Music Without A Platform

Many years ago, in January 2007, the Washington Post conducted a remarkable social experiment that brought up amazing results. The experiment was to determine what would happen if a supremely gifted and internationally celebrated musician showed up incognito—baseball cap, blue jeans and all—ostensibly to play for small tips at a Metro station during the rush hour of a morning. Would he be appreciated and recognized? Would there collect a mob of crazy fans in such large numbers that the police would need to be called in? If he wasn’t recognized—which was the idea anyway—would people respect an artist purely on the merit of his music? The idea was to discover our perceptions: can we identify beauty when it is not showcased well? Are we able to recognize talent in an unexpected context, in an ordinary setting, at a time we are busy too? Does art without a frame get fair recognition, or does it even warrant much recognition?

The musician who agreed to collaborate in this experiment was the wonderfully gifted, 39-year-old violinist Joshua Bell, who had started being noticed as a prodigy since his childhood. Two days before this experiment, Bell had played in Boston to a house-full audience paying an average of 100$ per seat. And three weeks later, there wasn’t even a seat around: he would play to a standing-room-only audience in North Bethesda, Maryland. On this wintry morning in the Washington metro, Bell played 6 pieces from the masters on his usual violin, a Stradivarius valued at three and a half million dollars. The meticulously-planned experiment was recorded by a hidden camera.

As it turned out, He was nowhere near mobbed. In the 45 minutes that Joshua Bell played, close to 1100 people passed by, out of which only 7 paused for about a minute at an average. 27 people put money in his box, a total of 32$ and a few pennies. Clearly then, on that wintry morning in Washington, he was just another street performer, a musician without a platform. On that day, Joshua Bell’s music was art without a frame.


Street performance or busking is the act of doing a show in a public place, without an organised platform, for small tips. Such performances are ancient, and exist everywhere in the world. They are of two essential kinds: walk-by and circle acts. In the former, people walk by the performer, or vice-versa. Most musical performances are that kind. In circle acts, the performer gathers people around him. Anything that people enjoy is brought to the street: singing, playing instruments, ventriloquism, making animals dance or ride bicycles, snake-and-mongoose fights, cock fights, skills with fire, street theatre, juggling, miming, becoming a living statue, riding a cycle non-stop for days on end, and so on. In fact, carol-singing to raise funds is also a form of busking, as is singing Lohri folk songs door-to-door, an annual occurrence that residents of Punjab and Delhi are quite familiar with.

India has many of the above, and a few that are special to us. Snake-charming is one. Madaari-jamoora (ustad-shagird) is another, where the ustad asks questions, and the shagird—usually shrouded—answers them in an all-knowing way. The bhaalu waala brings a bear that will do all manner of things like dance to a dumroo or ride a cycle. The monkey fella gets even more done by his agile animal, including imitating the mannerisms of human beings. The dombaari khel is where a person walks with a balancing stick on a rope, as his accomplice sings or plays engaging music.

But there’s often a thin difference between most of the buskers abroad and those here at home. The ones here do not generally offer high art, perhaps because Indians mostly treat these artistes like beggars who use their meagre talents to ask for money. While that exists abroad too, far many more buskers there already have high talent; in a society that offers no disdain, they use this talent to enjoy themselves, while making respectable money. The above experiment was typical of what buskers would make in America today. 40$ an hour is quite nice, thank you.

We look at our film songs in which people perform in the hope for money in a public place. These are not mendicants or lost souls or happy ones, singing for other reasons. Nor are these people vending any goods or services. Only those who offer to entertain us in exchange for cash or kind.

