He is Raju on most days. But here, he insists that I use his full name, Mohammad Gias-ud-Din. The change is instrumental. On most days, Gias-ud-Din is 20-year-old construction worker Raju. But when he is playing the ‘boom drums’ for Manimajra’s Hira Band at weddings, he is Gias-ud-Din, the Drum Master.Such transformations pass us by almost every day, especially when we are busy contorting our bodies in alleged dancing at weddings, or watching others twist and turn in a seemingly painful display of love for the groom. No matter how inseparable a part they may be of our weddings, brass bands aren’t really an exalted lot. Add a singer mounted on a tempo leading the baraat, and you have the perfect wedding band as well as the perfect parody.
The band members — whom I meet outside a banquet in Sector 29 — look at it differently. Not all of them are full-time members, but they do carry some artistry in them, citing a routine that includes learning the nuances of a song, composing the parts, performing some breathing exercises to be able to play the instruments, and regular rehearsals held at public parks or any available plot in the afternoons.
“We sometimes practice in the jungle behind Manimajra. Otherwise, people get disturbed,” smiles Raj Kumar, 53, the veteran who is an auto-rickshaw driver when not playing the euphonium, or “imfonium” as he calls it. Ask him what got him into the band, and he recalls his inspiration: “My father was in the air force, a sweeper. I was also destined to be like him, ‘a lower-caste boy fit only to be a class-4 worker’. But, as fate would have it, there was a row of brass band shops next to our little house in Rajpura (a Punjab town on the Chandigarh-Patiala road). I got hooked.”
The art is not that easy. Yes, it is an art. And there is a guru-shishya, ustad-chela tradition.
“My ustad was from Gurdaspur,” recalls Raj Kumar, gently touching his right ear and then the left, a sign of reverence. He has been in Chandigarh for over a decade, is an ustad himself, but nearing retirement. Five-decade-old lungs aren’t strong enough to play the lip-vibrated brass instruments.
“Not all brass instruments are made of the metal you know,” interrupts Gias-ud-Din. “It is more like the type of sound they produce, like it’s coming out of a metal tube or something. In my hometown, I’ve seen those made of wood even.” His hometown is Bulandshahr in UP. He says brass bands get respect there, though he had to shift “because my wife’s mother lives in Panchkula”.
What did you mean by respect? “Well, here the work finishes at the gates, up to the point where girls are standing all decked up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. There’s no food for the band.
People dance and forget.”
It’s different where he comes from. “There is a stall for food for the band, if not chairs and even booze. Small towns are better in those kinds of things. Only the money is better here.”
His tiredness contrasts with the chirpiness of Raj and Rajesh, junior members. The 15-year-olds don’t bother with last names, and speak almost in unison, like kids who are best friends usually do. “We play the chhaina (rattler),” they say. They get Rs 200 for a wedding, usually a two-hour job. It goes up to Rs 500 depending on the instrument and seniority. “Some bands pay even more. Some even have dancers, who are girls,” they say. “But we are in school, you see. This is just for time-pass,” says Raj. “We get money for movies and stuff,” adds Rajesh. “Plus, when we wear the uniform, we look like some kind of army!”
But one man stands out. He is the only one not in uniform. Natty in a black suit and tie, Vikki plays the trumpet. “It is the trumpet that decides which songs will play,” he says proudly. He is a full-time employee and the only trumpet player other than the owner, who is at another wedding.
Ask him about life in a band and he gets straight to the point: “No one sets out to be become a brass band player; it’s one of those things you do when you can’t get a job in an air-conditioned office.” But he is not bitter. “It’s a fun gig, mostly.”
Besides weddings, they also do funerals, part of the tradition when someone very old passes away, and religious processions of all kinds.
How many songs does a band learn then? “Well, if we add up everything — weddings of different traditions, funerals and other processions — we usually have around 35-40 songs ready. It takes a lot of rehearsals.”
That must be tough.
He laughs, “Aasaan hai, eentein uthaane se aasaan hai (It’s easy, easier than carrying bricks).”