From the Jacket:
Anyone who has seen a wedding procession in Northern India would have heard and seen the band of professional musicians accompanying the procession. Surrounded by bright lamps and dressed in uniforms reminiscent of military finery, these are the men who herald the arrival of the groom. In spite of the singing, dancing, and the ornately clad gathering of family and friends in the procession, it is the band that is often its most noticeable element.
This book is a detailed and colourful study of India's wedding bands. The volume argues that while music performed by wedding bands help generate emotions of ecstasy and joy, the bandsmen who play it are in the fringes of the social events they herald. Musically and socially, and by birth and profession, bandsmen at weddings are ascribed low social status.
Gregory Booth's analysis of bands and bandsmen is rich in symbolism and facts surrounding is rich in symbolism and facts surrounding South Asia's complex and diverse musical history. He explains the band trade as a syncretic component of popular culture constructed during the 19th and 20th centuries in both colonial and independent India. The volume tells stories of change witnessed in Indian wedding processions and bands over time. The relationship of musical traditions to the colonial past and India's culture as also the metaphorical association between musical change and cultural change are also explored.
The volume provides the reader with an image of the reality of professional life in South Asia, and the processes of change in the world of Indian processional music - the stark social and economical gulf between musicians and their patrons. It will be of interest to an academic audience in anthropology, ethnomusicology, history, and music as well as to a wider audience of informed general readers.
About the Author:
Gregory D. Booth is Senior Lecturer, Department of Anthropology and the School of Music, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
The handwritten manuscript that R.G. Hobes produced in 1832 is a tourist’s account of the exotic the quaint and the picturesque. Despite his choice of title the land that hobes depicts was also beginning to be called India at least by many recently arrived British merchants, soldiers and administrators representing the British Government and the Honourable East India company. By the time of hobes tour Hindustan was alreadt a land in which may components of expressive sartorial and culinary culture were being bult from bricks made of British as well as Indian clay. Music was among the arts in which such cultural fusions were to be found. Far in the south of India classical composer Muttuswami Dikshitar had already created a series of devotional compositions called kritis in which imitations and adaptations of British tunes served as the melodic foundation. His brother Baluswami had begun the process of establishing the violin as one of South India’s most important musical instruments. Further north, in Calcutta, we learn that as early as 1792, during that city’s great Durga Puja celebrations, ‘at the house of Sookmoy Roy, a novelty was introduced in the Pooja ceremonies, namely, a combination of English airs with the Hindoostanee songs.’ In Carey’s opinion, this innovation did not succeed owing to the indifferent skill of the musicians.’ This book is a study of yet another syncretic musical outcome of the British presence in India, one that began to take shape in some Indian cities in the years between Sookmoy Roy’s experiment and Hobes’ encounter with an Indian wedding procession. By 1832 gradual innovations in Indian processional music had begun that would dramatically change the nature of what Hobes called ‘a Hindoo wedding’.
The South Asian subcontinent was an increasingly popular destination for European travelers as the nineteenth century progressed. People were growing curious about the large, complex, and distant land where Britain was becoming ever more involved. We cannot identify Hobes as a Victorian in 1832; but like later travelers, Robes wrote with a fair amount of certainty regarding his culture’s and his religion’s superiority relative to those of the land he was observing. Also like many of his Victorian successors, Robes frequently demonstrates minimal understanding of the scenes he recorded. He provides us with little of the ethnographic detail, for example, about many aspects of the wedding procession he witnessed. We can only guess at the identity of the musical instruments Robes heard, the location of this procession within the larger series of ritual events that comprise a marriage ritual, and the social identity or economic status of the families whose children were being married. We cannot even be sure about the religious identity of those families: at the time that Hobes was recording his impressions, the term Hindoo, used by a European, might have meant anyone native to or living in the subcontinent. One thing we can be certain about, however, is the depth of the historical context for this procession. Inhabitants of the subcontinent had been using public processions as part of their wedding rituals for centuries by the time Hobes visited Hindustan.
Some form of processional practice remains integral to the vast majority of wedding celebrations in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh; but the musicians have been musically and visually transformed. After all, almost two centuries of musical and cultural change lie between the procession and the band that Hobes witnessed in 1832 and today’s Indian wedding processions and bands. The stories in this book focus on those years of change. They are primarily the oral accounts of the processional musicians who provide the music for contemporary weddings in the northern two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent. I am concerned with the musical instruments on which these musicians perform and the trade in which they are engaged. I am also concerned with the growth of that trade and the spread of European processional instrumentation. This is consequently a historical study of musical and cultural change that was beginning to take shape at roughly the same time that Hobes was busily recording his impressions. Since the early nineteenth century, a steadily increasing number of Indian wedding celebrants have joined in processions led by ensembles of trumpets, clarinets, and other instruments of the European brass or wind band.
