The Right To Perform
Indian Madaari Ishamuddin Khan is fighting a lone battle
Madaari Ishamuddin Khan (52), is a symbol of India's not so distant past. In Indira Gandhi’s India, Khan would clasp his father’s little finger, while the latter would hunt for a spot at Connaught Place, where he could busk through the day. Today, Ishamuddin Khan, lives as a hand-to-mouth beneficiary of the Indian welfare state.
Khan, a world-renowned magician, hates that he’s been shunned to the periphery of the national capital, consigned to an EWS (Economically Weaker Section) flat in a housing society in Narela — a sub-city in the North Delhi district — that feels more like a prison complex on an island to him.
Blame it on my privilege that I was half-expecting a scrum of shanties skirting narrow gullies that would let just an iota of sunlight in, when I visited him. This description wouldn’t have been very off if Khan was still living in Kathputli Colony, an unauthorised squatter settlement located in West Delhi's Shadipur.
The colony was home to members belonging to the tribes of India’s indigenous street performers. They worked as magicians, acrobats, jugglers and puppeteers, and had settled at Kathputli Colony since the 1950s.
After years of resistance from the residents, starting 2014, Kathputli Colony began to be demolished. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in a public-private partnership with Raheja Developers, commenced an in-situ rehabilitation project. 2,800 residents of the erstwhile Colony were moved to a transit camp at Anand Parbat, while the remaining 492 were allotted DDA flats in Narela on a temporary basis. One such flat was allotted to Ishamuddin’s daughter.
While the ‘redevelopment’ of a slum cluster and the relocation of its inhabitants to ‘flats’ ostensibly sounds good, the futility or rather the half-bakedness of this effort becomes apparent when one visits DDA’s EWS housing society in Narela’s sector G 7. The area, which lies barren for kilometres on end, and wears a ghostly look even in broad daylight, is bereft of economic opportunities.
Most people have had to take up jobs as factory hands, or other blue-collar gigs such as drivers in Delhi. They have rented rooms near their workplaces, to avoid the long commute every day.
Residents’ worries are compounded by a lack of clarity on whether they’ll be allotted flats in the ‘redeveloped’ Kathputli Colony in Shadipur where three 14-storey high-rise towers are supposed to come up. All of that depends on whether they’re able to produce the required documents to prove their status as genuine ‘beneficiaries’ when the allotment of houses begins.
But the project, which was due to be completed by March 2019, has missed several deadlines, and there's still no firm date for its completion.
For Ishamuddin Khan and others, their relocation to Narela, 30 km away from the site of the erstwhile Kathputli Colony and on the city’s outskirts, could be the final nail in the coffin as far as their art forms are concerned.
Sitting in his small living room beside a bluetooth stereo and a glucometer, Ishamuddin demonstrated a few tricks of his trade. He started by making coins disappear and ended the show by eating shikakai seeds and 'turning' them into small iron balls that came out of his mouth. Such acts that could leave gullible spectators dumbfounded, are accompanied by a disclaimer from Ishamuddin.
“If I could produce iron balls from my stomach, I would be richer than Laxmi Narayan Mittal,” he quipped in a flowy accent, “This was a trick. I’m not a baba, not a godman, I’m just an Indian street magician fighting to save my craft.”
It seems to be a losing fight for India’s tribal street artists, who’re celebrated for their craft abroad, but live lives of obscurity in their own country. That is partly because the Indian state criminalises busking or street performances through the Colonial-era Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, and the 1959 Bombay (Prevention of Beggary) Act. The latter Act is invoked against street performers for India’s law authorities have always conflated busking with begging.
In 2018, the Delhi High Court decriminalised begging in the national capital and struck down several provisions of the Bombay Beggary Act as unconstitutional. Even the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, is not in force in Delhi. But these legal safeguards haven't trickled down to performers such as Ishamuddin.
Ishamuddin Khan recounted the recent incident of a Delhi cop removing a busker who was playing the guitar, from a corridor in Connaught Place. A video of the incident had gone viral, prompting several celebrities to condemn the Delhi Police’s attitude towards buskers.
But for Khan, who saw his father get beat up by the police for trying to perform at CP during the 80s, his outrage at the incident was a lot more personal.
