Surviving The Test of Time

Tales of desi bandwalas on keeping colonial traditions alive
  • 23 Sep - 29 Sep, 2017
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Feature

Beats of the drum pump up the atmosphere and melodies soothe my ears, as I set foot on the stairs of KMC Market, situated on Nishter Road, Garden in Karachi. While standing inside the narrowly constructed structure in the heart of the old area, I could clearly hear vehicles passing on the road, and that noise fused with the sound of musical instruments left me wondering how undeterred is the pace of this city we call home. KMC market is home to around 12 professional brass and pipe bands that operate in their small offices in this cramped age-old construction. MAG talks to a few bandwalas who tell us the tales of their survival amidst Karachi’s challenging lifestyle.

These bandwalas are not just earning to feed their families, instead, they are inadvertently keeping colonial traditions alive by performing as brass and pipe band members. In the subcontinent, the origin of military bands dates back to the time when British colonies started to multiply during the British Raj. Those serving the British army in the subcontinent were part of the British military bands back in the days. The industry flourished during their stronghold in the region; however, times changed and so did the people. After the British left, and after Pakistan eventually became an independent nation, both, brass and pipe bandwalas either started their own businesses or were hired by the police and army to become members of their respective bands. Most who ran their own businesses are now surviving the test of times, as the trend of band baja (musical instruments) is gradually waning in the modern world.

“Our work is based on seasons. When the wedding season kick-starts, we are invited to perform for the attendees; while rest of the year, we have to make do with odd jobs to make ends meet,” says Rashid, the 40-year-old owner and master of Welcome Pipe Band, whose family has been in this business for as long as he can remember.

“My ancestors have been doing this work for a very long time. My father was also a band master, while my elder brother and I, have our own shops in this very building,” he tells me, and adds, “My father’s shop is one of the oldest shops in this structure. Ever since I was born, I have seen my father and brother do this work. My brother has been working since he was 17-18 years old. And ever since I grew up, I have seen them work in these shops.”

Rashid laments how dhol players have had a negative impact on the business of brass and pipe band owners, since people find their services cheaper in cost and they are also readily available. “These dhol players have affected our business negatively because they charge just Rs. 500 for events and it really affects our work.”

I make my way into the oldest and most popular, Shop#184 in the KMC market, which is owned by Rashid’s elder brother Ghous Mohammad. Super Star Pipe Band is owned by Master Ghous Mohammad, who met with an accident 10 years ago and hasn’t led his band ever since. He is unable to talk properly, for the accident damaged his speech as well as causes hindrances in his everyday life. In a rather broken speech he tries to tell me how difficult his life has become after the accident, keeping in mind the profession he chose to pursue – that of a band master – has given him nothing but a tough life. “I am unable to do anything. I am now left paralysed, as I cannot play any instruments nor lead my band from the front. All I do now is sit here and remember the days when bandwalas were respected for their job. The only reason I am still running this shop is because my father used to work in a band and I want to carry his tradition. Else, there is nothing left in being associated with this profession,” he shares his account of endurance, as his words frequently falter.

It won’t be wrong to say that bands in Karachi are fading with time. The only times you see band members perform are during Independence Day celebrations or sometimes during weddings. Zakir, Ghous’ apprentice and a band member at the Super Star Pipe Band shares his feelings about the ordeal. “This is our work season, but now we hardly have one programme a day. We used to have a lot of bookings back in 2007 and before that. However, this work is now only limited to certain occasions. In a month, we just have 10-15 bookings, which is nothing when compared with the olden days,” he states. Performances by both brass and pipe bands are now just limited to school functions, police and military parades on days of national celebrations; services of the rest are availed on weddings or birthday celebrations, which is not a popular trend anymore.

Ghous’ 23-year-old son Mohammad Ehtesham is only helping his father run the band, however, he has no plans to carry the tradition or perform as a bandwala. “I would do anything but perform for the band. The only thing I do is take care of the accounts and deal with customers, and that too because my father isn’t able to do it. When doing this work privately, we are not given enough respect. Kids come and tease band members. People only respect those who represent government bands,” he complains. The young lad prefers doing odd jobs, which earn him more than he would make as a bandwala.

Most band members I met were working as part-timers and on daily wages, for this profession is not sufficient for their everyday expenses. They live hand to mouth, and their families too, bear the burden of their low-paying job. These bandwalas are skilled at doing their job, as most of them have spent at least 15 years to learn playing the instruments.

Mohammad Ishaq is 40 years old and has been working for the Welcome Pipe Band for the last 15 years as a side drummer and calls his work hawai rozi (uncertain income) for which he is paid Rs. 500 on a daily basis. To feed his family he also works as a part-time painter when he isn’t performing for the band.

The same floor houses the Karachi Awami Band, members of which were leaving for an out-of-town event, which is when I spoke to band master Haider Ali, who has been a bandwala for the past 45 years. “Earlier, I was serving the police band and after retirement, I started working privately. Working for a band was different earlier, now things have changed drastically, it’s not the same anymore,” he expresses his grief over compromises band members have had to make in the past decade.

“We are invited to play for weddings. We charge roughly about Rs. 12,000 and after cutting out all the expenses, we are left with a meagre sum of Rs. 6,000, which we evenly distribute among ourselves. But God helps us, as we sometimes get lucky and people give us offerings at weddings and events like birthdays that can go up to an additional Rs. 5,000.”

Every bandwala at the KMC Market has his own story to share. However, in Karachi, there are some distinct privately-held bands too, who have a different story to tell. One such band is the Agha Khan Pipe Band, operating in Karachi’s Kharadar area since 1927, by a group of community-based band performers.

I spoke to 69-year-old Pyar Ali, the band’s drummer who has been associated with them since 1972.

“I joined the band following my interest and have been serving for the last 45 years. Our band does not cater to our community alone; in fact, we offer our services to everyone. Whatever earnings we generate by performing at various events, we offer them for charity work within our community after subtracting the expenses incurred on uniform, instruments and miscellaneous band expenses,” Ali boasts about the spirit of voluntary work their band has been doing for the last 90 years, which is indeed a laudable feat.

However, most bandwalas are living in distressing conditions and want to get their message across in the corridors of power, which can not only help them lead a respectful life but also a satisfactory one in these tough times.

“I have no other job than this. We are just trying to run our houses by earning through this work. We look for jobs in the government, but officers have no interest in hiring band members anymore. Please urge the government to at least give people like us the opportunity to serve,” Basharat Hussain of the Karachi Awami Band makes an emotional appeal.