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Meerut instrumental, hitting the right notes

A small, nondescript neighbourhood in Meerut provides 95 per cent of brass instruments to wedding bands across the country — from Kashmir to Kanyakumari

delhi Updated: Mar 18, 2018 11:18 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times, Meerut/ New Delhi
Meerut,nadir Ali & Co,wind instruments
Noor Alam tests a trumpet at Nadir Ali & Co, India’s biggest wind instrument makers in Meerut. (Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)

Dressed in a green T-shirt, Noor Alam, a short man with fine-tuned muscles, is playing ‘O saathi re, tere bina bhi kya jina’ — the popular Kishore Kumar number — on a freshly-minted trumpet.

Not happy with the pitch, he changes position of his lips on the mouthpiece and blows harder. This time, the pitch comes out perfect and he goes on to play the full song. “We don’t have a testing laboratory here, but I can instantly recognize a false note,” says Alam, an instrument tester at Nadir Ali & Co, India’s biggest and oldest wind instrument makers in Meerut, a NCR town about 50km from Delhi.

Sabir Ali, a brass instrument maker, says that the business has dwindled over the years because of government’s apathy. (Sanchit Khanna/ HT photo)

While the city is famous for its sports, scissors, and publishing industry, and of course, its pulp fiction writers, not many know that ninety-five per cent of wind instruments — trumpets, euphoniums, bugles, cornets, clarinets, used by wedding bands from Kashmir to Kanyakumari — are made in Meerut. Top bands from across the country, including those in Delhi such as Jia Band, Baldev Band and Maharaj Band, travel to a street called Jali Kothi in this western Uttar Pradesh town to buy these instruments.

Narrow, winding lanes and bylanes in the nondescript neighbourhood of tightly packed buildings boast several small musical instruments factories running out of homes, shops, basements. One can hear the sound of music as the artisans test and tune the instruments inside.

“Playing instruments made by Nadir Ali & Co. is an aspirational thing for musicians in a brass band,” says Anil Thadani, owner of Jia Band, one of Delhi’s oldest bands, which has played at several celebrity weddings. “Every wind instrument maker has his own specialty in Meerut.”

It all started in 1885, when Nadir Ali, a band leader in the British Army, took early retirement and raised his own wedding band with his cousin, Imam Buksh. Perhaps India’s first wedding band, Nadir Ali & Co was an instant hit. Soon the band started importing instruments from Europe.

Faced with custom-related problems, it decided to make its own instruments in Meerut in 1911, the year the country’s capital was shifted from
Kolkata to Delhi.

Many artistes in Jali Kothi work out of small workshops, creating instruments out of metal sheets, rods and tubes. They say that the work may look like a mechanical process, but it is more of an ‘art’. (Sanchit Khanna/ HT)

“The British Army used our bugles during World War II. Post-Independence we provided instruments for the Rashtrapati Bhawan band and the Army bands,” says Aftab Ahmad, 83, the grandson of Imam Buksh and former managing director of the company. “As our popularity grew and bands flocked to Meerut to buy instruments, some of our former employees saw an opportunity. They quit their jobs to start their own small
factories.”

By the 1950s, Jali Kothi had become a musical instruments manufacturing hub. The busy main street, where rickshaws, cars and carts today honk and jostle to find space is lined with music shops, their fronts festooned with drums and a range of gleaming trumpets and euphoniums.

Aftab, the grand old man of Meerut ’s brass instruments industry, is now retired and lives in Noida, and his son and other family members look after the company. A living encyclopedia on wind instruments, he is credited with introducing many innovations in the industry — and he loves to talk about his accomplishments. In 1959, for a year, he travelled to Turkey and other European countries, including England, home to the world’s biggest brass instruments industry, to learn new technology, processes, and machinery.

In Turkey, he says, he apprenticed at the Zildjian factory, which manufactured the most famous cymbals in the world, to understand the chemical composition of the metal they used. “I was trying to steal their trade secrets; I took notes every night about what I saw in the day. In London, I learnt to play trumpet for four months at Dineley Rehearsals Studios on Baker Street,” says Aftab, sitting at his house in Noida, which has many decorative items, including a table lamp, fashioned out of a trumpet.

