Strolling down the Mahatma Gandhi Road from the College Street end towards Howrah Tram Depot in the vibrance of the Kolkata metropolis, one can spot a unique world of orchestral cacophony. Little shops from the colonial days of the British showcase a wide array of musical instruments and jazzy uniforms of starking colours with gilded studs and Zari strips. Lining the bustling pavements on both sides of the busy street, they stand testament to a vanishing era of classical music. While snoozing old owners and staff doze on rickety wooden stools, impoverished young Indian musicians of a gasping profession practice on various musical instruments honing their skills.
At one corner of this hustling sea of tussling humanity and chocking traffic stands a hundred-and-twenty-one-year-old orchestral shop featuring a crumbling hoarding with bevelled wooden alphabets spelling out “Manna Band Party.” Forty-one-year-old Muslim bandmaster Arman Ali stood inside the eight by ten feet little shop with his back against the plaster-pealed damp wall, playing his saxophone to the tune of a Hindi love song from a classic Bollywood hit.
A beautiful Hindu Bengali lady in her late thirties sat on an old leather recliner behind the antique mahogany desk of the shop, mesmerisingly listening to Arman play her favourite music. Anita Manna was the fourth-generation owner of the “Manna Band Party,” one of the forty to forty-five last surviving orchestral shops or Band-Baja-Wallas (musical band parties) for hire to play music at Indian functions and weddings.
“Listening to you play always cheers me up, even in the face of the worst of adversities,” said Anita as Arman finished the tune bringing down the sax from his lips. “When I play for you, it’s just something else. Wish I could play with the same intensity at the weddings,” regretfully spoke up Arman packing the hundred-year-old saxophone into its weathered leather casing. “What is the matter Anita, tell me what has been troubling you lately,” enquired Arman with a gleam of concern in his eyes?
“During its hay days, a hundred and fifty musicians were on my father’s payroll. Now I can barely manage to pay just the thirty of you,” softly spoke Anita as a drop of tear rolled down her rosy cheek. She was quick to wipe it off and hide her emotions as everyone knew her to be a strong-willed lady. A person who took on the reigns of her family business due to her father’s sudden demise when she was just eighteen. She even chose to remain a spinster to get the three of her younger sisters married.
After years of entertaining Indian families on various joyous occasions, festivals, and weddings, the CPI-M State Government had cancelled the road permit of the orchestral parties for a spell of more than forty-four years during their Communist rule in West Bengal, from 1977 to 2011. On top of being restricted to perform on the streets for nearly four and a half decades, various factors such as the evolution of numerous options for playing music, the rise of the grooving DJs, and shifts in generational tastes had caused the gradual demise of the Band-Wallas booming business.
Many of the Band shops, dotted across the Mahatma Gandhi Road, set up since before the Indian Independence, gradually brought down their shutters permanently. Those that remained struggled to survive in the modern world of constantly evolving technology.
The Band-Wallas were in great demand during immersions and weddings and forgotten soon after the festive seasons. Like flowers in spring, they blossomed for a short time. Most of the musicians, who came from the rural hinterland of the predominantly poverty-stricken states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, sold fruits and vegetables, pulled rickshaws, pedalled cycle vans, and did odd jobs to sustain themselves during the off seasons.
“I don’t know for how long I will be able to hold on to the shop. I need to arrange for a lot of money pretty soon to sustain the Band. My sisters, the business, the musicians, I am sick and tired of taking care of everyone and everything else. Far too long have I lived for others. It’s high time for me to look into my happiness,” cried out Anita, unable to control her tears this time.
“Your happiness means more than the world to me. Whatever you decide, I will always be by your side,” said Arman to Anita. The Bihari Muslim bandmaster and his Bengali Hindu employer were in love but had never confessed. Both of them kept their feeling for each other buried deep in their hearts. Both of them knew that various factors such as their geographical origin, race, religion, social status, family background, and employer-employee relation would never allow them to unite.
“I have finally accepted Omoresh’s proposal. We are to get married in November. That man has been infatuated with me from my school days. I know he will do anything for me and always keep me happy,” spoke up Anita, this time controlling any tear in her eyes and tremble in her voice.
Omoresh Auddy was the fourth-generation owner of the “Auddy & Sons,” a well-established jewellery shop doing good business on the opposite footpath of the “Manna Band Party.” Omoresh, who was of the same age as Arman, was also madly in love with Anita. He had been proposing to her for the past two decades but in vain. Now, finally, after all this while, it seemed that his bachelor fantasy was about to turn into marital reality.
“Get on your feet, you dimwits. Just three months are left for Anita didi’s (sister’s) marriage. This must be the best performance we have ever made. I want you guys to practice at least six hours a day after attending your day jobs. I will give all of you an additional bonus from my personal savings. This is our chance not only to repay Anita didi for all the good she has done for us over the years but also to make a name for ourselves. It is going to be the first marriage of the season. We need to make a big impression,” spoke Arman to his band of fruit-selling, rickshaw-pulling part-time musicians.
Over the next three months, Bandmaster Arman dedicated all his being to arranging for the best possible wedding for the woman he admired and worshipped. To him, his own desires were irrelevant in comparison to her happiness. After all, throughout her life, the woman had only lived for the good of others. He thanked Allah for finally putting some sense in her head to look out for her own happiness for a change. Though somewhere deep in his heart, he could not believe that the ever-sacrificing Anita was thinking about her own interest.
