Between March and June, a Haryana-based brass band called Heera was scheduled to perform at 40 baraats—wedding processions—but all its bookings were cancelled owing to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country and the nationwide lockdown to contain its spread. Its owner Munir Mohammad said that members of such bands, including him, have found it difficult to sustain themselves since the onset of the pandemic. “I have a shop in Karnal, whose rent is Rs 10,000 a month—it is becoming very difficult for me to make rent,” he told me, at the end of May. “I have eight sons and one daughter, four of the sons work with me. We will become victims of starvation if this carries on.” Mohammad, as well as other people associated with brass bands in Uttar Pradesh, told me they fall in the Other Backward Classes category and identified themselves as a part of a community called Shaikh Dafalchi.
Owing to social-distancing norms that have to be followed to contain the coronavirus, weddings—the primary source of revenue for most brass bands—can only be held at a far smaller scale now than earlier. Due to this, several people associated with brass bands are faced with the prospect of switching professions during a pandemic. Many such performers I spoke to said this is an uphill task for them as for generations, their families have earned a living only by playing musical instruments.
Gulsher Ahmed, a 28-year-old resident of Shamli who runs a band with 16 artists, said that people from his community used to play dhol in the Mughal army. “This has been our work for generations—my father, grandfather, great-grandfather, all of them used to do this work,” he said. “I did not study, I have been working with my father since the beginning.”
He explained how he had planned to pay his employees this year. “We have to fulfil a one-year contract with our artists, which begins in the month of August and ends on 31 July. We have to pay half the money to artists while signing the contract and give the rest during the course of the work,” he said. In November 2019, he said he paid his artists Rs 2.5 lakh. “When this season was over,” he said, referring to the period between March and June, which sees many weddings, “we would have paid them another Rs 2.50 lakh. And around that amount would have been left for us to sustain ourselves for the whole year.”
But this did not work out—the 15 baraats that the band had been booked to perform at this season were cancelled. “We are four brothers—the others work with me as well,” he said. “I have a mother to fend for and I got married last year too. Our situation is such that we are sustaining ourselves after selling my wife’s jewellery.”
Like Gulsher, Gulab Ahmed, who runs A-One, a band in Meerut, said, he paid the artists in advance. The 54-year-old—whose father also worked as a member of a brass band in the 1960s—told me that A-One has 15 artists and six labourers. “If we do not give them advance, then the artists will go to some other band.” He had borrowed money to pay this advance. “As soon as this season’s work would have started, I would have paid the money back. I had about 25 baraats between 16 April to June. But we did not know that this epidemic will finish everything.”
According to Gulab, the pandemic has left other brass-bands in debt too. “The government does not help our people and the banks do not lend us money. This is why all bands have to take a loan to give advance to their artists,” he said. “So, this time everyone is in debt. This season’s work has not happened at all and we have no clue when it will happen.”
Gulab has a family of nine members. He estimated that Meerut city must have around more than a hundred brass bands and “thousands of families must depend on them—their livelihood is in danger.”