A murder involving two band members has brought the spotlight on wedding bandwallahs — a largely unregulated, unorganised army that comes together every night to march on empty stomachs, with poor pay and no security. As another wedding season comes around, The Indian Express captures their lives unseen in the glitter.
On nights such as this one, Sonu Gupta doesn’t have a face. Neither do Narsi Bhagat and Mohammad Javed. They are the bandwallahs, a tribe so customary to weddings in Delhi and its suburbs that they have long stopped being visible. All you see are their shiny, ill-fitting costumes with epaulettes, their oversized instruments strapped across their bodies and the military caps — everything but their faces.
It’s 2 pm on a Monday, one of the 40-odd days decreed ‘auspicious’ in Delhi’s wedding season called sawa or lagan. Gupta, 50, a rickshaw puller, has just dropped his last sawari at Sector 27 in Noida. Narsi Bhagat, 52, has packed up his cart at the Harola vegetable market and, Javed, 19, has just completed his eight-hour shift at a clothes factory in Sector 6. In a few hours from now, Gupta, Bhagat and Javed will slip into their new roles — Gupta as the brass player, Bhagat with his jhun-jhuna (rattle) and Javed as the drummer — with Great Bharat Band, one of the seven-odd bands in Noida.
On February 9, one such band from Nand Nagri in northeast Delhi was playing at a farmhouse wedding in Ghaziabad’s Vasundhra, when the revelry was disrupted by the sound of gunshots. Band master Mohammad Abrar, 28, had been gunned down over sharing of the baksheesh (tip) of Rs 500, allegedly by drummer Sajid.
“This is the first time such a murder has happened. Two of the drummers, Deepak and Gulfam, have been arrested; Sajid and Neeraj are at large. Sajid is from Sundar Nagri in Delhi and has several other cases against him,” says Pawan Kumar, the investigating officer and the additional SHO at the Indirapuram police station where the case was registered.
In the largely unorganised world of bandwallahs, the incident didn’t travel much beyond Nand Nagri, a resettlement colony that is home to around 15 wedding bands.
“Our family owned the band and Abrar was its bandmaster,” says Abrar’s uncle Mohammad Shahid, who now runs the band business. “We were handling three weddings that night and fell short of drummers. We have known our band members for over 10 years but didn’t know anything about the new drummers. When they asked for the Rs-500 tip to be shared, Abrar told them that they can come to the shop the next day. Anway, the tip belongs to those who lay their hands on it and these boys didn’t know that. He took Abrar to a corner and shot him,” says the 45-year-old while insisting that the name of his band not be revealed. “We will lose out on business. Word has already spread.”
Nearly 30 km away, in Noida’s Sector 5 market, another hub for wedding bands, few have heard of the Ghaziabad incident.
A little after 2.30 pm, as a sharp winter sun beats down, the sleepy Noida market comes to life. Here, oversized boards announce the names of bands — ‘Samrat Band’, ‘Gupta Band’ and ‘Great Bharat Band’. Most of them have come up since 2000, when traditional band markets in Delhi, such as the ones in Old Delhi and Karol Bagh, reached saturation levels and the business found space on the city’s fringes.
At the grimy room that is the ‘office’ of Great Bharat Band, rickshaw pullers, factory workers, vegetable vendors, auto drivers, labourers and students begin streaming in, passively slipping into their new roles. Gupta is here too.
Soon, musical instruments are pulled out of trunks, spangled velvet outfits are piled up outside shops and tempos begin to line up near the open drain adjoining the market. As the band members arrive, Sanjay ‘Saawan’ Sisodia, owner of Great Bharat Band, swings into action. Leafing through a well-thumbed register, he hollers out instructions on tonight’s events, mostly in Noida and east Delhi, to three separate groups of 25-30 men each.
