I wonder what Independence Day means for Shantabai Balu Pawar?

Shantabai is a 85-year-old woman from a community of traditional street performers who specialise in acrobatics. Recently, a video of this elderly grandmother performing martial arts on the streets of Pune went viral. Soon the media, Bollywood actors and even a minister or two were making a dash for her humble home bearing promises and taking selfies with the woman who the local media dubbed “the warrior queen”.

Nobody bothered to ask her to tell her story. All they did was to make her perform again and again and again only so they could take pictures and videos on which they could claim authorship. No one bothered to pay Shantabai or even ask her permission.

What is the story of Shantabai’s life? Why was she having to work at an age she should be enjoying a comfortable retirement? India does not offer any social security for people like her. She is just one of the 90 million Indian citizens who comes under the category of “casual workers and self-employed” workers.

But Shantabai is not a statistic. She is a person with a family and a life of struggle. She is counted as illiterate or uneducated yet her training began when she was an infant. When she was an infant, her parents began to teach her to be fearless. Like other children of the Nat community her mother put her in a harness and balanced the infant on one hand while she herself balanced herself on the tightrope.

Then the father would sit on top of the bamboo tripod on which a rope is stretched and then take his child and whirl her around at the end of a rope and brings the rope nearer and nearer. It was terrifying to watch but it was a way to make sure the child had no fear of heights. It was a rigorous training which lasted several years.

I would not have known except that I happen to know Shantabai’s sister and her son Mukesh. It was Mukesh who forwarded the video of his grandaunt. He and his family had been watching the news and saw the video and propped up Shantabai’s sister who was paralysed so she could watch Shantabai doing martial arts.

The family in Delhi watched with amusement and enjoyed the moment. They knew the promises being made were as false as the promises that had been made to them for many decades. Mukesh himself had appeared on the India Has Got Talent television show, he had been called to perform abroad but that did not change the fact that he had no regular source of livelihood.

The only regular job Mukesh got was at a children’s park where he walked around on high stilts for four hours at a time, shaking hands with delighted children and sometimes with visiting dignitaries. He was proud of his skills and his art; if only it was given the same recognition as classical dance. But now he wanted to give his children an education so they would be able to have a better future.

But now with the pandemic he had lost even that job. He had no source of income and his family of wife, three children and paralysed mother were cooped up in their small home. Mukesh has memories of the time when he would travel from village to village performing for villagers and urban poor.

His family of traditional Indian acrobats is a part of the larger community of street performers who used to wander all over the country; entertaining people in the villages and towns across the length and breadth of India. They were Hindu, Muslim and some Sikhs communities; but all were considered low caste. They spoke several languages, could sing songs, play different musical instruments and always had humour.

A performance by Shekhar, Mukesh's brother.

The street performers represented the Intangible cultural heritage of our country. According to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage is also “living heritage’, and includes the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills transmitted by communities from generation to generation.

I remember the sound of the bandarwala’s dugdugi or the madari’s dumru or the snake charmer’s been in my childhood as I rushed out to call them to perform in front of our home in Delhi. It was still a time when television had not entered our homes. I had not even heard of the TV. The sound of the distant damru or dugdugi or the snake charmer’s been would have me and all the children in the vicinity running outside and waiting in anticipation .

The most exciting of them all was the madari or street magician. It was not only the children who were awe struck. The madari was the favourite of everyone and we formed a close circle around him watching his tricks wonderstruck. The madari had a little boy who was his assistant called the jamoora. The jamoora would be put in a big wicker basket and then covered with a cloth and right before our eyes he would disappear! And his voice could be heard from high up somewhere. It took a lot of persuasion and some money to bring him back. The show would often end with the magician producing hot jalebi from an empty tin and given to me to eat.

The message they spread was always of solidarity and love. For instance the madari announced his coming with this chant:

Hindu kahate Bajrang Bali, Musalman kahen Hazarat Ali
Hota hai jo Duniya mai, yeh usi ka khulasa
Nasihat ka Nasihat, tamasha ka tamasha
Yeh Jadoo nahin, Kala hai.

Hindu praise Bajrang Bali, Muslims praise Hazarat Ali,
What this world is all about; this show will tell,
Wise counsel has it place, delight has its place
This is not magic, it is an art.

I remember the sense of wonder but above all I remember the kindness of the street performers. There was not a single instance when any of these people who came to our home or worked were not warm and kind to me; they never said a word to hurt me.

But I did not know anyone by name. I did not know from where they came, their caste, religion or place of origin. I did not know their stories of struggle or how they survived. They were just the people; an integral part of the urban landscape in which I grew up and took so much for granted. I do not know when all these people started disappearing from my life .

Where had all the street performers disappeared?

The memory of the people and the joy they had brought stayed and I was delighted when Ishamuddin Khan a street magician , who had become famous for performing the Indian Rope Trick, came to me several decades later to ask for legal help. He brought other street performers, including Mukesh the acrobat. One evening many of these performers came to my home to discuss how I as a lawyer could help them get protection from continuous police harassment.