A science graduate, Aftab proudly calls himself a ‘mechanic’. But dressed in a casual shirt and jeans, with a warm voice and suave manners, he looks more like a musician. But then, Aftab can play many instruments like a master. His residence also serves as his ‘laboratory -cum- office’; it also has a tool room with posters and drawings of many musical instruments on the walls.

“The problem in our country is that while managers are respected, mechanics are looked down upon. But it is these mechanics who introduce innovations and will make our country a manufacturing hub,” says Aftab.

In 1997, under him, Nadir Ali & Co entered into a joint venture with Boosey & Hawkes, the legendary British music instruments makers, and set up a factory in Gulaothi in Bulandshahr. “We learnt from each other and our instruments were exported over the world,”he says.

While Nadir Ali & Co is known for its trumpets and euphoniums, there are other manufacturers such as ‘Bashir bhai’ and Sabir Ali in Jali Kothi who are known for sousaphones. Sabir Ali, 55, who has been making the instrument for 40 years in a small workshop, says creating instruments out of metal sheets, rods and tubes may look like a mechanical process, but it is more of an ‘art’.

“An ordinary trumpet consists 170 parts. Each has to be measured to perfection to get the right sound,” says Sabir. Unlike Nadir Ali’s sprawling factory, his workshop is a small, dimly-lit space with an assortment of old and new sousaphones and trumpets hanging on the walls. The only machines he has are old, rusting grinders and cutters.

“Because of lack of funds and government support, we have been making musical instruments manually for decades. Looks like we will soon be out of business though,” says Sabir, as he
gives finishing touches to a
sousaphone.

His fear emanates from the fact that business has been dwindling and almost half of the 100 units that were operating in the area have closed down in the past few years. Mohammed Shaan, 40, who also makes sousaphones, blames it on the increasing popularity of DJs and orchestra at weddings.

“Bands from Punjab and Haryana have almost stopped buying from us. A lot of bands use Casio and synthesizers during the marriage processions instead,” he says. “Many bands cheat people; only 4-5 band members actually play the instruments, the rest only pretend to do so with old, faulty instruments. We are surviving on orders from bands in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh,” says Shaan.

The 40-odd traders in Jali Kothi who sell and export instruments, have similar tales to tell. Md Rahman, 24, an MBA who runs Rose Band Co, which sells and manufacturers brass instruments, says that he has given many presentations at various forums to make the government understand the potential of the musical instruments industry in Meerut.

“This is one area where the Chinese have failed to beat us, because their instruments are costly. On the one hand, the government talks about skill development and start-up India, on the other it is allowing the music instrument industry here to die a slow death,” says Rahman. Owais Rahmatullah, who runs Nasir Ali & Co , another trader, says, unlike the sports and scissors industry, the instrument industry, which directly and indirectly, employs 1200 people, has not been given any incentives such as loans, land, and training.

Both Rahman and Owais are now trying to survive by selling on eBay and Amazon. “Our instruments are affordable and families in the US and Europe buy them for basic music lessons for their children. We get 10 percent returns because we don’t have modern technology and our finishing is not very good,” says Owais.

Back at Nadir Ali & Co, Farhat Masud, a supervisor, shows us a storeroom with neatly packed instruments that came for repair decades back. “Many of them have stayed with us for over 80 years. If someone comes to claim them tomorrow with a receipt, we will give it to them, ” he says. “In many instances, people returned to claim instruments after 40 years,” says Masud.

The factory housed in a heritage building with a magnificent fort-like facade has been a must-visit place for people with a passion for music. “Naushad, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, BR Chopra, Muzaffar Ali all have visited our factory,” says Masud proudly.

Meanwhile, Noor Alam is testing another trumpet, this time playing, ‘Aage bhi jaane na tu’, his eyes closed like before. He clearly enjoys playing the Sahir Ludhianvi song — and his job!

First Published: Mar 18, 2018 08:37 IST