“Arriving on time is crucial. Though the baraat doesn’t depart before 8 pm, our men have to reach by 4 pm. Sometimes the baraatis insist that we be there for other rituals,” says Sisodia, whose father started the business nearly 10 years ago. He claims to send out bands to at least “50 weddings a year” and says he has about “80 men” working for him. “Many of these boys have been with me for years,” says Sisodia.
Gupta says he has been playing the brass for Sisodia’s band for about five years. Sitting on his haunches outside the shop, Gupta, who is now in his uniform with his hands wrapped around his brass instrument, talks through rings of his beedi smoke.
“I came to the city 20 years ago from Bihar’s Samastipur. Saara gaon Dilli ja raha tha (The entire village was leaving for Delhi). I worked on other people’s fields and there was barely any money. After the children were born, I sat on the Bihar Sampark Kranti Superfast Express and came to Delhi with a few other men. I had only Rs 500 with me,” he says, adding that his home now is a room, which he shares with three other auto drivers, in a crumbling four-storey building behind Noida’s Atta market.
It’s Javed’s story too. And Bhagat’s and that of the others at Great Bharat Band — of a journey made to the big city, of days spent struggling, of nights dressed in “funny” band uniforms, drowning their hunger with chai and tobacco.
Gupta earns Rs 250 a day from riding his rickshaw and sends home Rs 2,000 a month. His two daughters are married and his sons, 14 and 17, go to school. The money earned during the wedding season is a useful addition to his income. “We get Rs 500 for a day’s work with the band and collect the sum at the end of the wedding season, after playing at 10-12 events,” he says. He hadn’t heard of the Ghaziabad incident but he isn’t surprised at what happened.
“Usually, the guests toss shagun money while dancing in the baraat and whoever grabs it gets to keep it. The younger boys usually get it — they are faster and more aggressive… Par kisi ne kabhi goli nahin chalayi (But no one has ever opened fire),” he says.
Near him, Javed, the drummer, is stepping into his thick velvet trousers, complaining about the heat. Bhagat, his jhun-jhuna tied around his neck, is struggling with his hat that is falling off. As he sits down near Gupta, Bhagat, a father of four from Mathura, says, “Vahiyaat kaam hai… Har aadmi akela hai (It’s a demeaning job… Every man is alone). We wear funny clothes and people often make fun of us. There is no respect…”
Mid-sentence, Bhagat is startled by an angry yell from band master Faqruddin, 57. “Chalo utho, samaan load karvao, gaadi mein baitho (Get up, load the generator and instruments, sit in the vehicle),” he orders. The men, about 10 of them, hurriedly stub their beedis and scramble towards the vehicle. They are joined by the ‘light boys’, a group of eight children between 12 and 16 years, most of whom have reported to work after school.
The drums, trumpets, brass, trombones, French horns, rattles and bugles are squeezed into the open tempo, along with the generator, battery, banners and, finally, the men and children. Some sit on their haunches, others peer out through the rails for some air.
Their destination this evening is the Community Centre in Sector 71. “Pata nahin kiski shaadi hai. Card nahin diya hamein (I don’t know whose wedding it is… We didn’t get the wedding card),” jokes Gupta, as the vehicle takes off.
4 pm. At the Sector 71 wedding venue, the only sound is that of hammer pounding iron as labourers put up tents. Members of Great Bharat Band settle down in a ground abutting the Community Centre, leaving their instruments in the tempo. Some light up their beedis again, others lie down for a nap.
Gupta walks up to the nearby chola-kulcha cart for a quick bite and some tea. “At least we have some place to sit today; most days we simply squat on the pavement or remain standing for hours,” he says.
Between mouthfuls of his spicy meal, he says, “We are part of the most important day in a person’s life, but most of them don’t even offer us food. There is no water either and bottled water is too expensive. I have heard that the food in Delhi-NCR weddings is very expensive, between Rs 1,000 and 1,500 a plate. Some of the smaller weddings in nearby villages are better. They sometimes give us food and water.”
At the ground, Javed, the youngest and newest band member, leans on a wall in a corner, gently beating his drum. He is yet to make friends in the group.
