No country for buskers: street performers face an uncertain future

Ishrat, Wajid, Razadan Shah and Ishamdin Khan at at Kathputli Colony Transit Camp Anand Parbat. , Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

On Sunday afternoon, Wajid, a 48-year-old street magician, was arranging props for his show in Noida when a passerby approached him and asked him to leave. “They threatened to beat me up if I didn’t take my protest somewhere else. I had to bow down,” says Mr Wajid, adding that facing such harassment is a daily reality of street protesters in the National Capital Region.

Without a formal law to provide protection, busking – the act of performing in public places for voluntary charity – has seen a steady decline.

Ishamuddin Khan, a 52-year-old street magician, says police use colonial-era laws such as the Theatrical Performances Act of 1876 and the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act of 1959 to keep them off the streets.

While West Bengal and Delhi have repealed the Dramatic Performance Act, it remains active in modified versions in several states. The Law Commission of India in its 248th report Obsolete Laws: Warranting Immediate Repeal stated that archaic law “has no place in a modern democratic society”.

In the absence of clear guidelines, whether or not public demonstrations should be allowed is left to the discretion of the local police.

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‘Need for regulation’

Delhi-based lawyer Abhishek Kumar Pathak says regulation is needed to provide a space for artistes to showcase their talent and earn a livelihood with dignity and without being intimidated by authorities.

“Though begging and busing have different literal meanings, Section 2 of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, considers busing to be a form of begging,” says Mr. Pathak.

However, Varun Dagar, who came out of his home in Haryana’s Palwal to perform a freestyle dance at Delhi’s Connaught Place, says that plying a bus should not be given legal recognition until it is properly defined in the law. “I have been taken to the local police station several times. Now the police doesn’t tell me anything. My struggles have made it a little easier for others to drive the bus,” he says.

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vanishing act

Today, jadugars (Magician), airport (performers with trained animals), Mad (acrobats), Baazigars (juggler), behroopiyas (the impersonator), and you will find out (Snake charmers) are fast disappearing from public places.

“we belong to jadugar community. We have been roaming around the country and performing feats for thousands of years. In summer we go to the mountains. Winters have come, we head to Mumbai, Kolkata and the coastal areas,” says Mr. Khan.

He says that after independence, the government established institutions for the protection of art and recognized top artists and provided them with facilities like housing. “It is a tragedy that most jadugars are poor and illiterate, and lack representation in parliament. Legislators should pass laws to help us,” he says.

moving on

Faced with the impasse, many street artists have turned to other professions. “Some have become e-rickshaw drivers, while others are working in scrap metal,” he says.

“Whenever I do a show, I face police harassment,” says 60-year-old Razdan Shah, a street magician-turned-scrap dealer. “What’s the harm in asking a rupee or two from the public to show your talent?”

Mr. Khan says he has feared the police ever since his father was beaten while preparing for a demonstration in Haryana. “A policeman approached us and asked for a bribe of Rs 2. They hit my father when he said he hasn’t earned any money yet and will pay after the performance,” he says.

online petition

For over a decade, Mr Khan has been working with 300-400 families of street performers in the National Capital Region to ensure that their trade is regulated.

With little success, they have started a petition on demanding that the Delhi Police, the Delhi government and the New Delhi Municipal Council allow buses to ply in public places. The petition has garnered over 7,600 signatures so far.

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