“I am not from here,” he remembered, smiling. “I first came here for a girl.”

By “here” Pappu Sriram Makwana meant the Matunga Labour Camp in Dharavi, Mumbai. And by “first” he meant the mid-1990s, when he was a teenager and when there were no mobile phones to play cupid.

Makwana’s love story was short-lived. The parents of his ladylove did not approve of their relationship and packed her off to Nashik. Undeterred and dogged, Makwana began spending time in her neighbourhood of Matunga Labour Camp to learn her whereabouts. Just so he had a reason to linger around, he joined a dhol band. “I never saw her again, but caught the music bug instead.”

Two decades on, Makwana still plays the dhol. On a Tuesday evening, he lay sprawled on a mattress on the mezzanine floor of a tenement in Matunga Labour Camp, surrounded by the equipment of the dhol tasha band he founded in 2000. Around him were back-achingly heavy aluminium drums worn by years of use, T-shirts that his band members wear as uniform, and red signs bearing the name of the banner under which he arranges dhol tasha performances – PSM.

As Makwana recounted his failed love story, his voice was drowned every few minutes by the sound of clanging dhols (drums) and tashas (a kind of kettledrum) drifting in from outside. There are several dhol tasha groups in Matunga Labour Camp, some of which were preparing for the 10-day Ganeshotsav festival.

There was a pandal every few metres along the bustling market outside the PSM storeroom, and in each pandal the installed Ganesh idol was encircled by sweets, fruit, colourful lights and decorations. A steady stream of devotees trickled into the pandals, contributing to the ever-growing pile of offerings.

This was a week before Ganeshotsav had even begun.

Sunny Jai Kishen with the band's equipment.
Sunny Jai Kishen with the band's equipment.

Ganesh Chaturthi has been celebrated in Pune since at least the 17th century, during the reign of Maratha King Shivaji Bhonsle. Meanwhile, the use of dhols and tashas – to ring out the war cry or by town criers – too dates back centuries. It is not so clear when the two intersected. However, what is certain is that public Ganeshotsav festivities in Maharashtra today are incomplete without dhol tasha performances.

Every Ganeshotsav, dhol tasha bands, also known as dhol pathaks, are called to play during aagman, the ceremony when Ganesh idols are brought home, and then subsequently when the idols are taken for visarjan or immersion in the sea.

In Mumbai, in the chaos of visarjan, even the distance of a few kilometres takes hours to cover. The drums that the dhol tasha bands carry are so heavy that they have to be tied to the bodies of the players. Their palms get blistered with the non-stop banging. Yet they carry on. To compete with hundreds of bands out in Mumbai, they beat their drums harder and harder to create louder and louder sounds.

Muscle memory

In Dharavi’s Matunga Labour Camp alone, there are 40-50 bands, says Sunny Jai Kishen, Makwana’s brother who lives a short distance from PSM’s storeroom. “In every lane, you can find two-three groups,” he added, pointing to the members of other bands standing outside his house. Dhol tasha bands are normally formed by young men, although there are all-female groups as well. Small bands play with four-ten members, and larger bands with as many as 40-100 players.

One of Sunny Jai Kishen’s neighbours, Raju Roop Singh Bahut, is the promoter for the Raj Dhol Tasha Group. “I was always interested in music,” said Bahut. “When I was a kid, I would practise on any surface I could find so I could learn to play.”

Akash Jai Kishen, another dhol player in the area, is a member of the Toofani boys group. “We are young and filled with toofan (thunder), so that is why we call ourselves that,” said the lanky 24-year-old.

They never practise, they say. After so many years, playing the dhol has become muscle memory. “If you wake me from deep sleep, I can play even then,” said Amit Shyamlal Balmiki, member and promoter of the Om Ganesh dhol baja band.

Not everyone in Matunga Labour Camp shares this enthusiasm. “Dhol-tasha playing becomes very addictive,” said a bystander disapprovingly. “My son doesn’t want to study or do anything else. All he can think about is when will Ganpati come again so I can play music with my friends.”

Matunga Labour Camp was set up at the turn of the 20th century by the Bombay municipal corporation as a settlement for migrant Dalit labour. It has played an important part in the growth of radical political thought: poet-activist Namdeo Dhasal addressed gatherings in the area, and the office of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation was located here.

But how did the neighourhood come to have so many dhol tasha bands?

“Everyone needs something to do to relax,” Makwana explained. “The dhol band is just an excuse to meet friends after a long day at work.”

Filmy connections

Makwana’s PSM is among the most successful bands in the area. Not only do they get a great number of bookings, but the requests come from around the country. They have played in Delhi, at Vrindavan, and Vaishnodevi, which was their first performance outside the city. “It was during the 2011 Cricket World Cup which India won,” Makwana reminisced. “We played as the country celebrated.”

