They’re India’s most widespread musical tradition. From Rajouri to Rameshwar, no big-spending wedding is complete without the joyous blare of a brass band—a multi-coloured melange of trumpets and clarinets, snare drums and crashing cymbals. No matter in which extremity of the country the revelry is unfurling, however, odds are high that those brass instruments would have been manufactured in the same narrow street in Meerut. Since Independence, approximately 90 percent of India’s wedding-band instruments have been made in factories around an alley known as Jali Kothi.
Situated right opposite an impressive statue of Mangal Pandey, the man who is popularly credited with sparking off the First Indian War for Independence in 1857, Jali Kothi is crammed with establishments catering to the bajawallah’s every requirement. In the warrens of the neighbourhood are workshops turning out a spectrum of horns. The squawk of euphoniums and sousaphones, bugles, and trombones fills the air, while the thud of drums of various sizes reverberates across the street.
In addition to instrument manufacturers, Jali Kothi is also home to instrument repair shops and tailors sewing up the faux-military costumes that give the bandsmen their distinctive charm. Not surprisingly, the street also has the offices of some of North India’s most famous brass bands. “Brass bands are a unique, and uniquely Indian story,” said Greg Booth, the author of Brass Baja: Stories from the World of Wedding Bands. “I found them to be an amazing example of India’s ability to take the ‘foreign’ and transform it into something distinctively Indian.” Meerut has been in the music trade since 1885, when Nadir Ali, a musician in the British Army, went into business with a cousin to import brass instruments. Sometime in the 1920s, the company began to manufacture these instruments in India. It built a large factory in a neighbourhood known as Kothi Atanas, and over the decades, smaller competitors sprung up in the Jali Kothi lane behind Nadir Ali and Co.
Nadir Ali and Co. got an enormous boost during the Second World War, when shipments from Europe were interrupted. It began manufacturing brass whistles for Home Guards and then began to make bugles—turning out 200 a day at peak. Until 1947, Sialkot had rivalled Meerut as a manufacturer of brass instruments, but after Partition, Nadir Ali and his Jali Kothi neighbours established a monopoly on the Indian market.
Today, the firm is headed by 78-year-old Aftab Ahmad, a physics graduate with a ear that can detect an imperfect note from across the room. He’s spent much of his life thinking about how to make flawless instruments. In 1959, he set out with a small bag, a sherwani, a Nehru cap, and a Jinnah cap on a study tour of Europe’s instrument manufactures. En route, he stopped in Turkey to apprentice at the Zildjian factory that manufactured the most famous cymbals in the world, trying to understand the chemical composition of the metal. “It was like doing industrial espionage of European technology,” Ahmad says. “Every night, I wrote nearly ten pages explaining in drawings and photographs what I had seen in the day.”
In the late 1980s, as religious riots tore apart North India in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Ahmad realised that he was losing too many work days to curfew and uncertainty. He decided to build a second, state-of-the-art factory in the nearby village of Gulaothi, in collaboration with Boosey & Hawkes, the legendary British company that had been making musical instruments since 1837.
Ahmad is always up for a challenge. In 2009, after two years of research, the company finally figured out how to manufacture slide trombones, which require a great deal of precision and balance. “We export slides made from the raw material sent to us from French instrument maker Antoine Courtois,” he said. Today, Nadir Ali and Co. makes 11 types of brass instruments, from tiny bugles to bulging tubas. Its instruments have won prizes at several international competitions and its bugles are used by forces in several parts of the world, including the UK’s Royal Navy and Saudi Arabia’s Royal Guards.
Nadir Ali and Co.’s success continues to inspire the smaller manufacturers in Jali Kothi. “In every house, they are assembling instruments or parts,” a 70-year-old bandsman named Ashraf Ali Bhai said, as he shopped for a new clarinet. “Jali Kothi is the centre of the whole musical world.”
Appeared in the April 2013 issue as “Leader of the Brass Band”.