Told about the Ghaziabad incident, Javed too says he is not surprised. “We all work for money, don’t we? The drums are heavy and so the drummers can never bend down to get the cash tossed by the baraati. Maybe he was frustrated…,” says Javed, referring to the drummer who allegedly shot the bandmaster. “Luckily, this has never happened in Noida,” he adds.
An anxious Faqruddin is pacing in the park, co-ordinating with the buggy driver and the groom’s family. The light boys make a dash to the children’s park across the street. Some of them swing from tree branches, others settle on a bench to watch other children playing cricket.
Sushant Singh, 12, is one of the ‘light boys’. “Dhai sau rupaye milte hain din ke (I get Rs 250 for a day’s work). We simply have to hold the umbrellas (with fairly lights streaming down their edges) for an hour or so. On nights that we go for one baraat, we usually work till 10 pm; some nights, we work till 2 am,” says the Class 5 student, adding that on mornings after such late hours, he struggles to wake up in time for school.
Now popping a ber (jujube fruit) in his mouth as he watches the ‘match’, Sushant says, “On most days, we carry marbles and wickets to play. Today I haven’t got any.”
Soon, the buggy arrives with two mares, Shabbo and Bhuri, and the children rush towards it. Faqruddin reprimands the rider, Rajkumar, 22, for the delay and instructs him to begin decorating the vehicle.
He then settles down on the ground near the buggy, and talks about himself — how he has been in the business since he was 12, that he travels to Noida from his home in Dadri every day during the wedding season and that he earns Rs 65,000 a year. He hadn’t heard of the Ghaziabad incident either.
“None of us take home any money after a wedding, except of course the bakshish you may get. We get our payments at the end of the month. Fights are common over tips, but I am tough with the boys. They respect me and listen to me… But yes, if someone has just landed from the village and does not understand the business, he may get violent,” he says.
And there are many who “land from villages”, says Faqruddin. “They come in hordes from UP, Bihar… All desperate for work, just like I was after my parents passed away when I was 10,” he says.
Between September and October, ahead of the wedding season, Faqruddin trains these new boys for 10-15 days. “We bring a tape recorder with songs and conduct trials. The boys try all the instruments, one by one, and then we select them. Of the 50 or so boys who come to us, around 10-15 are rejected. Over the years, we have settled on five-seven players,” says Faqruddin.
Just then, Shabbo gives him a mild kick. Faqruddin frowns and slips into a contemplative mood. “But the band business will always be there. Agar duniya mein gareeb aadmi nahin honge toh ameeron ko sunega kaun (If there are no poor men, who will listen to the rich)? The world will always need the poor to do their jobs.”
Around 7 pm, band owner Sisodia arrives at the venue for his daily rounds. On seeing him, most of the members line up near the buggy, the children lift their umbrellas and one of the older boys begins doing a “light check”.
“This is a medium-scale wedding, so we will make about Rs 20,000,” says Sisodia, before turning to his men and announcing that the baraati will arrive in an hour.
“Phir toh saadhe-aath baje aayegenge (Then they’ll be here only at 8.30 pm),” laughs ‘light boy’ Sushant.
The groom has arrived at the Sector 71 wedding venue. The ‘Great Bharat Band’ banner is now lit up and Gupta, Javed and Bhagat have taken their positions behind band master Faqruddin. Sushant Singh and friends are holding up their lit umbrellas, their scrawny bodies wrapped around the long handles.
But just as Faqruddin instructs his team to play ‘Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai’ with a swish of his hand, a ‘DJ van’ arrives and takes its position in front of the band. The DJs — with blonde, spiked hair and in slim fit T-shirts and ripped jeans — a new arrival on Delhi’s wedding scene, sit atop the driver’s cabin, their laptops open. Within minutes, Guru Randhawa, Mika Singh and Hardy Sandhu blaring out from the laptop have drowned out Mohammad Rafi.