Sunny Jai Kishen added: “The farthest we have gone is Shimla.”

Some of Makwana’s fondest memories are tied to the film industry. He recalls the time his band played during a song sequence in Huppa Huiya, a 2010 Marathi film. His face lights up when he speaks of another performance. “We also played for Amitabh Bachchan during a Holi celebration at his old house in Juhu. The DJ at the party played Sona Sona from Major Saab which hadn’t even been released.”

The band does not, however, like playing at large venues, such as Lalbaugcha Raja, the most famous sarvajanik (community) Ganpati, where crores of rupees are donated every year. Makwana says the bigger venues want them to play for free, out of shraddha (devotion). “Koi free main kyun thakke?” he asked – why will you get tired for free?

So, instead, they choose to play at the smaller celebrations, where the rate is fixed and where they get to keep the money that revellers throw while dancing to their beats. In order to be able to get more bookings in a single day, they mostly play for people near Dharavi in the neighbourhoods of Sion, Matunga, Dadar and Mahim. They can play for a few hours for one group and then move on to the next.

It has not always been easy for Makwana’s groups or any of the other dhol tasha bands in Matunga Labour Camp, most of which once played music of the Nashik dhol variety. Nashik dhol music is played by smaller groups at a fast and breathless pace on drums with synthetic or leather tops. Meanwhile, Pune dhol music is more rhythmic, played in larger groups, and mostly using leather-based dhols that produce a deeper and richer sound.

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Nashik Dhol

“People love a good bass sound, which the Pune dhol has, so everyone wanted it,” said Makwana. Another reason for their struggle was that Ganesh pandals, in their rivalry to be more ostentatious, wanted to show off with larger bands, Makwana says. Pune dhol bands played in uniforms and with 40-60 members. “Dhol bands from the Labour Camp played in everyday clothes,” he said. “We weren’t professional.”

So in order to compete with the Pune dhol bands flooding Mumbai during Ganeshotsav, “we increased the number of our players to 10,” said Balmiki. Makwana too increased the size of his bands. He designed a uniform and created colourful banners. They added to the repertoire of music that they played and were able to compete with the bands from Pune. But now, Makwana says, the Pune dhol sound too is not as popular as it once was: “How many times can you listen to the same tune?”

Balmiki thinks the real problem now is the growing use of deejays in Mumbai, and the constant influx of new dhol tasha bands. “Anyone can pick up a few instruments and begin their own group.” These bands charge around Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000 for each booking, a third of the rate Balmiki’s band commanded when it was at its peak. As a result, other bands too have reduced their prices for fear of losing out on business.

Over the past five or six years, the municipality has clamped down on the bands because of the high decibel sound they create. They are not allowed to play after 10 pm and this too has reduced their business. “There were days when we played for 48 hours non-stop,” recalled Roop Singh Bahut. But though he laments the loss of business, he does not want the old days back. Students are preparing for exams, he says, and besides there are the sick and the elderly to think about – “it becomes a nuisance for them”.

Even during the best of times, though, it is not possible to make a living from playing in a dhol tasha band. Balmiki works as a peon in the chemistry department at Guru Nanak Khalsa College in Matunga. Sunny Jai Kishen helps in ship building and maintenance at the naval docks in Mumbai and works as a household help in Pali Hill, Bandra. Makwana works as a manager in a construction company.

The reason they continue: because extra money always helps. “The money I make from here works well for household expenses,” explained Balmiki. “Last year I paid my daughter’s school fees and bought a fridge and a television set.”

Custom of alcoholism

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Sunny Jai Kishen feels that playing with PSM gives him the opportunity to see the country. But it is not a tradition they want to pass on to their children.

“Like a motorcycle needs petrol, the dhol player’s body needs nasha (intoxicant),” said Akash Jai Kishen. “I had my first drink after I became a member of Toofani boys.”

Balmiki explains why hard-drinking is almost a custom among dhola tasha players: “Imagine you are playing for long hours from here to Shivaji Park [a seaside neighbourhood near the Labour Camp where idols are taken for immersion]. You are carrying a heavy dhol and walking in crowded areas. You are bound to get tired. And a shot of something strong keeps you active.” A lot of dhol players become alcoholics as they grow older.

Makwana agrees that band members have a drinking problem, but adds that there are exceptions. “I have never drunk a sip of beer in my life, let alone a glass of liquor,” he said, emphatically. Still, it is not a profession he wants his kids to pursue either. “They cannot handle it. They don’t know about this world. They don’t have the contacts. I am already 35. After a few years I will stop and sell this off to someone else.”