  • Ho nadiya kinaare mora gaon hai (Hum Ek Hain, 1946)
  • Tamtam se jhaanko na Raniji (Namoona, 1940)
  • O roop nagar ke saudagar (Sazaa, 1951)
  • Chaahe naina churao chaahe daaman bachao (Aas, 1953)
  • Muhabbat ki daastaan aaj suno ye (Mayur Pankh, 1954)
  • Leke pehla pehla pyaar (CID, 1956)
  • Badi pyaar kahaani hai (Do Roti, 1957)
  • Tedi tedi humse phire saari duniya (Musafir, 1957)
  • Is jahaan ka pyaar jhoottha (Amar Deep, 1958)
  • Muhabbat ka haath jawaani ka palla (Howrah Bridge, 1958)
  • Chham chham ghunghru bole (Phagun, 1958)
  • Bichhde hue milenge phir (Post Box 999, 1958)
  • Naseeb hoga mera meherbaan kabhi na kabhi (40 Days, 1959)
  • Dil hum to haare (Ardhangini, 1959)
  • Humpe dil aaya to bolo kya karoge (Do Ustad, 1959)
  • Jaane kahaan gayi (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, 1960)
  • Dil tod ke jaana hai (Hamari Yaad Ayegi, 1961)
  • Jo hain deewaane pyaar ke (Baat Ek Raat Ki, 1962)
  • Beta jamoore keh de duniya ko (Biradari, 1966)
  • Jhumka gira re, Bareilly ke baazaar mein (Mera Saaya, 1966)
  • Tum kaun? Maamul (Phool Aur Patthar, 1966)
  • Duniya mein rehna hai to kaam kar pyaare (Haathi Mere Saathi, 1971)
  • Jisko mile padosi achha (Padosi, 1971)
  • Duniya ka mela, mele mein ladki (Raja Jani, 1972)
  • Rootthe rab ko manaana aasaan hai (Majboor, 1974)

Do consider that busking is about a street performance only for small tips of money, food or drink. It is not considered so if someone sings in the open for any other reason. Examples of such public performances on the street that are not street performances are Ramaiya vasta vaiya (Shri 420, 1955), Aaj suhaani raat re (Naya Andaz, 1956), Dekho mohe laaga solvaan saal (Solva Saal, 1958), Hum matwaale naujawaan (Shararat, 1959), Haal-chaal theek-thaak hai (Mere Apne, 1971), and Is deewaane ladke ko koi samjhaaye (Sarfarosh, 1999).

Busking is being regulated in many places abroad; even so, there are different laws in different places, especially about whether selling a product is fine. Many of us agree with regulations at Seattle Center, USA, where buskers are not allowed to sell products and non-entertainment services. It is for that reason that we have left out songs where physical products are on sale, such as Tarkaari le lo (Dhola Maru, 1956) and Laila ki ungliyaan bechoon (Ghar Ki Laaj, 1960). “Dekho dekho dekho, biscope dekho…paisa phenko tamaasha dekho” goes Mumtaz in Dushman (1971), and we can safely treat her song as a musically vending act.

Sometimes, we make a mistake between buskers and people not doing it for any money at all. This happened in Albela (1951). Hungry and poor Bimla Kumari and her father Badri Prasad are on a street as she sings Dheere se aaja ri akhiyan mein nindiya aaja ri aaja. A few people mistake them for beggars, so they put money in her hands. The surprised girl tells her dad, “Babuji, Babuji, log humen paise de rahe hain!” He replies, “Shaayad in logon ne humen bhikhari samjha hai beta” “Lekin gaane ke agar humko paise mil jaayen to kya harj hai? Bhooko marne se to bach jaayenge” she says. “Bhooko mar jaana achha hai beta. Bhook se aadmi mar jaata hai. Lekin bheek se aadmi ki izzat mar jaati hai”. Stunning lines, these.

Such a thing also happened in Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963). Dev Anand goes looking for his sweetheart, Nutan, singing Tu kahaan ye bata is nasheeli raat mein. It is night time, and many windows open to see what’s up. One woman thinks the singer is a street performer, so she throws a coin at the singer. Dev smartly tosses it back, with a “Wrong call, ma’am!” kind of expression.

(Originally published: 4 June 2017) (page 11)

It’s Nutan’s birthday today, so not a bad idea looking at this marvellous actress who emoted so well, sometimes without even uttering a word, like here. And of course Dev Anand is not a street performer here either, a point made above.