The groom’s family and friends, who had just begun dancing to Aaj mere yaar…, move ahead of the band, position themselves behind the van and dance to the DJ’s tunes. Members of the Great Bharat Band watch impassively. They continue playing their instruments with straight faces, their music drowned out by the DJ’s songs. Faqruddin doesn’t give up, however, continuing to sway his hands with the flourish of an orchestra conductor.
Just then, someone in the baraat tosses a few Rs 10 notes. Both Gupta and Bhagat dive into the crowd of revellers and land one note each. Javed, the drummer, is too far behind and doesn’t move. After at least five such leaps, Gupta, smiling and shoving a bunch of crumpled Rs 20 and Rs 10 notes into his pocket, says, “At least this year there is shagun money. After notebandi, people had stopped the ceremony completely.”
The baraat takes an hour to cover a 500-metre distance. As they near the Community Centre, the DJ’s music still on, the band members look defeated. They walk along, faces blank, instruments quiet.
At 10 pm, the procession enters the venue, leaving only the band members behind. It’s the end of another day’s work at Great Bharat Band. The tempo arrives and the drill is repeated — instruments go in first, followed by the generator and finally, the men and the boys.
At 8 the next morning, it’s all quiet at the Sector 27 market in Noida, except for a few sweepers at work. In one corner, Gupta is sitting on his rickshaw, waiting for his “daily ki sawari”. A pair of grey trousers, an off-white shirt and plastic sandals have replaced his sequinned attire of last night. He smiles, “Ab rickshaw-wallah chamkeela kapda toh nahin pehnega (You won’t spot a rickshaw puller in sequinned clothes).”
An industry with no regulation, checks
In the absence of a reliable count of the number of wedding bands or the number of people who work for these businesses in Delhi and the larger National Capital Region, many blame incidents such as those in Ghaziabad — when a drummer from a Nand Nagri band allegedly gunned down the bandmaster — on the unorganised, unregulated nature of the industry.
Devraj Pal, the 45-year-old owner of Shiv Shakti Band, one of the 15 bands in Nand Nagri, says the incident left band owners in the region shocked. “I have already told some of my customers that we have only one drummer and can’t get any more. All these boys, with no education and no jobs, land from nearby villages. They are barely 14-15 years old, get drunk and turn violent,” says Pal, who says he gets booked for about 20 weddings a year.
“This is the first time that that we have felt the need for an association like in Old Delhi,” he adds.
The Delhi Band Association (DBA), which has its office in Chandni Chowk, was established in the early ’70s. Around 18 bands from Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh are part of the DBA.
Sanjay Sharma, 53, secretary of the DBA and the owner of ‘Master Band’, one of the oldest bands in Chandni Chowk, says the wedding season often leaves band owners stretched. “It’s all the doing of priests,” he says, pointing out how, over the past few years, the number of “auspicious” wedding dates has come down, putting “a lot of pressure” on the bands. “From 150 days in a year, we now have weddings on only about 40 days. These priests want to make a fast buck. So that’s why you sometimes hear of 3,000 weddings on a single day. While the older players don’t handle more than three weddings a day, the newer bands hire just about anybody for the job. That is when such incidents happen,” says Sharma.
He says the “other problem” is that there are no background checks. “There was a time when only descendants of certain families, like the Sheikhs of UP, would become band members. They were artistes. They would play only for one band,” he says.
Ashok Kriplani, 50, of ‘Shiv Mohan Band’, which has branches in Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh, notes that since the band business is a seasonal one, “there can be no regulation”. “We have three-month tie-ups with contractors who supply us these boys. We have no control over what they do for the rest of the year,” says Kriplani, who is also a member of the DBA.
Little is known about the origins of the wedding-band tradition in the Capital. Academic and historian Sohail Hashmi, who has grown up in Delhi, says, “Shehnai has been part of our weddings for centuries. The military bands came with the British and played on ceremonial occasions. Over the years, that tradition was adapted to weddings,” he says.