali composer who previously composed songs with the late Nepali monarch King Mahendra — and shared some of his music. Khadka was nervous but excited when Jangam wrote back to say he was interested in collaborating online.  

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

Most of the songs fall into the Nepali genre of “sugam sangeet,” a variety of modern Nepali music that combines poetic lyrics with melodies on traditional Nepali and Indian instruments. Each song features a different Nepal-based singer, whom Khadka and Jangam selected.

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

Economic circumstances have forced Bhutanese-Nepali 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), not many organizations or institutions are paying attention to music produced by Bhutanese-Nepalis in America,” Bajgai said.

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

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

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