In mainland South Asia there are probably well in excess of seven thousand private professional brass bands, ranging in size from small ten- or twelve-man family groups to large business concerns that employ hundreds of full- and part-time workers. In the sheer numbers of musicians and of listeners, it is certainly the largest professional brass band tradition in the world. During the yearly wedding seasons, it sometimes seems that one cannot walk down a street anywhere without encountering one or more of these bands. Dressed in their replicas or revisions of British military uniform, brass bands accompany wedding and devotional processions, playing anything from early twentieth century regional wedding songs to the latest rap-inflected Hindi film hit on a variety of European instruments such as trumpet, clarinet, and valve L trombone. Their music overpowers local neighborhoods during the day and echoes throughout the cities at night. Almost every Indian has, at some point in his or her life, listened, walked with, or danced to the music of a brass band, as have a majority of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and many Nepalis.
From an anthropological perspective, brass bandsmen are ritual musicians. Their primary function is the production of celebratory, prestige generating music for private and public processions, most importantly wedding processions. But, while some form of procession is almost indispensable for most Indian weddings, those processions normally lack specifically religious content, Consequently, few Indians conceptualize wedding processions as ritual; instead, most describe wedding processions as purely celebratory events. Even those who are willing to widen their view of rituals to include wedding processions still point to the clearly marginal nature of those processions within the larger event.
Processions after all, are liminal events, taking place outside the safety and cleanliness of private homes or wedding halls. The focus of the event, most often the groom, is in a transitional state on the road to adulthood and the role of householder, a process which is certainly ritual if not inarguably religious. While the wedding itself focuses on religious and ritual behaviors, the processions are transitional celebrations. Especially in contemporary terms, they appear to have little of the overtly transformative, cleansing, or devotional power of explicitly religious ritual. As professional ritual musicians therefore, bandsmen’s livelihoods are dependent on demand generated by an event located on the margins of the wedding ritual. Fortunately for them, their presence is almost non- negotiable within this marginal context.
There are naturally many differently defined sets of margins in cultural space. It is unfortunate for Indian bandsmen that they occupy almost all of them. Bandsmen are socially and musically marginal musicians performing for an event that is only marginally understood as ritual. Socially and economically, playing music for wedding processions is an unrewarding profession, as many western musicians can attest. If it were not for the differences in urban and rural costs of living, the economics of the contemporary processional music trade in India would be impossible. The predominantly rural origins and low socio-economic standing of Indian wedding musicians further marginalize them in the minds of their customers. The fact that processional music in South Asia has been and still is traditionally performed by members of low or what were called untouchable castes further complicates bandsmen’s identities, especially since, at a very old level of understanding, that low caste status is actually required by the liminal nature of the procession, and the consequent ritual factors and behaviors all of which contribute to the musicians’ conditions of impurity.
In addition to the low-level social and economic status and reward, playing processional music on Indian streets is not an especially rewarding occupation from a musical or expressive point of view. Brass bandsmen in India are often looked down upon on musical grounds, even by the people who hire them, in part because, as I will show, the professional and commercial conditions of their trade do not especially encourage or reward high musical quality. The fact that many bandsmen are rather cavalier about musical quality is added to the list of their sins by their patrons. Band patrons sometimes criticize the popular music repertoire of brass bands; they frequently point to the brass band instrumentation itself as a cause of bandsmen’s musical negligibility. Although the demand for brass bands is pervasive across class, cultural, and geographic boundaries, the fact that India’s wedding musicians perform on the musical instruments and cultural symbols of South Asia’s former colonial rulers is routinely held against them. Collectively, these factors locate bandsmen at the most distant reaches of the Indian musical universe. Whether one thinks of classical or popular music as being at the core of Indian musical life, almost nobody is farther away from that core than a typical rank-and-file brass bandsman.
I observed my first Indian wedding processions in Varanasi, an Indian city that attracts a great many foreign tourists, travelers and scholars, in part, perhaps, because the ritual life of that city is so rich. Later, standing on the edge of the glare and the hubbub of my first wedding season, wielding my video camera or tape recorder, I tried to make sense of the events I was witnessing in musical or at least performance terms. I went to wedding processions with the bandsmen, and so usually felt somewhat isolated from the procession’s consumers, or ritual participants. Although this was not unexpected, the social complications were multiplied by the obvious separation that exists between most ritual consumers and the bandsmen who provide music for that ritual. Participants tended to assume that I would perceive this separation (I did) and that, as a foreigner, I would locate myself on their side of the social divide (I did not). In Varanasi, it seemed to be a regular source of local amusement for younger members of the processional party, who were often feeling the effects of considerable partying, to induce foreigners to dance with them. I would try to explain that I was ‘working’, that I was ‘with the band’. The obvious differences of behavior and dress between participants and producers in the Indian processional environment, and the thoroughly understood distinctions in socio-economic class and caste that they implied, together with my obviously foreign origins, however, clearly marked me (in Indian eyes) as a member of the fun-seeking rather than working category. I was obviously not a bandsman or other producer of the ecstatic processional environment; I must therefore have been present to consume, or to participate in that production. (of course, I was consuming the ritual, but not in a way that either Indian consumers or the bandsmen themselves always found meaningful.) Since the noise level was too loud to allow rational conversation anyway, and since many of the young men I was talking to were fairly inebriated, it was usually my size, rather than my explanations, that kept me out of the melee. I am sure that if they thought about it at all, many of these celebrants considered me just another asocial foreigner. Aside from the well known problematic that this imposes on the entire notion of ethno musicological research, these conflicts of interest forced me to consider more seriously the social gulf between the musicians I was studying (many of whom were becoming friends) and their patrons. In any given event, I felt that I had to choose between being ‘with the band’, the producers of the event, or being a processional participant, and, although I have become more adept at bridging this gap, it remains to the present day. Fortunately, not all processions and participants are as gregarious as those I encountered in Varanasi, so the choices are not normally as difficult.
