When Sugam Pokharel was growing up in Rangeli in southeastern Nepal singing Bollywood songs, he never thought he would be such a superstar. He knew he could sing, but becoming a pop superstar was unthinkable. However, through consistent training, hard work and sheer determination, he not only became a singer but has been a revered pop star of Nepal for the past two decades.
“I’m thankful for the career I’ve had, but I know I can give more to the industry,” he says.
By ‘more’, Sugam Pokharel wants to continue to inspire the new generation of singers. He has recently been affiliated with Nepal Idol, in which he aims to help young and upcoming singers. He is also preparing to launch his new album through which he wants to pay homage to Kathmandu, a city that he says made him the man he is today.
The childhood dream
But, getting to where he is now was not easy. Having come to Kathmandu with nothing but hope, he had to work very hard. Every time he sang in school, he always got great responses from his classmates and teachers. But, singing was not really a career option in Rangeli.
“Dad sent me to an English medium school, the first in my family, so he had high hopes.”
Despite that, Sugam Pokharel was quite into singing. In his teens, he was heavily into Bollywood films. But, the time he was in grade eight, he would be bunking school to go watch recently released films. Even though he followed singers like Deep Shrestha, Bhakta Raj Acharya, Sanjay Shrestha and Bhim Tuladhar, he loved singing Hindi songs because they resonated with him.
Things gradually changed though thanks to the rise of Nepali pop music. Having seen these Nepali people appreciated, he started to develop a liking to pop music.
“They used drums and guitars which was fun. I’d listened to English pop songs growing up, but I didn’t think it would work in Nepal. Yet, these senior artists show me it would work and that’s when I started to explore the idea of composing pop songs.”
Sugam Pokharel started singing during various events too. But, he picked and chose where he sang because he knew from an early age that singing for the right audience was important.
Even though his father was quite strict, it was a bit easy for him because of his elder brother Sunil Pokharel, who was into the theatre from a young age. Thanks to Sunil, Sugam Pokharel had the freedom to explore and express himself.
After completing his school, Pokharel made his way to Kathmandu. He knew that to get to where he had hoped, he needed to get to Kathmandu, a place where dreams of those who worked hard came true.
Having his elder brother Sunil in Kathmandu helped quite a bit in the early days. But, he wanted to make a name for himself and not live under Sunil’s shadow.
“Dai and bhauju helped a lot. But, I knew I couldn’t burden them.”
Into the land of dreams
Sugam Pokharel started writing songs and singing them. Side by side, he would also help out Sunil Pokharel, who back then used to make documentaries.
This was 1995 when singers normally would go to Radio Nepal for a voice test. But, as FM radios were slowly getting into households of people, Pokharel did not have to take the road taken by many singers before him.
Being Sunil Pokharel’s younger brother was quite helpful too. Sugam Pokharel could approach people to record his songs. He also got a job at Sagarmatha Radio where he worked for archiving music. During that time, he was still continuing to produce songs, but something was missing as he was yet to break out.
He would send his songs to studios, but no one would play them. Even though he liked it a lot, he felt that to make his song a hit, he needed to make it better.
“I think working at the radio gave me a lot of perspectives. As I was in the audio library, I had access to a lot of songs and that was quite nice as it gave me ideas on how to make my music better.”
Sugam Pokharel had released Mero Sansar already, but it had not done well. In 2000, hence, he released it again. But, this time he tweaked it a little bit.
“Autotune had recently come into the market, and I liked that effect a lot. I applied that on the song and the rest is history.”
He received mixed feedback on the song. The majority enjoyed it, but there were a few sceptics who told him that the song was hit only because of the use of the autotune. That just drove him more as he then started to produce a song that reflected the type of music he wanted to do.
“Feri Tyo Din was an instant hit, and that gave me the motivation to work towards making an album.”
Harding towards hits
But, producing an album was not as easy as Sugam Pokharel thought it was. It needed a lot of money, but thankfully due to his rising popularity, Music Nepal chipped in and bought the rights of his album 1 MB for mere Rs 98,000.
“I still don’t have data of how many cassettes they sold. But, I know a fact that they made loads of money. But it’s okay because I made quite a name for myself thanks to that album.”
He followed 1 MB with Highway, after which he started to become a household name. There was not a person in urban Nepal who did not know who Sugam Pokharel was. His song Mayako Bato was a major hit from that album. The success of the two albums then resulted in him being invited to perform all over Nepal.
“I used to perform three shows a day in three different cities. It was quite crazy because I’d be in Bhairahawa in the morning, Biratnagar in the afternoon and Kathmandu in the evening. Those days were wild,” he says.
When asked what song he thinks was the making of him, Sugam Pokharel cannot answer. He says each song is special to him as it is something he has personally witnessed. He says his songs are close to him as they reflect what he has either been through or witnessed in society.
He was doing quite well but in 2013, one incident rocked him, his family and Nepal’s music industry when Pokharel was arrested by the police for possession of heroin. For someone who had been a superstar for over a decade, this was the lowest point in his life.
“I was lost and didn’t take life seriously. But, soon I realised that I had forgotten my family, my fans, my career, and everything to indulge in fun,” he had told Onlinekhabar back then.
But, Sugam Pokharel did not let the incident affect him mentally. Instead, he took it as a challenge and got up. Not wanting to let his family down, within months he changed the way he lived his life and got back to music.
It has been eight years since that incident and it seems it never happened. In 2020, he even released a new album called Shwyet Hansini.
Now Sugam Pokharel is working on his new album Tilasmi Kathmandu, through which he wants to pay homage to the city that made him who is he today. As someone who walked around Kathmandu a lot, he says this album is quite nostalgic to him.
“I’m working on the last song where I want to use Nepal Bhasa too as I want this album to resonate with everyone from Kathmandu.”