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It was the summer of 1994. Ten-year-old Naina spent most afternoons reclining on the fence of her balcony waiting for the sun to go down. Holiday homework didn’t excite her one bit. What did was the sight of Madan madari who showed up by 4.30 pm every two days with his pair of monkeys dressed in enviable tailoring. The married simians would dance on naach meri bulbul…paisa milega even as mothers worried the performers were turning into a habit.
“I would always keep Rs 2 for them. My mother insisted a one-rupee coin was enough. But I loved them too much to let her have her way,” remembers Naina, who was just 10 at the time. “I think our colony in Vikaspuri became gated later on. The madari was not allowed to enter anymore. Soon we stopped waiting for him,” she adds. Naina still has a picture of Madan and the monkeys taken with her father’s camera.
For Naina and thousands of others who grew up in Delhi, street performers are an enduring memory of life in the 1980s and 1990s. Apart from monkey shows, jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers and magicians were also common on the city streets. Almost everybody remembers watching a cobra sway to the tune of a snake charmer’s flute or seeing children doing cartwheels at traffic lights across the sprawling capital. Delhi has at least four of the country’s seven tribes of street performers, who have been performing since ancient times for money.
But, today, they are just a distant memory. Police drive away street performers from places such as popular historical monuments because they regard them as a security hazard. They have few opportunities as Delhi lacks a public arena like London’s Covent Garden where stilt walkers and contortionists entertain crowds. “We are looked down upon by our own people. We are not beggars. We perform art handed down to us through various generations. But the government doesn’t recognise us as more than just a backward caste in its records,” said Ishamudin Khan, a street magician, who has been performing in Japan and Europe since 1997.
Khan started the Indian Street Performers’ Association Trust (ISPAT) to press the government to allow them to perform and earn a living as he fears much of the art spread across the seven tribes will die soon. According to him, the traditional juggler community does not exist in Delhi any more. There is one family in Mumbai and around five in Andhra Pradesh. He said they should be recognised as artistes and given identity cards to perform. “We have street magicians in Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. There are snake charmers, animal trainers and acrobats too. But I believe that if not helped, tribes of jugglers, street singers and behrupiyaswill be extinct in thevnext 10 years,” said Khan.
Street performers, or buskers, have been part of the cultural life of cities around the world for centuries. Subways and tubes are a hub for street performers, many of whom turn into stars such as actor Robin Williams, who died recently. Most world cities have a policy on street performers. But they are not recognised in Delhi even though they appear on stamps and tourism posters, textbooks and ancient texts refer to them. One government official said there was no official programme to empower street performers. “Many cities like Barcelona have a culture of street performers. We had it too. But we lost it in a mad rush for modernisation. I would blame the structure of the city. Our streets only cater to motor cars. We use spaces more for parking lots,” said K T Ravindran, professor of urban design and former chief of Delhi Urban Arts Commission. He said many such public spaces can be salvaged to bring the joy back to our streets.
India may have forgotten its streets performers, but a global movement to keep busking alive is gaining ground. Nick Broad started The Busking Project asan advocacy movement that aims to encourage governments worldwide to embrace this form of free public art in public spaces. “Many street performers were not employed before they began busking, but now they have full-time jobs entertaining people for donations,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I know a lady in Canada who is the legally blind mother of four, whose husband died in a fishing accident. She got herself off unemployment benefits and feeds her kids on the money she makes through busking.”
Broad and his team have been to 332 cities over the past year to meet buskers and shoot their performances. According to Vivian Doumpa, Broad’s teammate, Australian cities, especially Melbourne, have adopted an encouraging approach towards buskers. “The city has a very vivid busking scene, promoted by the city as part of their creative industries,” she said.
In Delhi, buskers usually perform in places like Dilli Haat when hired. But chances to perform are few and far between. “My family of five has a total earning of Rs 50,000 in six months when we play in marriage processions. We sit idle for the rest of the year. At least if the government could make our identity cards and give us work, we could save our art and live a happy life,” said Ramjeet Singh, a 24-year-old snake charmer from Badarpur.