Daily Times: Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s wedding bands

By A Hamid

Until some years ago, no marriage procession in Lahore’s inner city would leave the bridegroom’s house without a street band in the lead. Some of the city’s famous bands included Master Sohni’s Band, the Babu Band and the Master Alamgir Band. Alamagir was the son of Jehangir, the famous band leader of Amritsar. Before independence, the Jehanagir Band would be invited to come all the way from Amritsar to play at Lahore’s more special weddings. Alamgir, a handsome, well-built Kashmiri, would lead the band playing the clarinet in his long black coat, buttoned at the collar, and a magnificent turban on his head. He was well-versed in classical music and despite the clarinet’s limited range, he could play any raag to perfection.

Master Sohni was ten years old when he apprenticed himself to Allah Ditta Naqarchi. He learnt the clarinet from his brother Muhammad Din and classical music from Mian Alam Din and Ustad Tawwakul Hussain. The Babu Band was based in Rang Mahal and whenever one passed in front of the band’s “baithak” one would hear its musicians rehearsing. These three top bands charged high fees and had to be booked months in advance, especially during winter and spring months when most weddings were held. Members of the band in their splendid uniforms would move gracefully single-file in two parallel lines, playing their instruments under the musical direction of their chief. So captivating was the music that as the wedding procession made its way forward, many people would just walk along to listen to the band. The favoured instrument of all three – Master Alamgir, Master Sohni, Master Babu – was the clarinet and never again has there been anyone who could play like these three accomplished men.

There was also a Kashmiri Band, which would be asked to do the honours at Kashmiri family weddings. This band originally came from Amritsar, where it was much in demand because of the large Kashmiri population of the city. After independence, it moved to Lahore but did not survive for long. It became one more casualty of Partition. The Kashmiri Band did not have any special livery or uniform. Its members preferred silk shirts, long coats and Jinnah caps. It was not a brass band, nor did it have a clarinet player, the shehnai being its favoured instrument. The band would be led by two shehnai players, with six or eight musicians behind them walking in single file, playing their instruments. The band had its own repertoire, which included folk tunes and hit film hits of the day. The Kashmiris of Lahore were not as steeped in their Kashmiri culture and heritage as the Kashmiris of Amritsar, which was why the Kashmiri Band did not last long.

My father was a wrestler but he was a great music listener and whenever he was in a wedding procession, he would walk close to Master Sohni or Master Alamgir to better enjoy their clarinet. Once I asked my father, not without a good deal of hesitation because in those days you could not take liberties with your elders, “Father, you must know all there is to know about classical music.” He replied, “Yaar, I know as much about classical music as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan knows about wrestling.”

In the old days, coins would be showered over wedding processions by friends and family members, either over the head of the bridegroom on his horse or the bride in her palanquin. When I was a child, copper paisa coins bearing Edward VII’s image were lobbed over the head of the bridegroom by elders or friends of the family as the procession threaded its way towards the bride’s house. Children would follow the celebrants, waiting for the coins to be tossed in the air. A paisa could still buy things in those days, such as lemon drops. With the passing of time, that custom has died.

In Lahore’s Anarkali, one of the most famous stores before 1947 was the Bhalla Shoe Company. I think in that spot today stands Karnal Shoe Store. It is said that the wedding procession of the owner of Bhalla Shoe Company was one of the most memorable in the city’s history. Each one of the wedding guests was given a piece of paper which entitled him to a pair of shoes of his choice from the Bhalla Shoe Company. Once my dear friend, the Punjabi writer Nawaz, and I found ourselves together in a wedding party walking towards Lohari Gate with Master Sohni’s band leading the way. I do not know much about serious music but to impress Nawaz, I asked him to request Master Sohni to next play Bhairvin on his clarinet. Nawaz walked up to the maestro and came back after whispering to him. “What did Master Sohni say?” I asked . Nawaz replied, “He said that exactly is what he has been playing.”

My memories of Lahore are so intertwined that while I recall one thing or person, other incidents and people emerge from the mists of the past as if it were only yesterday that I was with them. I think of that poet of poets, Majid Amjad. Whenever he would come to Lahore, he would stay at Hotel Indus on the Mall, where Munir Niazi and I would go to see him. I may not have known much about music but I had a good voice and I would sometimes sing what I thought was the raag Darbari. I would often do so when Majid Amjad was in town and we were stitting in his hotel room drinking tea. Once when I hummed it to Tassaduq Ali Jani, the youngest brother of Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan, he took his head in his hands and said, “For God’s sake, don’t sing this to anyone who knows anything about music because it is not Darbari.” “Then what is it?” I asked. “Only God knows what it is but Darbari, you can be sure, it is not.” I also realised then that Majid Amjad who used to love my “Darbari” knew as much about music as I did.

But to return to Lahore’s bands, apart from the Big Three, there were numerous minor bands which would play at less snooty weddings. Their clients would often take them to Lahore’s neighbouring townlets and larger villages. The musicians who played in these bands were not very smartly turned out but they made a living and were fed with other members of the wedding party by the bride’s family.

The more “modern” and affluent families of Lahore would manage to have an army brass band play at their weddings but with a difference. The army band would not march ahead of the wedding procession, but play after the wedding party had arrived at the bride’s home. However, with time, there is less and less of that and more and more of ostentation and vulgar display of wealth, probably ill-earned.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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