Lives behind the gaudy uniforms and loud music

December 21, 2012

New Delhi, India

By Mansi Thapliyal

Music bands play an integral part to the big fat Indian wedding, especially in North India.

Weddings in North India are never complete until the family of the bride and groom dance to the tune of popular Bollywood songs. Brass bands are hired for the purpose of playing at the wedding procession in which the groom’s family dance all the way to the wedding venue where the bride’s family waits to receive them. A procession called “Barat” is usually accompanied by bright lights, fireworks, loud music and dance. The instruments played by these brass bands are a mix of Indian and western musical instruments.

The men who make up India’s brass bands are regularly seen marching through the cities and towns dressed in their flashy outfits and spicing up parties, though despite their loud presence, they usually go unnoticed.

I wanted to take a closer look and find out more about them, find out what they do when they’re not entertaining wedding guests and find out about their day-to-day struggles.

The routine of brass band members consists of leaving their shops around late afternoon. Once they reach the venue from where the wedding procession has to start, they often wait hours for the groom’s family to gather. One of the band members told me that earlier the hours used to stretch ahead endlessly but thanks to mobile phones and internet technology things are different for them now. They use their mobile phones to kill the boredom – huddling together to watch a film on the handset’s small screen, listen to songs or talk to their girlfriends.

They also use their phones to download songs along with lyrics to help them practice, something they used to do with records and cassettes which were more expensive.

At one stage, I was sitting and talking with them and I told them that I would print the photos out and show them. But one of the younger band members cut in and said I only had to give them a website link and they would be able to see and share the photos on their phones. I felt so stupid!

As the walk the streets and when they’re waiting for a bus, their gaudy military uniforms and old style brass instruments catch a lot of attention, especially from children.

The tunes they play may sound very scratchy, but the bands work long hours perfecting them. Their practice sessions, happen when there are no weddings planned for the day. Since the music is so loud, they can’t practice in residential or crowded areas. So I was curious to know where they actually go and to my surprise, they were practicing behind the bushes next to a railway track. They spent a whole day there, working on a new song.

I spoke to band members like Rajesh Kumar, 32, who saw it as a good way of making extra money alongside other petty jobs he does back home when he is not playing at the band.

Kumar says he gets between 500-600 rupees, around $10, for every wedding he plays at, which is not enough to survive on and support his family.

The music that the band plays is recognizable to many Indians. When I see a wedding procession, it’s strangely compelling and I’m drawn to it. But the music, loud and screechy, is something I can’t listen to everyday and is something meant only for momentous occasions.

I think there is a sharp contrast between the brass band players I documented and other musicians for whom music is almost like meditating.

It’s common to find a musician performing with his or her eyes closed and their faces full of pride. Even in the smallest town you will find pride in the face of a performer for possessing a special gift of music which many people don’t have.

But I feel the same can’t be said about the wedding band I got to know.

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