22 thoughts on “Music Without A Platform

  1. Manek, please forgive me for missing the DNA train lately. Daer aaye durust aaye, else how could I realize how much I am missing. Busking has gained immense recognition in our city as well. In the month of July each year, we have a buskers’ festival, where buskers from around the country congregate with their acts.. and the performances are enthralling, ranging from music, singing, acrobatics, magic (sleight of hand), etc. I remember when we were in Europe and the fully painted people would stand like statues for hours on end, until a small child ventured near them.. and they would bend down from their pedestal and shake hands.

    Even the troupe of Prithvi Theatres started out as a busker event in Peshawar. My Mom says, they would go from locality to locality and present their plays each night. Prithvi Raj’s grandmother would call him and his troupe “bhaands”

    Busking has come of age. Your article moved so much information in a small space that it leaves me in awe of the massive, organized beehive of a database that you possess, where every week, a collection of related songs make out like a small swarm of bees, buzzing the theme. Always enriched by your articles and the choice of songs.. leaves me speechless.. as to how you manage to compartmentalize HFM into such organized groups. Kudos! and tremendous thanks.

    1. You have not only humbled me, Sneh, with such lovely words, but have made me even more of an admirer with such writing and info. The Prithvi Theatre group as buskers? Amazing trivia! Glad to know the about the busking scene in Toronto too…aabhaar aabhaar 🙂

  2. Busking – not only a new word for me, but also a new perspective on the artistic/ acrobatical efforts on streets, often for small earning for sustenance. Thank You.

    I guess, in the frenetic pace of life that most of us are mired into, there seems hardly any space and time for the buskers though nukkad natakas by political / rights activists gain visibility off and on. AAP used it to the hilt in the run up to its first electoral battle. But there was a time when the people had the pause and leisure for the buskers. And there was a busker in Patna. That was the year 1971. He was an adept in reciting Aalah- Udal in bhojpuri lingo. He used to station himself in the corner of vast Gandhi Maidan every evening for the recital – lasting for over an hour. His recital was as fascinating as his facial expressions which created the visual hint of what might have transpired inter se the players in the epic. Equally fascinating was the moustache of the busker, which extended right into his bushy sideburns. This busker easily attracted people and often the congregation surged to a thousand strong. This busker was part of my daily schedule. I was then unemployed. He, I must say, is an important element of my recall of the good times that I had had in Patna.

    Sorry for this longish harangue but your article compelled it. It is so substantial and engrossing.


    1. Not at all a “longish harangue” Vijay; in fact, a fascinating recall! My mind is at work now, imagining that Patna busker, with his mustache running up into his sideburns 🙂

  3. hi Manek …I have read so many articles or reviews concerning Music and songs but
    this piece of writing is really a pleasant post,
    keep it up .As always thanks for the good old Vintage songs..

  4. Great theme,Manek ! I learned about “busking” when a young singer/song writer performing at Pitaara told me to have “busking” at one of our shows. I wonder how do you manage to explore so much and get the connections 🙂 Thoroughly enjoyed. Now look forward to the next weekend…

    1. Sangeeta, I explore because I cannot sing like you…thoda sa shaayad adjust kiya hai 🙂

      Grateful _()_

  5. Every Sunday I learn something new. This time ‘’Music without a platform’’. We have had the priveldge of hosting Sudhir Phadke the famous composer on more than couple of occasions in our house. He told us that he visited Delhi for the first time in 1944. At that time as a young person he would go in the streets of Naya Bazar in Delhi singing with his harmonium around the neck to wake up freedom fighters. He later continued that fight in Goa, Diu and Daman. He would say that music always started without a platform. It was much later that it was institutionalised. The so called Nautankis and Tamashas were initial steps to bring them to soldiers and common public. Could never put two and two together till I read this excellent piece by you. Excellent write and thanks a ton Manekbhai….