“It was because that busker was playing the guitar and wearing jeans and a shirt that the policeman just asked him to go away. If I had tried to perform at CP, dressed as a madaari or magician, in my dhoti kurta, the policeman would have abused me, beat me with his lathi (stick) and taken any money I had in my pockets,” Khan said.
The magician remembers the 80s as when things became insurmountably difficult for street performers. Delhi hosted the Asian Games in 1982. In the lead-up to the mega-event, security agencies had gone into overdrive in ridding the city’s public spaces of encroachers. Street performers were obvious casualties in the process.
“There was a time when the Central Park at Connaught Place would have a majma (congregation) of street performers in the evenings. Soon, policemen started taking bribes from us. They’d take our money but warn us that if their superior happened to pass by, they’d still beat us and remove us from that spot,” Ishamuddin Khan said.
Things eased somewhat after the Games, but not for long. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and the horrific aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots saw the city engulfed in a cloud of fear. This worked against indigenous roving performers such as Ishamuddin and his family.
The notion that large crowds foment anti-social activities has stayed on, and while our security agencies argue that removing buskers is necessary to avoid pick-pockets and other security risks, Ishamuddin feels this reversal of fortune has more to do with how the Western suspicion of India’s tribals has permeated to our own authorities.
“The West made fun of us as the land of snake-charmers. So we tried to change that image. When they were building the Commonwealth Games Village for 2010, they sought the help of snake-charmers to keep the athletes’ houses free of reptiles. After the work was done, snake-charmers were forgotten,” he said.
Nevertheless, Khan is practical. He respects the ways of the modern world that can’t allow snake-charmers to perform at public spots for fear of untoward incidents; also, for the rights of animals. But he laments that the tag has been used as a blanket excuse to remove all of India’s street performers from the public eye.
In early 2014, Ishamuddin Khan filed several Right to Information (RTI) queries with various police stations in Delhi, as well as the Chief Minister’s Offices in Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. He sought information about the cases lodged against street performers, and whether there was any law against street performances and if they were being curbed due to the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, and the art forms officially recognised by the cultural departments of these state governments.
Most replies contained the usual refrain of, “The query does not relate to this office”. The Office of the Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police Cum Public Information Officer, New Delhi District, New Delhi, confirmed that public performances could be deemed illegal if prohibitory orders were passed under the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876.
However, none of the replies provided information on whether street performers had been detained under the Act, suggesting an ad-hoc and off-the-book implementation of the law. Street performers such as Ishamuddin would allege that they’ve had to routinely pay bribes to escape prosecution for trying to perform on the street.
Around 2017, Ishamuddin Khan campaigned aggressively for buskers to be allowed to perform at designated spots in the city. He met the then Minister of Tourism in the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi Government, Kapil Mishra (who has since moved to the Bharatiya Janata Party).
Mishra was accepting of Khan’s suggestion but the division of powers between the Centre and the Delhi Government was such that the latter could only grant permission for performances at a few places in the city, such as Dilli Haat at INA and the Garden of Five Senses in Saiyad ul Ajaib, Saket, among others.
Khan thought of it as a step in the right direction. But his hopes were dashed in the next meeting when officials from the Delhi Government took exception to the fact that after a busker’s performance, they’re known to pass their hat among the crowd of spectators to collect money from those who’d like to contribute.
The Bombay (Prevention of Beggary) Act, 1959 was still in force in Delhi then. As mentioned earlier, the Act was struck down in a 2018 Delhi High Court ruling. However, Ishamuddin doesn’t think its removal has made much of a difference to the fate of buskers.
Today, Khan earns his living by joining NGOs and nonprofits in their efforts towards raising awareness about AIDS, or the perils of genetically modified or GM crops. But those gigs are hard to come by. Besides, it takes him a while to travel from Narela to Delhi.
While Khan narrated his story, his wife was in Ghaziabad scouting for a small parcel of land where the couple could open a general store using money borrowed from friends.
On days of no work, Ishamuddin leafs through old photographs and watches his old videos on loop, finding solace reminiscing the time when he’d achieved global fame for his craft.
In 1995, the then 24-year-old Ishamuddin became the first magician in the world to complete a successful outdoor performance of the ‘Great Indian Rope Trick’, which many had dismissed as hearsay perpetuated by overindulgent orientalists from the West.
