Baraat and the bandwalas.
Almost every Indian has, at some point of life, listened, walked with or danced to the music of a brass band, as have many Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalis. We see men dressed in the replicas or revisions of British military uniform, practising the latest rap-inflected hit film songs on a variety of European instruments such as trumpet, euphonium, clarinet, valve trombone and drums.
In Delhi alone, there are hundreds of such bands. It’s a competitive market out there, but Anil Thadani, the proud owner of the Hindu Jea Band in Chandni Chowk, knows how to stay ahead of the field. “Customers want change, which we provide. It’s a mini event management company, and not just a brass band, because unlike others we work towards a concept and theme for each wedding, such as a fire or water theme,” he explains.
The Hindu Jea Band played at the much talked about wedding of Bollywood actors Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan, as well as at the Indian Premier League. Recently, the band appeared in the Hindi film Love Aaj Kal and even played at the National Parade in Dubai.
Some of the other famous bands in the Capital are the Shiv Mohan Band, Master Band, Baldev Band, Chawla Band and Tej Band, which are located in the Chandni Chowk, Titarpur and Raja Garden areas. The bands are routinely hired for the baraat — a tradition in north India where the groom rides a decorated horse to the wedding ceremony, accompanied by relatives and friends dancing to the music of the band.
The gaiety and exuberant joy that these bands lend to the baraat is sadly missing from their own lives. Says Sanjay Sharma, General Secretary of Delhi State Band Association and the owner of Master Band, “The Government provides no help and has never provided any facility to the brass bands.”
A bandsman earns about Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 a month, mostly during October to February. At other times of the year they pull rickshaws, sell balloons, or work in factories or farms to make ends meet. Hailing mainly from Uttar Pradesh or Haryana, most of these bandsmen have learnt to play the instruments from their ustads (masters) back in their village; they moved to Delhi to earn a living, leaving families behind.
The bandsmen often face caste-based discrimination — nearly 90 per cent of them belong to the Sheikh Dhapalchi caste while the rest are Dhana (Tabir).
“Koi ijjat nahi hai samaj mein, par hum to pet aur bachon ke liye yeh karte hain (We have no respect in society; we are doing it just to feed our families),” says a band member of Shiv Mohan Band. Another band member, smoking ganja, adds, “Sikha bhi yahin, aur zindagi bhi yahin khatam ho jaani hai (We learnt our job here and this is where we’ll die too).”
While some bandsmen do enter this profession out of interest in music, most others are in it due to hereditary or economic reasons.
“Bajawalas (bandsmen) usually set out from their workplace three hours before the event. They normally hire a vehicle or take a bus. On reaching their destination, they practise the latest music with their band master,” says an employee of Shiv Mohan Band.
Deepak Rawal, the owner of Baldev Band, explains that theirs is a performance-oriented profession and the earnings depend on the auspicious dates decided by the pandits. “We advertise by playing in the Ramlila or other religious processions. Few bands advertise in newspapers or magazines,” he says.
“We take up around eight marriages a month during peak season and have a few permanent contractors who get us bajawalas when we need them. Our charges vary from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000 for each marriage. So we generate an income of Rs 1.5-2 lakh a year,” says a band owner who claims he has been a proud taxpayer for 45 years now.
Among the problems faced by these musicians are late payment, long waiting hours, lengthy processions, no space to practise, and repetitive playing when drunk baraatis insist that they play endlessly. Of course, some of the bandsmen also admit that they enjoy the imported whiskey offered to them at some weddings.
A few of the bands run an additional business to supplement income. The Hindu Jea Band, for instance, sells remote controls at a shop in Chandni Chowk.
The bandsmen are often also involved in related trades such as the supply of the white mare and fireworks for the baraat.
There are several ghodi (mare) walas in Delhi, and the prominent names include Sindhi Hira Nand Ghodi Wala, and Sohan Lal and Sons Ghodi Walas.
Asked why a mare, and not horse, is preferred for the baraat, Thadani puts it down to tradition and says the mare is considered auspicious and this is also meant to symbolise “the superiority of a male over a female”.
The lifeline of a brass band is provided by 20 bandsmen playing on trumpets, drums, bassoon and the brass instruments trombones and euphoniums.
The music of the brass bands has changed over time; popular Bollywood songs are played now in place of British marches, with ‘Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai’ being an all-time favourite at weddings.
Currently, songs from the movies Welcome and Singh is King are in great demand.