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Kalimpong school makes history, takes India to Swiss global Pipes and Drums Band Fest

23 July, 2022 16:42:53
Kalimpong school makes history, takes India to Swiss global Pipes and Drums Band Fest

Not many in West Bengal, forget the rest of India, are aware of Kumudini Homes Higher Secondary School, spread across a vast campus in the beautiful hill town of Kalimpong. But the days of anonymity may soon be a thing of the past. For the first time, 21 students of the school’s Pipes and Drums Band have been chosen to participate in Basel Tattoo, an annual musical show featuring mainly military bands from around the globe, as the sole representatives from India. This is also the first time that students from the government school have made it to the annual music festival, which began on July 15 and concludes today.

Tattoo is primarily a form of military music, typically created on drums. Basel Tattoo is the second largest event of its kind in the world after the famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. And Kumudini Homes is among the few non-military bands and the only school band to have performed at the 15th edition of the prestigious event, at the invitation of the Swiss Federal Department of Defense, no less. 

Basel Tattoo primarily features international military bands, display teams, popular musicians and tattoo formations. Since 2006, Basel Tattoo has held annual stage-arena performances within the Basel Kaserne (old barracks, now also known as Basel Tattoo Arena) and hosts two parades in July. The Basel Tattoo parade, with an estimated 125,000 visitors, is considered the largest event. “…people here (in Basel) have been really enthusiastic about our performance. In fact, we were told that we are among the top three bands at Basel Tattoo,” said Priyadarshi Lama, a teacher thale school and mentor of the band. 

One of the oldest and highest rated government schools in a town famed for its schools, Kumudini Homes was established in the 1940s for students from weaker sections of society. Military band music was introduced in the hills by the British, and this was one of the first educational institutions where students were introduced to band music, way back in the 1960s. Other schools, including Dr Graham’s Homes, joined the fray later. Now, most higher secondary schools in Kalimpong town have their own military bands. However, the band at Kumudini Homes itself remained inactive for over four decades as worn out musical instruments could not be replaced owing to a lack of funds.

In September 2010, Priyadarshi, a young, enthusiastic teacher, joined the school in the Commerce department and his enthusiasm encouraged his students. He is not just their teacher but also a friend, philosopher and guide who can be approached by any student on any issue. His love and support won the hearts of his pupils and soon, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, he led them to the dusty music room to pull out the battered drums and threadbare pipes, and training started in right earnest. 

“Our boys were quick learners and enthusiastic about the band. They practiced diligently every day after school including on Sundays and public holidays. The rule continues to this day and there are no days off for us. Practice sessions are held from 3.30 pm to 6.00 pm,” says Lama. 

The band caught the attention of organisers of the Basel Tattoo way back in 2014, but it was only in 2019 that they reached out, after which the Covid-19 pandemic forced organisers to call off the event for the next two years. This year, the Basel Tattoo is hosting about a thousand participants from four continents, including the Band of Her Majesty’s Welsh Guards. Against the historical backdrop of Kaserne Basel (one of Switzerland's largest venues where hundreds of cultural events and shows are held year-round), the Basel Tattool is held each summer. Inspired by the hugely popular Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland, the local Top Secret Drum Corps started the extravaganza in 2006. Kumudini band is among 22 European military bands to perform at this year’s anniversary edition.  

The challenge for Priyadarshi on particular was considerable. Most of his band members - aged between 16 and 21 - hail from economically weaker backgrounds in rural areas of Kalimpong. For them, the journey from their hometown to Switzerland was incredible, with their mentor calming frayed nerves and boosting their confidence at every step. 

Ever since the band was invited to participate at the tattoo, accolades have been pouring in on social media. “The hills are proud of these students who have represented our nation in this international event. The hills are known for their brave soldiers but now the hills will be known for their music too,” says Vikram Rai, assistant professor, and founder of Vikrun Foundation, a charitable organisation in Darjeeling, which has been highlighting the band’s feats on social media. The state government extended a helping hand as did other state and Union ministries. Private well-wishers pitched in too. 

The boys were agog with excitement when they left for the tour. Displaying immense skill and professionalism, they confidently played Gorkha tunes as well as those from the Indian school of military music, despite the inferior quality of the instruments at their disposal. Along with bagpipe formations, the band also performed the famous ‘Khukri Dance’, the Swiss arranging for khukris since they couldn't be carried from India due to security reasons. The sonorous sounds of bagpipes, impressive choreography, and drumming, all came together to create spine-tingling moments at the event.

Priyadarshi happily talks about how warmly the Swiss hosts introduced the school band to the audience amid loud cheers. In fact, the organisers’ promo said, “This year we’re going one better. For the first time in the history of the Basel Tattoo we are presenting a bagpipe formation from India: the Kumudini Homes School Pipes and Drums Band. Let yourself be surprised by the mixture of far eastern tones, Scottish sounds and humorous interludes.”

For Priyadarshi and the boys, this has been a long and arduous journey, but he is passionate about music and fiercely protective of his young proteges. His dream has come true, but his appetite has not waned. Once he returns with his boys later this month, he says he will resume his routine and continue practising with the boys after school. We too, shall wait for greater musical glory for Bengal and for India. 

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