The trick, which involves a usual limp rope turning taut and rising out of the magician’s basket to the tunes of the ‘damru’ or the hand held drum, has been written about by Mughal Indian emperor Jahangir in his memoirs, as also by 14th-century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta.
However, the version of the rope trick commonly told in India blurs the line between history and mythology. In this version, a young boy climbs the stiff rope and disappears into the sky. The magician calls after the boy. Upon receiving no response, he angrily climbs the rope and vanishes!
The boy’s dismembered limbs fall to the ground a minute later. Finally, the magician climbs down the rope, assembles the broken limbs in his basket, and reproduces the boy in whole, unharmed.
Ishamuddin Khan’s version, performed for the first time in front of a crowd at Delhi’s Qutub Minar, saw the magician’s rope turning stiff and rising like a pole into the sky before returning to its original limp state and falling to the ground.
In subsequent performances, he would invite spectators from the crowd to inspect the rope to dispel notions of foul play. Overnight, Ishamuddin achieved global fame and would soon embark on busking tours to several places in Europe and Japan.
At home, though, his country, with a freshly liberalised economy and in the throes of an IT revolution, couldn’t have cared less about indigenous art forms.
Since the turn of the century, the neglect towards Ishamuddin’s craft has only gotten more entrenched. Anthropologists and sociologists would perhaps blame it on the rising Indian middle class developing diverse and global tastes due to a range of entertainment options on offer.
Madaaris or magicians have made way for mentalists who can guess the card in your hand or the number in your head and are savvy with Instagram reels. Meanwhile, Ishamuddin’s future is fading into oblivion.
Khan’s friend Mukesh Nat, 34, was born in a tribe of acrobats. Mukesh is well-travelled and worldly-wise. He maintains a scrapbook with newspaper clippings of his performances and achievements from when circus artists were in vogue.
There’s a photo where he’s performing as a clown on stilts and putting up a show for the former Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit.
Mukesh Nat even tried his hand at ‘India’s Got Talent’ show once — the certificate is in his scrapbook — but left disillusioned about the value accorded to his craft by ratings-driven shows that superficially look for ‘talent’.
“Our tribes have been nomadic, so we can’t claim to have come from a particular region. My surname ‘Nat’ in Sanskrit, means a ‘dancer’ and members of our caste have traditionally been entertainers or jugglers.
But the show’s makers thought it would suit their ‘script’ if I posed as a Rajasthani folk artist. So they got me to dress like that and go on stage,” said Nat.
“But when I was performing as a gymnast and contortionist, the lady judge got scared and hid her face behind her dupatta. Before long, I was asked to stop.”
“Today, an Indian madaari can only perform in a mall if they know the Turkish ice cream trick. Our streets have been closed off to us, malls won’t let us in, and the state has put us here, in the middle of nowhere, in the name of redevelopment,” Ishamuddin Khan added.
A father of six children, Ishamuddin, who only studied till Class VII, had a hopeful glint in his eyes, when talking about his two daughters and their professional pursuits. The younger one is preparing for the civil services examination, while the elder daughter works for a private establishment. He regretted letting one of his sons follow in his footsteps.
Altamas completed his graduation studies in performing arts from Dibrugarh University. “But he fell in with the wrong kind of company there,” Ishamuddin told me. When asked about the whereabouts of his son, he replied: “Hoga kahin birthday party mein gubbare fula raha hoga (he must be blowing balloons for some birthday party).”
On the personal front, Khan hasn’t given up the dream of being able to revive his career as a street magician and secure a sustainable future for tribal buskers. He and Mukesh want to build a self-sustaining ‘magic’ village where indigenous street artists could live and perform.
He envisions that such a village could become a tourist hotspot for only then would it receive patronage from the government. Ishamuddin has also thought of bringing his fellow street performers online, and getting them accustomed to recording videos on a smartphone.
On the matter of the government’s policies not supporting street performers, Ishamuddin Khan has started an online petition on Change.org, asking the authorities to regulate busking instead of enforcing a blanket ban on street performances.
“We receive so much love when we tour abroad; I’m excited about the potential in our craft and how, with a little help from our government, we could really help our dull streets come alive with magic.”
All Photographs by Om Vashisht