There must have been ten or 15 in my drawing room – they represented different talents, a man who swallowed swords, a juggler who lifted stones with his eyelash, a bahurupiya who could impersonate a king, a snake charmer, and acrobats. These people represented different castes, communities and religions and had worked together for centuries. Each one expressed how deeply they missed travelling all over the country freely, entertaining people in the villages and small towns.

Now the street performers could not wander freely across the country. These travel restrictions started with the insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s. They said the Punjabi was the most generous and fed them in exchange for their performances. The animal rights people had accused them of cruelty to animals and so the bandarwala, the snake charmer and the bhalu wala were deprived of their trades. Pritam Singh the snake charmer said he used to teach the villagers how to catch snakes and how to recognise the poisonous ones. He said they would never harm a snake.

The street performers who were sitting in front of me were all well trained and had performed in TV shows such as India has got talent; many had been invited abroad and were well travelled. But their art has still to be recognised in any national cultural policy so while the classical performing arts are housed in Akademies and given a measure of state support the street artists have not been a subject of state policy.


The only time they shot into prominence was when designer Rajeev Sethi involved them in the Festival of India organised with the co-operation of the Smithsonian in Washington in 1985. The exhibition was called Mela and it attracted more than a million visitors including Nancy Reagen, Jackie Onassis and Rajiv Gandhi. The street performers had won international recognition and they came back to India hoping that that they would also be given recognition in their own country; they would be able to earn a livelihood.

But they had been just taken as exhibits. From being anonymous citizens of Independent India, they had been used as a part of a display and then discarded.

The street performers live in appalling conditions in urban slums and the most famous was the Kathputli Colony in Delhi. Even that colony has been demolished. Now they are scattered in different parts of the country and entertaining people during early hours when the police are not around because they are still legally categorized as beggars.

Now they were sitting in the drawing room of a human activist asking how they could enforce their rights under the Constitution of India?

False promises

I told them that the only way to enforce their rights is through organised resistance. But they could not understand that. After all they were citizens of independent India. Why did they need to have a movement to enforce their rights? After all they were artists and had contributed to India’s reputation in the field of culture.

They left the room dejected and disappointed. But they continued to knock on the doors of important people, political parties and foreign funded NGOs. All of them gave them a little financial aid and false promises. They have become so used to this response that the language of resistance has no meaning for them. It is something they associate with the past; before August 15, 1947.

Then came the pandemic. They were left to starve inside their homes. People who had once wandered freely across the country were locked down in their tiny rooms without even a proper toilet or bathroom.

A performance by Mukesh.

I phoned Mukesh to ask how he was coping. He said a NGO had distributed food but the people who came had insisted on taking selfies and photos of the distribution of the food packets. I had seen the selfies of people distributing food to lines of migrants standing with a plate in their hand. They had been posted on social media.

The images of the endless stream of migrant workers walking across the country have been playing out in my mind in vivid detail. The visuals get mixed up in my brain with the photographs posted on instagram accounts of our beloved movie stars smiling and proudly holding freshly-baked grain free paleo banana bread in their squeaky clean kitchen; or posing seductively in their bedroom on their four poster bed with silken sheets wrapped around them.

Bollywood seemed to be celebrating the lockdown and Farah Khan had to remind them, “It’s not a global party, guys, it’s a global pandemic.” But who was listening to her? there were more posts of film stars doing their workouts.

Mukesh could not understand why the NGO people insisted on taking photographs of the food distribution. “Let them,” I answered. But I knew how deeply I had hurt his sense of dignity. The image of the selfies and the grinning faces got morphed into the haunting image of George Washington’s dentures – made from ivory, gold and the teeth of slaves. Even though Washington often said he was against slavery he owned several slaves; several of whom he took into the White House when he became president of the United States.

A photograph of the dentures forms a part of an art work called The Nation (2017) by an African-American artist, Deana Lawson; the dentures are a haunting metaphor for the history and legacy of the African American experience in America. Some white people justified the yanking out of teeth of slaves by claiming George Washington paid for the teeth.

Outsiders in their own country

In twenty-first century India, people justified the treatment of migrants by saying they were outsiders; as if that was a justification for depriving millions of their livelihood, their homes and their self respect. One person wrote on a WhatsApp group formed in the wake of the pandemic: “I think it may be about time for this lovely, well behaved, polite group to make a much bigger statement. Like demand we must send all migrant workers home within seven days, even airlift them if necessary, commandeer those private charter planes as well if needed. Of course we can tag other demands to this one.”

This was written in May right in the middle of the exodus of migrants. When had Indian citizens become “outsiders” in their own country? More than 60 million migrants had become disenfranchised. A study by Aajeevika Bureau in 2011 estimated that 60% of India’s internal migrants could not vote in at least one of the elections.

And those who could vote, those who like Mukesh had a voting card, who would they vote for? What will this Independence Day mean for him and his family? His children cannot go to school and they do not have enough money to buy a laptop for online lessons. Even that last hope of getting an education is fading.

How will history remember these days? What metaphor for our nation will capture the cruelty, the callous disregard for fellow citizens? The promises in the Constitution remain unfulfilled and now the Constitution itself is being undermined and its values trampled upon by majoritarianism based on a vision of India that is neither secular nor is it socialist.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.