Looking back at 'Band, Baja & Barat' in war and in peace in Kumaon

Till the advent of the Altaf Band, well to do families in the hills were in the habit of hiring local trumpet players, drummers and players of a version of bagpipes known as Mashaq Been

Looking back at 'Band, Baja & Barat' in war and in peace in Kumaon
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Mrinal Pande

Wars it seems, are not complete without music adding to the excitement!

Native kings and princes went to war accompanied by a posse of royal drummers and trumpet players. As empires became bigger, so did the wars. Dancing girls and singers were gradually added to presumably entertain the jaded soldiers.

The British, when they arrived and raised native armies in India, frowned on the inclusion of courtesans and hermaphrodites in the Queen’s army. So, they sent a large number of musicians and dancing girls packing, replacing them with bands playing martial tunes.

Almora in Kumaon still has a village Naikyana where some of the Nayikas (courtesans) were said to have settled after the Moghul and Rajput armies were defeated and fled to the hinterland. The women, as I remember, certainly looked different from local women with tall and lissome bodies and acquiline noses. They were uninhibited, drank and smoked and young men from surrounding areas were frequently seen loitering around the village.

The British introduced brass bands and bagpipers that played British martial tunes as they marched with the regiments on all ceremonial occasions, resplendent in red and gold braided gear. Almost a hundred years ago (by 1918 to be precise), all units of the Indian Army, including the ones in Kumaon, had acquired their own brass bands.

The British not only disbanded the musical troupes but also the makers of arms patronised by the native rulers. Most of them were Muslims and sought refuge in the northern areas close to Delhi and in the foothills of the Himalayan region where Rohilla Pathans had vast tracts of land. Then they set about reinventing themselves by using their considerable skills to manufacture finished goods for civilians. These goods ranged from scissors and padlocks to brass band components.

Slowly, as frequency of wars declined, the brass bands began to offer their services for a price, for joyous occasions like weddings, the birth of a son and last but not the least, funerals of centenarians who had enjoyed a full life.

On the eve of India’s Independence, one Sagir Ahmed of Nagla village in Bijnor happened to marry a girl from Pithoragarh district in the Kumaon hills. He was a trained clarinet player and when he moved to Haldwani to enable his wife to visit her family more easily, he formed a brass band group and named it after their first born Altaf. Thus was born the famous Altaf Band of Kumaon, without which no wedding procession was considered respectable or elitist enough.

Till the advent of the Altaf Band, well to do families in the hills were in the habit of hiring local trumpet players, drummers and players of a version of bagpipes known as Mashaq Been. Marching with wedding processions in the hills was much more stressful though than marching in the plains with an army.

The usual rates for the bands ranged from Rs 2 to Rs 25 per person. But when invited to play with wedding processions in the hills, the rates were hiked considerably as processions moved on foot on unpaved roads and had to climb up steep hills to reach their destination. It was during one such event that Altaf Master is said to have collapsed with a massive heart attack.

After Altaf, his younger brother Talib Husein formed the Azad Band. The members of this group met in the orchards facing the local Zenana hospital to practise new ditties, mostly from Hindi films that were becoming a rage.

My brothers and I once rolled with mirth on the floor when we heard the band playing a rather unsuitable film song when accompanying a new bride going to her father in law’s house with the groom: ‘Hum aaj apni maut ka samaan le chaley!’ (Today we carry that which shall destroy us !).


By the late 70s, the police and army bands were much sought after by government officials to celebrate family weddings. I remember being awed by the sight of the tall band master from the police lines twirling his baton on 15th August in the Raj Bhawan premises.

Master Ram Singh, from the Ranikhet Paltan and his pet ram that accompanied him to Nainital each summer to play before the tourists under a gazebo, became a household name. As the gifted Ram Singh got his team to play popular songs along with age old Kumaoni hits like ‘Bedu Pako Baraomasa Kaafal pako Chaita meri Chhaila !’ (The Bedu fruits ripen all year long my love, but the delicate Kaafal berries can be picked only in spring time), his ram danced and sent us into raptures. It always ended in dizzying rounds of applause.

It was Ram Singh who introduced the Kumaoni folk ditties in the permanent repertoire of India’s army bands. During the Beating the Retreat ceremony each January, one is moved to tears to hear the band play Master Ram Singh’s creations as the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the surrounding buildings are lit up and the bands retreat gently back to their barracks.

(The writer is an author, columnist and editor and former chairperson of Prasar Bharti)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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