Bajantris, the traditional band party in Himachal, now looking to work as daily wagers

Baaja is the soul of every pahadi wedding. With the COVID-19 lockdown, bajantris have lost their only source of income. Some are looking to work in apple orchards, others as MGNREGA labourers.

Saurabh Chauhan
| Updated: Last updated on August 21st, 2020,

A traditional band party performing in Himachal's Kullu. Photo: Mandi district administration website

The first thing Rajesh Chauhan’s family did after finalising his wedding date was booking the traditional pahadi band party, bajantri, nearly six months in advance. However, things didn’t go as planned for Chauhan, a resident of Kotgarh region of Himachal Pradesh’s Shimla. With the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic situation, the beats and tunes of baaja (traditional band) eluded the wedding on July 2, disappointing the family and the bajantris.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown in the country has severely hit those who make a living by playing traditional bands at weddings and parties. “Baaja is essential for a wedding. No one can imagine a pahadi marriage without bajantris. They are most sought after during the marriage season, so we booked them well in advance. But, COVID-19 spoiled our plans,” Chauhan told Gaon Connection.

Bajantris clicked during a performance. Photo: Deodar Cottage

Baaja is not only for dance or enjoyment. It is the soul of any pahadi wedding and melas. Every ritual starts after bajantris have arrived. They are welcomed; instruments are revered,” said Rajpal, a key person of a temple committee in Shimla. Later, every guest is welcomed on a particular beat, and other marriage rituals are also performed while bands play a specific beat in the backdrop.

The central government has restricted the number of guests allowed for weddings and disallowed other pomp and show to maintain physical distancing norms. Not being able to have baaja, however, turned out to be a money saver for people at the cost of an emotional loss. But, bajantris lost their only source of livelihood. 

Dhansukh, who is in his 50s, has been into this profession since he was a teenager. He was supposed to attend a wedding last week with seven other members of the band party. “We had 15 bookings when the lockdown was imposed in March. It ruined everything. The entire wedding season passed by. We didn’t get more bookings, and we couldn’t honour the bookings we had taken,” he lamented.

Baaja has a traditional and emotional place in functions like weddings in the Himalayan state. “Earlier, people used to say there is no enjoyment without a baaja at weddings. As time passed, modern bands, DJ, music system etc. entered the scene but the traditional band has a special place in our life,” said J V Singha, a resident of Kotgarh told Gaon Connection.

Bajantris performing in Himachal’s Kotgarh. Photo: Deodar Cottage

Bajantris and their traditional instruments

In Himachal’s hilly areas, the traditional band party mostly includes eight members — two on dhol, one on nagara, one on bhaana (a brass plate), two on karnal (a wind instrument made of brass or silver) and two on narsingh (an S-shaped instrument made of brass or silver). For shehnaai, a separate person is engaged. The dhol and nagara are made of goatskin, wood and brass. The body is made up of wood and moulded with brass while the main surface is of goatskin. Wind instruments like karnals and narsinghas are made of brass or silver while the bhaana is a brass plate. Shehnaai is made of wood, silver or brass.

Some of the traditional instruments bajantris use. Photo: Deodar Cottage

The number of band members and instruments vary from one district to another. What doesn’t differ is the fact that every bajantri has a similar tale to tell about the lockdown restrictions hitting their purses.

Naresh Kumar, a bajantri who has been into the profession for a decade, had 10 bookings. All were cancelled, and he had to return the advance amount. “I owed money to a karigar who repairs instruments. With whatever I got in advance, I cleared my dues,” he told Gaon Connection When the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed and bookings were cancelled, I had to borrow money from a friend to pay the advance amounts back,” he added.

Kumar’s brother had bought the band set for Rs 40,000 a decade ago during the International Lavi Fair, a fair that is organised in Shimla’s Rampur sub-town every November. “We earn Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 per wedding, and sometimes a little more. It depends on the offering during the wedding,” he said.

There is a difference between a modern band and the traditional baaja, said Narottam Singh of Kullu district. “COVID-19 impacted almost every business, globally. Like others, bajantris faced the blow too. Most of them depend on this profession for a living and even train their children,” Singh said.

Duni Chand is a bajantri from Chamba district of Himachal. “I was trained by my father and I am training my son. But if this COVID-19 situation continues, I don’t think there is any future in this. Maintaining the instruments cost money as well,” he told Gaon Connection.

Members of the Anni Temple band, Kullu, clicked in 1931 by Penelope Chetwode, a writer, and a British official’s daughter. Photo: Mandi district administration website

Technology has given stiff competition to everyone but not the traditional band, said Jeet Ram, a clarinettist. “Bajantris are most sought after always when it comes to weddings or other functions. But COVID-19 ruined the season for us,” he lamented.

A clarinettist is not included in the band party and has a separate market as well as rates. One clarinettist is paid over Rs 5,000 per wedding, besides the offering during the function.

Some bands had planned to buy new instruments, but not any more. “Our instruments are over 25-30 years old. We had planned to buy new instruments during the Lavi Fair. Now, it is not possible. We can’t even repair the existing ones,” said Rattan Chand, a band party owner from interiors of Shimla district.

Tunnu Ram of Mandi’s Seraj valley said his band party used to get booking for political functions, and weddings. “I borrowed some money for my son’s education in 2018. The income from this profession was a big help for me to pay it off but this year, I am worried about the instalments,” he said. “If this continues, I may have to sell the instruments,” he added.

From bajantris to daily-wage labourers

People employed by these band parties do not have other avenues. Some are planning to work as daily wagers in apple orchards but they don’t know the harvesting techniques. Some are hoping that MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) will help them but, the government scheme will also have limitations.

The situation impacted not just bajantris but also artisans who make the instruments. “It takes a lot of effort to manufacture these instruments. Work was on despite the lockdown but since the situation is still not under control, we have stopped,” said Dhanu Ram from Shimla district.

“Lavi Fair is the main market for traditional band instruments but if this situation continues, I don’t think the trade fair will be organised or that anyone would come to buy our products,” he added.

“Earlier there was a particular community into this profession and the skill got transferred from generation to generation. Now, few others have also chosen it as a profession,” said Ganga Ram Chauhan, a resident of Shimla district.

Himachal is also known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ — the land of gods. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, even deities could not hear the beats and tunes of baaja this time. From April to June, several fairs (mela or jatras) are organised at different places in Shimla district, where the deity’s palanquin is the centre of attraction. These festivals are driven by beliefs and a sense of gathering. The baaja holds a significant place here too, especially during the procession of deities.

This year, neither were such fairs organised nor did the band beats enthral the locals, usually clad in colourful traditional dresses.