As coronavirus makes wedding-brass bands obsolete, a Muslim community loses its livelihood

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. Pradeep Gaur / Mint / Getty Images

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.”  

Others in Meerut echoed his concerns. “Meerut bands are considered to be the best, so they are in great demand everywhere,” Shushil Kumar Lodhi, a 35-year-old who runs the Sharma band, said. Lodhi said his father had founded the band in 1980. “Twenty-two artists work in my band, and including labourers and other staff, the total number of employees would be 40,” he said. In the month of March, he said, brass bands participate in events related to Navratri—a nine-day Hindu festival—to publicise their work. “But we couldn’t even participate in those due to the lockdown. We still thought the lockdown would be lifted soon,” he said. “Between 16 April and 19 June, we had 60 wedding ceremonies,” he said. The band could not perform at even a single one of these. 

When I spoke to him, Lodhi said he had to get one of his instruments fixed. “The horn on our cart gets worn out within a year and it takes at least Rs 60,000 to get it made,” he said. “There are 12 people in my home and all are dependent on this work. This is our livelihood. This is our daily bread.”

There is little hope for the industry to recover soon. Haji Uvesh, the president of Nasir Ali and Co., a large company based in Meerut which supplies musical instruments, said, “This was a peak season. We used to see the maximum sale at this time.” He estimated that brass bands will not be able to function for at least two years. “Marriage, procession, et cetera will not be held, so you will not need a band.”

For Ashu Shaikh, the owner of the Ashoka Band in Saharanpur district, the struggle of managing the business in a pandemic is compounded by the fact that he is new to this line of work. The 26-year-old’s father used to run the band earlier. Last year, on 12 December, while performing at a baraat, a car hit his father while he was crossing the road and he subsequently died. “I used to go to work with my father sometimes. He used to say our family has been doing this work for generations.”

Ashu said his band had to perform at 100 baraats between March and May, but the bookings were cancelled. “We had become helpless when my father passed away, and I didn’t know how to even manage things during the lockdown—who has our money and who do I have to pay and I do not even know who has to pay us.” He said the 55 people who work in his band—the number increases proportionately with the workload—are also worried. “We aren’t able to understand anything. The restriction on too many people gathering for wedding and parties and everyone has to keep a distance ... If this continues, we will starve to death.”

Ashu has to financially support three younger sisters and his mother. “Ammi has not been keeping well since my father passed away,” he said. “My mother is worried about getting my sisters married. Now, what will we do in this condition?”  

Dhol players, too, said they were struggling to make ends meet. Shadab Shaikh, a 25-year-old resident of Shamli district, runs Sonu, a small group of dhol players. “I had 40 baraats this season. Everything has been cancelled,” he said. For generations, people in his family have been performing the dhol. 

Another dhol player, Mohammad Shahnawaz, who lives in Saharanpur, said several people in his family also play musical instruments. “Our father, grandfather, brother, our entire family does this work,” the 38-year-old said. “We have a group of 25 people who call each other if they have any gigs, which is helpful,” he said. But since the lockdown began, he has not been getting any opportunities to work. “These are only five months in which we would get jobs,” he said, referring to the period between March and July. “Now they are also over,” he said. 

He said he is sustaining himself by borrowing money from his relatives. “I have a three-year-old daughter. When she asks for something to eat and I cannot provide, it hurts. And I have a younger sister, whose marriage is broken, she also stays with me.” He said it is his responsibility to get her remarried. Shahnawaz said his family used to earlier live in Muzaffarnagar district’s Nagla Bisoi village and shifted to Saharanpur six years ago. 

In-depth research studies on the Shaikh Dafalchi community are scarcely available online. Usman Mahandi, a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who hails from Muzaffarnagar, told me he had met members of brass bands who identified as Shaikh Dafalchis as well, while he was researching for his MPhil dissertation on the 2013 communal violence in his district. “They had been tortured, they weren’t even able to get their FIRs filed,” he said, referring to first-information reports. In the aftermath of the violence, he said, many of them switched to other professions and migrated to cities.

Other small businesses associated with the wedding industry have been hit by the pandemic too. Ravi Prajapati, a 28-year-old resident of Mawana city in Meerut, mans horse-drawn buggies at weddings, along with his two brothers. Prajapati said their services had been booked for 22 baraats in April and May for which they had received a total of Rs 40,000. “But due to the lockdown, everyone cancelled their bookings and took the money back.” One of his four mares died on 12 April as he had difficulty in finding fodder for her. “She was worth Rs 80,000,” he said. “We spend around Rs 600 on a horse per day. How will we earn that much if we don’t get any work?” According to Prajapati, “80 percent” horse-drawn buggies used in Indian weddings are typically manned by the Prajapati community—a part of the Kumhar caste, which falls in the OBC category—as they rear horses and also draw tongas. 

“Since I was left with no work, I started selling vegetables in the lockdown,” he said. But the panic spread by the novel coronavirus has brought challenges to his new job as well—in Hastinapur village, he said, people turned him away when he went there to sell vegetables. 

Mohammad had told me that members of brass bands, too, are looking for other jobs now. “Several band-baje waale have started selling vegetables,” Mohammad had said in May. When I spoke to him nearly a month later, little had changed. “Most people are becoming daily labourers, rickshaw pullers and vegetable sellers,” he told me. “We are not getting any work.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gulsher Ahmed's father was dead. The Caravan regrets the error.