Right from childhood, I have been seeing them at the forefront of any procession – marriage, temple utsava, ganesha habba, church ceremony, funeral. They are attired in colourful uniforms and sport shiny turbans. They march to the beat of drums, the sound of trumpets, and the blow of clarinets. There is a silent admiration from the audience who are the onlookers on the pavements and who sit inside shops. Some kids walk along with them dancing to the songs. The songs are according to the occasion.
Last week, I met a troupe known as JAI MAHAVEER BAND SET. It is owned by S.Kanda. He introduces me to some of the members sitting inside the (approx.15×6 ft) shop. Hanumantha, Hulagappa, Thimmanna and Joseph play the Trumpet while Nataraj and Murthy play the drums.
A big drum is hung outside the shop. Underneath it is a couple of flex banners showing one of the members blowing the trumpet. An ‘A’ stand is also kept on the pavement so that the shop is easily identifiable.
There is a table in the corner of the shop on which a few drums are kept. A few photos of the troupe members playing for a wedding is kept under the glass on the table.
Next to it there is a bench which can seat around 4-5 people. The light pink uniform shirts are hung above the table.
The trumpets are inside a small open shelf. There is also a Fevibond, a toy elephant and a set of lock and keys there. The shiny caps are kept on top of the shelf.
Pictures of Lord Ganesha in between Goddess Lakshmi and Saraswathi, and Mother Mary with infant Jesus find a place underneath the white tubelight on the left.
Kanda puts me on to Joseph, a senior member of the troupe. He says there are a total of 40 members. He has been working as a band player for the past 45 years. He began when he was just a teenager in New Bharath Band and New Jai Hind Band in Kalasipalya. The current band set was started 15 years ago, the shop is next to Vinayaka Theatre on Mysore Road.
I request them to pose for a photo. They say wearing the dress takes a long time. I say them to just wear the cap and hold the instruments that they play. Each of them is really excited and stands for the picture.
Joseph says: Band sets became popular in India in the 20th century. In any rich and upper middle class marriage, we were compulsory. The wealth and prestige of the bride’s father was judged by how many players were in the band set.
We play for any occasion. Most common is marriage and funeral processions. We send a minimum of 4 members and a maximum of 35-40 members based on the requirement. Marawadis expect grandeur in their weddings, and we send more people. They also pay us well. For a Marawadi wedding, if 10 of us go, we charge around 10-12 thousand rupees. We play Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Gujarathi, Rajasthani, Punjabi, Church songs and devotional songs.
Members in our troupe are adept at playing Clarinets, Trumpets, Euphoniums, Alto Sax, Tavil, Bass Drum, Tap Dhol and Side Drums. We are asked by the organisers to play more of Rajkumar, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajini, Kamal, Amitabh, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, NTR, Vijay and nowadays Puneeth, Surya and Dhanush’s numbers. We are happy to oblige.
Every member of the troupe is skilled in playing a specific musical instrument and the performance lasts for about two to three hours. When we are free, we periodically undergo rehearsal for improving upon our performance. We get paid on a daily wage basis for the programmes we perform. 400 rupees for a marriage, 250-300 rupees for temple festival, 200-220 for a funeral procession.
Some of our team members have played for Shivarajkumar’s ‘Mutthanna’ and Gadibidi Aliya’ and Ravichandran’s ‘Gadibidi Ganda’.
Just as he is talking to me, I see a couple of men come and ask Kanda to send a team on a Cycle band for a temple utsava. A team is sent immediately.
I ask Joseph about the charges. He says: For marriages and temple functions, if 4-5 of us go, we charge around 3000 rupees. If we send 35 members to a wedding, it is around 32 thousand rupees. If we have to play from morning till evening, it is approx. 15-20 thousand rupees. For a funeral procession, we charge very less.
I am curious to know which is his favourite song. He immediately picks up the trumpet and plays Ghantasaala’s “Yaarige Yaruntu” from ‘Gaali Gopura’ (Rajkumar – 1962). I pester him to play another one. He plays “Poomazhai Thoovi” from ‘Ninathathai Mudippavan’ (MGR -1975). This is a remake of 1970 blockbuster Hindi Film ‘Sachaa Jhutha’ starring Rajesh Khanna.
We have been using synths, drums and loudspeakers for a few years in order to overcome all other noises like honking cars and firecrackers.
We spread joy for all the festive occasions but in reality, we suffer in silence due to the waning patronage. Brass Band sets are an integral part of marriage processions in the north, while the patronage here in the south is waning. The bridegrooms of today’s generation are very shy and prefer not to have band sets. Ceremonies are less elaborate today. Also, inflation has made people cut down on many things. These have affected us badly.
On certain days, we do not have any revenue at all. The owners find it very difficult to run this business. Although the members of our party look like professional musicians, in reality, most of us are unorganised labourers such as coolies, painters, and carpenters.
I have been playing for the past 45-50 years. I don’t know any other job. I stay in the church behind our shop. I feel our band members are as good as the Police band set.
It is nearing 9pm on a Wednesday. I thank Joseph and take leave. As I ride back home, I realise how very difficult it is to eke out a living just by being a band player. The next time I see any Band-Baaja-Baaraat, I will search for Joseph and his boys among those playing the trumpet!