Remembering Vidhea

October 3, 2013 , by Jerusha Rai, 1 Comment
Remembering Vidhea » My Dreams Mag

In a culture where "the ideal woman" is one that is polite, prosaic and passionless, Vidhea Shrestha provided a refreshing contrast, with a sharp mind and a tongue to match. Her fierce love for life and uncompromised beliefs might have proved too much for some, but Vidhea's acquaintances remember her with respectful awe and affection. And deservedly so.

Known widely among jazz enthusiasts as the ‘
didi of jazz’, Vidhea Shrestha has blazed a vocal trail for generations of to-be singers and musicians in Kathmandu’s music scene, although her warm, syrupy, resonating voice and impeccable phrasing and diction might have set the standards too high. She commanded the respect of male musicians who were used to making fun of girls seeking diva-hood. Vidhea was treated as a peer because of her unquestionable talent and natural understanding of music. Their reverence is clear in their musical dedications to her and posthumous tributes.


Coming from a family of mixed cultural connections and influenced by the British colonization era, Vidhea’s upbringing was wide open to other cultures. Her love for music was inculcated from early on, listening to her father’s collection of western records. She grew up to the music of Beethoven and Bach along with the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But her education at a Catholic school was the time she really honed her vocal skills while singing with the school choir. Perhaps it was this exposure to a wide spectrum of music that led her to appreciate and embrace the completely new arrival of jazz in Kathmandu.


Before she delved into the world of Billie Holiday and Cassandra Wilson though, Vidhea used to belt out Janis Joplin and Joan Baez. She played with a fantastic band called Banjibah in the 90s at a studio in Shanta Bhawan. They used to entertain an audience that consisted of ex-pats, diplomats, foreigners as well as locals to rhythm & blues, funk and soul that often played on through the night till 3 in the morning. It was an atmosphere we could only imagine happening in 1920s Paris clubs; dancing, drinks and drugs compared to which Kathmandu’s current scene seems like a pathetic excuse for night-life. 


Only later on did she become one of the people who introduced jazz to a place where it was virtually unheard of. She believed the unique genre would add to Kathmandu’s culture. The city was lucky enough to have someone like Vidhea to give it its taster course in jazz. Free-flowing improvisation in Vidhea’s flawless voice was readily welcomed into Hyatt’s jazz bar, Dwarikas, Shangrila hotel, Upstairs, private parties and into the hearts of mesmerized audiences. How did she make the often confusing music that is jazz appeal to so many unfamiliar ears? Taking into account the fact that she never brought out an album and live gigs were few and far apart, Vidhea’s popularity and motivation to sing seems to have stemmed from her desire for pure, unadulterated fun. 


Kathmandu at that time was a financial quicksand for musicians: neither did it have a vibrant music scene nor the internet where, like today, anybody with the flimsiest strand of talent can get an audience. Just as well. Vidhea never cared much for earning money or recognition from music, despite her rocky financial status. One can only speculate the challenges of being a single mother at a time when people shuddered to think of an independent woman. Add to that the taboo of having married a foreigner, getting divorced, and later, the unimaginable physical and psychological pain of a rare cancer, and Vidhea’s fighting spirit seems not only to have survived the ostracism and hardship, but transcended it.


Besides her singing, Vidhea contributed to Kathmandu’s music and art by supporting Jazzmandu and sitting as a patron for Women in Concert. Her reach extended further into philanthrophy and education as she raised funds for Orchid Garden Nepal, a day care centre for underprivileged children. Her sophistication and experience garnered from extensive travelling, allowed her to be a bridge between the East and the West, through Passage International, a student exchange program that brought students from all over the world to learn about Nepali culture and values. Despite having travelled to the US and Europe, her love for the country remained bewilderingly intact. In fact, in 1999 Rolling Stones magazine offered her a coveted editorial job in New York only to be turned down by this woman who didn’t give a toss about a glamorous lifestyle. A rebel by choice, and a rebel with a cause, she did as she pleased and what pleased her was her life in Kathmandu, among her own pick of eccentric friends: art enthusiasts, liberal thinkers, fellow veterans of the beatnik revolution and her son Yanik.


Yanik proudly remembers this unconventional woman as his guardian, teacher and the most loving mother. He provides a uniquely private picture of Vidhea singing in the kitchen while cooking or hanging out with him in the living room. Their home was always filled with music that sometimes blared so loud, they had to turn down the volume to hear each other talk. She also played a bit of guitar and piano, read and wrote poetry.


Yanik tells us just how important music was in her life. “In many ways, music and literature kept her alive”, says Yanik who witnessed first-hand, Vidhea’s tough life.The 7 years of her courageous fight with cancer, was a period of transition for both Vidhea and Yanik. His mother was preparing to pass away and Yanik was learning about the inevitability of death. All through the struggle, Vidhea helped her son become ready. Vidhea’s cancer may have changed her active lifestyle, but her philosophy and optimism remained the same. As death became a clearer picture, so did life. “Resignation and acceptance are two different things. Thank God for a sense of humour, eh?” she used to say, sometimes making people uncomfortable by jokingly calling herself “Cancerella”. Till the very end, she emanated laughter and life. And as we look back on the life she created for herself and listen to her singing, we do not sense tragedy, we do not see a victim, but exuberance and courage and a story worth celebrating.


One of the two rare and only records ever with Vidhea’s voice: This one in her Memory! 





Text by: Jerusha Rai
Images & Soundbyte: Yanik Shrestha

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Categorised in: Retro Chic

One comment on “Remembering Vidhea

  1. Naresh Shrestha says:

    Tnx for the great writeup…yes she never wanted fame, fortune et al…she just “lived life”….and that sometimes set her on odds with many (!)….but she was who she was …a true free spirit…
    when I stood all alone in a foreign land, with everything alien around me years ago to start a “new life” and wandered “how do I make it …?”
    …i then asked myself this ” what would vidheadi (“didi”) do…?!”
    ..and I never looked back!
    …she was my sister and my friend,
    …i miss her dearly….

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