From brass instruments of trumpets, french horns, tubas, trombones, and saxophones, to percussions such as drums, cymbals, maracas, congas, and bongos, to strings like guitars, violins, banjos, and even a cello, bandmaster Arman had gathered a group like never before. Indian instruments such as shehnais, tablas, dholkis and even a sarod were also part of this musical lore. All the musicians had a lot of respect for their beloved Anita didi and took it up as a personal goal to practice day and night to give a magnificent performance, the likes of which they had never done before.
On the morning of the marriage, Arman shed all the tears that he could in the solitary confines of his small room at the back of the shop on the MG Road. He did not want to display any embarrassing emotions during the wedding of course. At about the same time Anita too tried her best to drain the last of her love-tears to prepare for the rigmaroles of the day that was about to change her life forevermore.
That day the musicians of the “Manna Band Party,” simply played beyond what any street orchestra could perhaps ever do. They played throughout the day, at the wedding hall in the morning as close family members and friends arrived. They played when the people ate in the dining hall in the afternoon. They played in the streets in the evening as the guests came and gave their ultimate performance when the groom strode on his white horse with a procession of dancing men and women.
Usually, not much heed is paid to the Band-Wallas during the wedding, but that evening’s performance was so surreal and breathtaking that everyone was spellbound to hear the “Manna Band Party” play. Right from the tiniest of toddlers to the eighty-year-old granny – every friend, family, guest, and even onlookers grooved with the music.
The usual Bollywood numbers just sounded very different from what any band had ever played. Not only did the music ignite a sense of nostalgia but stirred the happiest of emotions in everyone present. There were ups and downs, moments to madly dance, moments to gently saw, and even spells to simply stand still in mesmerising calmness, absorbing the subtle emotions the music conveyed.
It was like a mixed experience of being at a concert at Woodstock and listening to a classical performance at the Carnegie Hall at the same moment. It was an orchestral performance that the people of Kolkata had never witnessed. At the evening’s reception party just before dinner, Bandmaster Arman’s solo performance of Anita’s favourite number on his saxophone brought tears to the eyes of everyone present.
Seven days after the marriage, one morning Anita came to the shop. She had just returned from a short honeymoon trip to Goa and was settling with a new man in a new home to begin a new life. Sitting on the old leather recliner Anita handed over a large brown paper envelope to Arman across the antique mahogany table. The bandmaster opened it to find a brand-new set of legal papers, the ownership deed to the shop in the name of Arman Ali and a cheque of rupees twelve lakhs drawn by “Auddy & Sons” in favour of “Manna Band Party.”
“You have never refused whatever I have always desired, and I would plead with you to keep this last request. I have transferred the ownership of the shop to your name. You deserve it more than I do. You have always trained the musicians and managed the business. I was just a college girl of eighteen when I took over the business. I could not have run the business without your constant support and guidance. You contribute more than I ever could. Omoresh had agreed to pay this cheque of rupees twelve lakhs to save the band if I agreed to marry him and sever all my ties with you and the “Manna Band Party.” It was the only logical path to save the shop, you, the musicians and the business,” softly spoke Anita as droplets of mixed emotions streaked down her rosy cheeks.
Arman took out a small envelope from his pocket and handed it over to Anita, who opened it to find twenty-four other cheques of rupees fifty thousand each, adding up to a sum of rupees twelve lakhs, drawn in favour of the “Manna Band Party” by the owners of the Deepalaya, one of the most booming marriage halls in the city.
“You see, the band’s performance on the night of your marriage had blown away Mr. Deep Adhikary, the owner of the Deepalaya marriage hall, who was a guest at the wedding. He called me to his office three days after the wedding and handed over these twenty-four cheques of rupees fifty thousand each dated on the first of every month for the next twenty-four months, in favour of the “Manna Band Party” along with a contract for two years to perform at all events in his ceremony hall. He said that I could convince you to sign the deal. The contract only needs the signature of the owner of the “Manna band Part,” said Arman to Anita as tears continued flowing down both of their eyes.
“So, after all, it was not your happiness that you were looking out for. Like always and everything else with you, you agreed to marry Omoresh for me and the musicians to prosper and grow. I was a fool to believe that you could finally think about your own happiness. The great Anita didi had to be the one to sacrifice her desires for all of our good,” spoke up Arman with mixed emotions of anger, love, and admiration.
With the cheques from Omoresh Auddy and Deep Adhikary, the “Manna Band Party” now had a seed capital of rupees twelve lakhs, and a monthly income of rupees fifty thousand for the next two years. On top of that, they had guaranteed gigs at the Deepalaya Marriage Hall. It was a straight assurance of rupees twenty-four lakhs to carry on their business in much prosperity.
When Anita’s son was born one-and-a-half years after her marriage, Arman drew up a secret deed transferring the “Manna Band Party” to the newborn’s name. He decided to remain the custodian of the business till Anita’s son was of the right age.
Anita and Arman were never united as lovers. Their relation took a sacrificial path blossoming for the good of others. Eventually, with time both of them prospered much. They got blessed by the many Bandwalls, whose lives and livelihood were cemented through the sacrifice of love that they made.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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