Wedding processions, in Varanasi and elsewhere, are cultural performances. Like other performances, their enactment defines a particular relationship between those who are understood as performers or producers of the event (in this case the bandsmen) and the audience or participants, those who consume the music and respond emotionally to the package as a whole. Musicians and patrons must understand and properly act out specific ritual roles and relationships in order to produce a successful wedding procession. In contemporary India, the relationship between producers and consumers of processional music is especially difficult. and polarized. To my way of thinking, some degree of social polarization is inherent in the wedding or processional music business wherever one finds it. Where music is defined as a required component of a social activity (functional music in an older ethno musicological paradigm), even to the specification of ensemble configuration and repertoire, and where that audience is participating in an event which is defined by social and ritual, rather than explicitly musical, criteria, I suspect that the musical performance can never be the focus of attention. Nor can the musical quality of that performance be the defining criterion that measures the success of the event. For the wedding bandsmen of South Asia the already unfavorable conditions of their relationship with their audience are exacerbated by the ways in which their trade has been industrialized and by some characteristics of India’s popular music industry. Most of all however the negative aspects of a bandsman’s musical and social identified by issued of caste.
In south Asia and especially in Hindu South Asia caste is a contentious and confusing issue. It is not completely separable from more generic notion of socio economic status or class but it down have a more purely hereditary component than do these terms. The interpretation and effects of caste can be negotiable of course and in many Indian lives caste is clearly distinct from economic and even social success. The extent of its importance and impact changes across urban rural socio economic and geo cultural spectra. Although caste is apparently a creation of Hinduism related concepts are part of south Asia Muslim social structure as well. Even Muslim bandsmen performing for a Muslim patron are affected by the broader conceptualization of society in pure and impure high and low terns that springs from the Hindu ideology. At the same time Indian and Pakistani Muslims contribute their own systems of social hierarchy to the mix. Some follow patters of Hindu structure in their pure impure insider outsider distinctions other reverse the insider outsider status by valuing those lineages whose members can claim extra subcontinent descent. I cannot say that caste is foremost in bandsmen’s minds in the daily pursuit of their trade but it does form an important subject in their Professional lives and relations both with their customers and with each other. Combined with class caste contributes significantly to the isolation tat defines and separates bandsmen from other social and musical groups in South Asia.
As a result of my research experiences among Indian bandsmen I have come to perceive bands and bandsmen as part of a separate world within the larger universe of South Asia music and culture. I have already made the argument for a model of South Asian music culture that allows for a host of semi independent musical worlds all located within the musical universe of South Asia. I pursue this trope here postulating a band world bounded by a combination of features that do include the geographical but are fundamentally musical and socio cultural. The theoretical physics of this quasi astronomical model allow indeed call for musical worlds to interest with others. They do so along lines that may be social musical or professional trades the men who provide the horses upon which grooms for example or the men who provide illumination. Bandsmen are sometimes connected to other kinds of processional musicians such as those who play traditional double reed instruments for example. Such connections are often rather tense those who still perform processional music on pre colonial instruments are often over whelmed by their louder more numerous and more colorful neighbor intersections can also be found between the band world and other musical worlds styles the world identified as traditional in 1997 which includes folk and other pre mediated popular styles and of course the world of contemporary mediated popular song primarily Hindi film song. Although such songs constitute the cast majority of bands processional repertoires the connections between the band world and that of Hindi film music are much more tenuous than one might expect. Finally caste often relates bandsmen to professions completely outside the musical realm such as leather work weaving baking or basket making.
Musically and socially bandsmen are on the margins of their society. The music performed by wedding bands helps to generate the emotions of ecstasy and joy that families and friends may share during wedding processions but in at least one very old strand of Hindu social relations the musicians themselves are understood to be the recipients of the accumulated themselves are understood to be the recipients of the accumulated impurities adhering tot eh groom and his family. Despite the festive and party like atmosphere of wedding procession music the musicians producing that music are ascribed either by birth or by their profession to the very lowest rungs of South Asia’s complex social and musical hierarchies Social economic, and musical factors locate Indian Bandsmen on the margins of the vents at which they work and the worlds in which the live. The words and behaviors of both bandsmen and patrons at wedding processions enact these polarized relations. These perspectives however do not define the limits of their marginality. The symbolism and history of the brass instruments upon which bandsmen perform marginalize bands and bandsmen with regard to Indian cultural traditions as well.
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