From ploughing fields to blowing trumpets...

Identity crisis

Earlier this week, Sunil counted the Rs 1,200 notes he had got as wages, and pushed the notes  into his trouser pocket – only to quickly pull them out. He had rubbed the crispy notes against the burn on his thigh. “I am usually good at what I do but last night I burnt myself,” said the 28-year-old pointing towards his right thigh. He makes sure that his burn injuries are not noticed by his master who sits just a few feet away and is paying off the remaining members of the New Ram Band, a night after their performance at a wedding in the posh Chhattarpur farms.

“If anyone sees my injuries, it will send out a bad message about me as a ‘performer’,” Sunil said. He is the lone ‘fire breather’ of the New Ram Band and prides himself to have been in the business since he was aged 10. 

“Most of the money will be spent on my medication and purchasing kerosene oil for the next performance which could be days from now,” he smilingly says before heading towards Connaught Place, wh­­­ere during the day, he clea­ns ears of shoppers. “Ustad Sultan Khan, himself taught me fire breathing,” he had earlier declared indicating that his mentor is quite a name in the Molarband Extension of Badarpur, an area known for housing Delhi’s bandwallahs.

Sunil, who now shares a room with three other people in Lajpat Nagar, is a native of Bhadra in Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan, where his grandfather, and for some time, his father, were employ­ed by a zamindar to plough fields. There are many like him in Molarband, where bandwallahs, sing and perfo­rm all night and spend their day either doing their second job or discussing how bad it is to be a bandwallah these days. Everyone has a story to tell.

“While performing at the weddings of the rich, we never expect food to be served to us, however, a few days ago we got late and we asked for a meal. It was 2 am and we were told that per plate costs Rs 1,400,” says Rakesh Nath Sapera. He also said that he, and many other bandwallahs were in fact snake charmers who were forced to become what they are now, after the government tightened the screws on them citing violation of animal rights.

While a lot of these bands consist of former snake charmers, who technically still are in the ‘business of performances’, an overwhelming number of the members were either farmers or belonged to a family of farmers.

Shiv’s father owned a piece of land, in Rajasthan, and was destined to work on it before he decided to embark on his journey to live and earn in a ‘big city’. “There is no profit in farming. We can go hungry for days,” he said. Shiv now operates the ‘sound rehdi’ , a trolley on which the sound system is placed. “Money, of course is not easy here and we only earn in a season which starts in November and ends in July. But at least we earn enough to survive,” said Shiv.

Mohammad Akhtar, owner of the Ajanta Sevak Band, one of the largest of bands here (80 troupe members) says that he prefers to perform in ‘weddings of the poor’. “After the baraati’s enter the premises, we are told to stay outside. When we ask for our fee people take offence and say ‘how dare you ask for money here. Come to our home and we will give you inaam (prize),” says Akhtar and adds, “We work hard all night, not for a prize but for our right to decent living,” Akhtar says.

He adds that the costs incurred in maintenance of instruments and horses is getting quite a lot for him but business is good, owing to the fetish people have for ‘big fat weddings’. “We get a lot of business but I personally prefer not to go beyond the Ashram area, that’s where the rich live. Also, we have to pay bribes to travel during the night,” says Akhtar. “Here in these areas, the poor ask for our services but they pay on time. They respect us for what we do and who we are. We so­metimes don’t charge them at all,” he adds.

Bands here, depending upon the economic status of their customers, can charge anything between Rs 5,000 to 15,000. The money is divided among the band members who are hired by masters like Akhtar  after holding ‘auditio­ns’. “We almost take everyone coming for the auditions. I kn­ow they are not professional musicians but they are poor and hardworking,” Akhtar say­s, adding, “That tragically is their only qualification”.

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