A tradition in India marches (noisily) toward extinction
Band 'wallahs,' musicians whose history dates to the Raj, learned pop
CALCUTTA, INDIA — On two teeming city blocks, amid piles of green coconuts whose milk offers the best quick drink in town, a row of shops tell a story of music and cultural history.
Inside the ornate, closet-size rooms is a wealth of battered brass - trumpets, euphoniums, tubas - as well as red-and-blue parade uniforms, neatly folded.
The shops' mustachioed founders with their patriarchic airs stare down from formal portraits: "Master Ahmed, 1938," says one. "Master Jahurali, 1949," another.
This slice of Calcutta is the last redoubt of a threatened institution, the band wallahs - players in marching bands. For 50 years, the wallahs have blown their horns every day on city streets in that most lucrative and important of all Indian rituals - the wedding procession.
"The band gives a special flavor to Indian weddings - like salt in meat curry," says Anwar Ali, owner of the Mehboob Family Band.
Yet with Calcutta's crowded streets in a daily crawl, police last year stopped giving out band permits to every new couple. The wallahs still march - gathering before dawn, bedecking themselves in riotous orange, saffron, and blue turbans. But the police have cracked down even during the wedding season, between December and April. A decade ago some 100 bands were for hire; today only 35 are left. Bookings are down.
BUT the story begins 100 years ago. Under British rule, Calcutta's musical talent earned its keep playing to the tastes of the Anglo rulers. As the Raj rose to its most royal, Indian boys and men played at state events, silver-plated dinners, and the moonlit garden parties of the elite.
For generations, wallah fathers taught their sons to play jazz, foxtrots, marches, and waltzes. ("Wallah" simply means trade, as in a taxi wallah who drives a cab, or a lunch wallah who delivers lunch.)
After independence in 1947, the departing British left the band wallahs in an economic vacuum - to which they adapted brilliantly, carving out a place at weddings.
"We started playing the music in Indian romance films," says Mohammed Rafiq of the Bharat Band. "When a British groom came, we played a march. When an Indian came, we did classical Hindu. We are constantly learning new stuff from films - mainly through cassettes."
In the wedding season, the wallahs come out in the early morning, transforming the steaming gray Calcutta streets with gold braid and the sleepy thump of a bass drum. Bands range from 15 to 40 players. The wallahs move as free agents from band to band. Each band has a leader, called a master, who sets the melody - and makes the deals. Some players travel 40 miles - an enormous distance here - to ply their trade.
Band wallah status is taken seriously; gaining it is a two-year process. Pay and prestige are high in a city of great unemployment and low prospects. In a busy wedding season, a wallah may play 30 shows and earn nearly $600, good pay in this town.
Muslims own the shops - but Hindus do most of the rank-and-file playing. A new band wallah prospect is allowed to borrow an instrument in off hours. If aptitude is shown, he can pay 100 rupees a month until training is complete.
Before a wedding, a member of the bride's family visits a shop on Mahatma Gandhi Boulevard, with its wrought-iron balconies. Over tea in earthenware cups that are thrown out on the street to be ground up under feet, tires, and hoofs, the two set a price.
Today, that price may include rupees to bribe the police. A client with connections may get a break. But even this fact is changing. Raj Kanojia, regional police commissioner in Calcutta, says new band wallah applications are no longer granted since they obstruct traffic.
Band wallahs point out that political leaders often immobilize the city with crowded demonstrations.
"They have a valid point but it's a reality they have to live with," says Mr. Kanojia, adding politicians have far more clout than the wallahs.
"You are looking at the last generation of the band wallah," says Mohammed Ashfaque Ahmed, whose shop has been in his family since the turn of the century. "The demand is decreasing. We can't spend the money to bribe the police. My father wanted us to carry on. But I won't teach my son this trade."