Against the Gothic backdrop of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, big crowds circle performers swallowing swords or juggling with fire. Gravity-defying teenage break dancers perform late into the night on Bangkok’s bustling Khao San road. The streets of Santiago would not be the same without their spinning drummers. In these, and other urbanscapes around the world, street performers or buskers are an integral part – but where are they in Indian cities?
The answer to this can be traced to 1876 when the British Raj implemented the Dramatic Performances Act, to police public performances used as forms of protest by Indians against the colonial rule. Post-Independence, the act has not entirely been abolished and modified versions of it are still active in different states. This makes it difficult to conduct performances in public spaces and continues the censorship of public theatre across cities even today. While West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Delhi have now repealed the archaic law, whether a public performance is deemed objectionable, and hence qualifies for a licence or not, is left to the discretion of local police. Unsurprisingly, this often leads to class- or caste-based discrimination against the performers.
Contemporary street art initiatives such as the performing arts group Gender-ventions and the travelling buskers who go by the name The Middle of Nowhere shared their recent experiences of performing in Delhi. Gender-ventions use theatre to involve passersby in public spaces such as parks, pavements or markets on social issues around gender, identity and access to public space. The group’s founder Niranjani Iyer recounted how they have been stopped midway on several occasions, getting chased by security guards outside the Inderlok metro station in Delhi or by the police in Connaught Place’s Central Park.
“We typically put up only short performances or vignettes, knowing that we could be asked to stop at any time,” Iyer said. “We begin by putting up three chairs with our actors standing or sitting in silence, and very soon a crowd begins to collect in anticipation, the stillness of our act competing with the noise around.”
Prateek Shankar, a 22-year-old designer and percussionist, shared how his Delhi-based music group, The Middle of Nowhere, was denied a permit to perform in Daryaganj by the police recently. Known for their impromptu music performances in the middle of public spaces, the group has found the streets of smaller cities much more welcoming. What Shankar and Iyer have recently encountered has been the daily reality of the traditional street performers in Indian cities.
Growing up in suburban Noida, when Atta Market in Sector 27 was just another neighborhood bazaar, my childhood evenings would came alive with the approaching sounds of the madaari’s damru, the monkey trainer’s drum. Accompanied by a dancing monkey and a big sack, his arrival was always accompanied by a mixture of excitement and fear – apart from the fact that he could clearly speak in monkey language, the madaari was a lower class man, a stranger, the kind of person we had been warned not to trust by our parents. Today, those madaaris or men with trained monkeys, jaadugars or magicians, nats or acrobats, baazigars or jugglers, kathputli kalaakaars or puppeteers, behroopiyas or impersonators and saperas or snake charmers, have all but disappeared from the city’s streets and public spaces, visible only at a few tourist attractions. As the city has grown, it has pushed them to the fringes, or outside, to smaller towns.
The animal trainers, generally known as kalanders – men with dancing monkeys, bears, baskets full of snakes – were banned from their traditional occupations on the grounds of animal cruelty in the 1990s. While justifiable, the ban on these age old-arts gave no thought to how the men could be re-employed – many were rendered destitute without their only skill to support them. There are several tribes of traditional performing artistes in India – with each generation passing down their occupational art and secrets to the next. Each occupies a somewhat distinct position in the hierarchy of the city’s fauna.
As a result of the 1959 Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, none of these groups is allowed to perform any longer. Mohammad Tarique, director of the NGO Koshish, explained that the law equates these traditional arts to begging – an illegal activity in India.
“Its enactment is left entirely to the discretion of the local police, often resulting in them manhandling the performers,” he said. Sadly, this discrimination is also aped by the more affluent masses in Indian cities.
“We can perform only in the outer areas of the city today and colonies such as Kalyanpuri or Kapashera to avoid harassment from the police,” said Wajid Khan, a magician from the Kathputli Colony in Delhi. “We are often ill-treated by the local shopkeepers who don’t want a crowd gathering on their street.” Kathputli Colony is designated as a slum and is home to scores of street performers Salman Rushdie vividly captured in his book Midnight’s Children. In the book, a forced eviction rips apart the life of Rushdie’s protagonist, Saleem. Three decades since the book was published, evictions still threaten residents.
“I am a world famous magician who is unknown in his own country,” said Ishamudin Khan, a 46-year-old living in the transit camp of Kathputli Colony. Khan has been recognised as one of the 20 most famous magicians in the world, following his performance of the Great Indian Rope Trick in 1995, but his art is unappreciated in his own country.
Making his living through magic performances at children’s parties, he noted somewhat sadly that the affluent Indians consider India’s reputation as backward, when it is referred to as the land of snake-charmers. “That is leading to the slow death of our traditional arts,” he said. “Today we are recognised only through foreign events but once we come back home, nothing changes for us.” Khan also said he realises that his community needs to modernise their approach to traditional work and pick contemporary themes to stay relevant in current times, “where social connections have turned digital and public spaces have shifted to malls”.
Recently, Khan has mobilised his community through the initiative Indian Street Perfomers’ Association Trust , which has also managed to gain permission from Kapil Mishra, the minister of Delhi tourism, art, culture and language, on designating a performance space at Delhi Haat for the traditional performing artists. He hopes that the younger generations will not abandon art forms which have survived for centuries, and wants to set up a training institute in a nurturing environment, where they can practise their skills, learn about their rights and also how to use social media.
To open up our streets to buskers and traditional artists will only make them safer, walkable and more vibrant. While India is on a development high, setting up 100 Smart Cities and launching over 100 satellites, it also needs to take pride in traditional arts before they disappear.
Swati Janu is a community architect and the co-ordinator of Barsati, a platform to showcase experimental initiatives for the underserved, unheard communities of Delhi.