For more than the past two decades, the dusty village of Baddowal, Punjab, has been the hub of pipe bands, a British colonial legacy that conjures up images of the chilly terrains of Scotland. The skirl of the bagpipes might be ridiculed in contemporary times, but these pipe bands continue to be invited from all around the state – and even beyond – to dispense their music on happy occasions, big or small. While almost every male member of the village today, roughly between the age of 20 and 50, earns his living by playing some role in a pipe band, all this stands to change as the village’s youth seems to abhor the idea of following in their fathers’ footsteps.
The fathers are more than encouraging in their decision to break out of the pipe band culture that is steeped in the village. “Study harder or you’ll be left to do nothing better than playing pipes or drums” is a school teacher’s favourite threat here. The mothers pray their sons are employed in a “proper” job and bring out the families from the life of penury they are leading.
This might surprise you, considering how colourful the whole thing about nine men in military-like uniforms, gawdy gold, embellished belts and chic turbans belching out music with bagpipers, drums and dhols has been made out to be. Signs of this obsession with pipe bands are very much visible as billboards flashing the bands’names and contacts dot almost every street. A close look at the life of the villagers, however, reveal that for most people there is little money in the profession to make.
A Bagpipe Band Playing in the 90s
Notably, it was in the late nineties when armymen from Baddowal cantonment began to perform privately at the local weddings or nagar kirtans. Slowly, to share this workload, they began to teach the art to the unemployed youth of the village who then formed private bands of their own. Initially there was work to be found for the few bands in place. But soon the pipe bands became a fad with almost every youth jumping into it. Rising from a mere four to five bands around twenty years ago, the number in this village – that today is home to around 5000-6000 people – touched 100 in a decade. The competition increased significantly but the demand has not kept pace.
Even when the invites keep coming, as in any business, the bulk of the revenues reach only a few people – those who own the musical instruments, uniforms and other paraphernalia, the cost of which ads up to around Rs 45,000-Rs 50,000 for a band. The “owners” of the band usually hire from the village to complete the band. While a band is booked at anything between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 for a day in the lean season (from June to September) and Rs 6,000 to Rs 9,000 in the peak season (from April to October), the hired members get a small share in the pie – no more than Rs 250-300 a day. The work is irregular which translates into an unsteady income. “My husband gets work only twice or thrice a week. He is free on other days, wasting time in idle banter or playing cards with fellow villages. He has no other skills to bank upon either,” rues Dasri, who runs a small general store in the area, and supplements the income by taking up stitching and embroidery work.
The young is no more flocking to the trainers – who charge around Rs 15000 for the three-month course – to learn to play the instruments. HS Khalsa, employed with the Indian Army, who was part of the only pipe band in 1990 in Baddowal that pioneered the trend, says, “I used to get pupils in dozens eager to learn the art. Boys would come in groups, learn from me for three months for a couple of thousands and form their own bands. But today, I have not a single student,” says the 55-year-old.
This is not to say that the business is dead yet. For some like Hasda Punjab, an umbrella group of three pipe bands, has flourished significantly in the last decade. It has an office, car, online presence and even a cameo in an upcoming Punjabi film. “We are here to stay,” says the manager Kuldip Singh. Most of the others, however, are looking for alternative options.