    1. Dr saab, in fact I must thank you for so much valuable information _()_

      And Sudhir Phadke? omg…kya kahen? What a musician!

  6. Lovely article, Manek! Busking is a FTH word for Mee! Just thought of one more song – O Zindagi hain Khel koyi pass koyi fail, Khiladi hain koyi, Anaadi hain koyi- sung by Mannada from Seeta aur Geeta! You talked about how a grp accomplished musician playing violin!, Recently, when I came to Mumbai, I thought of using the train, only because Pune to Mumbai by bus is OK as far as coming to Dadar. If I hv to go to places on the western belt, the journey becomes too tedious and tiring even if you are in AC comfort! So I decided to become Aam Aadmi and travelled by train from Dadar to Goregaon. There was a beggar singing perfectly using the “tipdis” so well- “Aaye ho meri Zindagi mein tum bahaar banke” – sooper rendition that prompted me to gift him Rs. 10/-. The song is from the movie Raja Hindustani!

    1. Train travel in Mumbai can be fascinating too Malini, and I do it about once a month, when I’m alone, and wanting to blank out. People watching can be fun, even if diluted these days by everyone on their phones 🙂

      Zindagi hai khel is absolutely okay, and please don’t forget Asha Bhosle, it’s a duet na?

  7. Actually I like street performer’s songs, in movies…Sonu Nigam tried to perform on street too. How about Manek, Jhumka gira re…from Movie ..Mera Saya..and …Payal ki jhankar…Movie…Mere Lal…

    1. Yes Jyoti, Sonu Nigam did it too, but I wonder if he got the idea from the Washington Post experiment…and Paayal ki jhankaar raste-raste is a great example of street singing. Thanks 🙂

  8. So now I have another new word in a my basket to flaunt – “You know those great busking songs?” And I am going to bask in all those perplexed and puzzled expressions around me and I will grandly explain – “Busking songs are those used in street performances only for small tips of money, food or drink. Want to learn more about them? Visit this superb essay on!”

    Super wow! Apart from the new word I picked (joining the Deepa-Monica club) – I have picked a completely new angle to view the songs that are hummable, fun, sometimes satirical, often carefree and certainly most interactive – they get the audience involved nice and proper!

    “Such a thing also happened in Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963). Dev Anand goes looking for his sweetheart, Nutan, singing Tu kahaan ye bata is nasheeli raat mein. It is night time, and many windows open to see what’s up. One woman thinks the singer is a street performer, so she throws a coin at the singer. Dev smartly tosses it back, with a “Wrong call, ma’am!” kind of expression.” – So apt and the perfect example on Nutan’s birth anniversary! Salutations, Sir!

    1. The trinity of Deepa-Monica-Antara, you guys can move mountains, but I am humbled!

      Glad you liked it…

  9. I learned a new word today – ‘busking’. Always something new to learn from your essays, Manek. The essay makes me look at the categories of ‘street’ songs in HFM in a totally new light. Usually, the aspects of HFM you highlight result in a paradigm shift in my – and I’m sure in others’ – thinking. This really is your strength. To highlight the hundreds of new ways in which one can hear the same songs.
    But, today, I realized another strength – you always manage to find the perfect heading for your essays.
    The essay is a winner, as are the songs you talk about. And that dialog from Albela? I wish I could figure out how you make these connections!
    The song you end with is perfect for both – the essay and the lady who’s birthday we celebrate today. Her smile/joy/glee in this song – totally worth waiting for – just like your essays every Sunday!

    1. Monica, what can I say if a great writer, who loves music as I do, finds so much worth in my article?

      My cup runneth over 🙂

  10. bhau – as usual you really tug our heart strings as your write with a flow completely in control of the subject matter and your reader too. 🙂

    the most important point the reader from the first word till the last word i wide eyed and is taken through a story which many a times he does not know at all or could not have imagined it. 🙂 and even if the subject is known – the way you present it and the info within will be stunning as we would not have envisaged it at all. 🙂

    singing incognito is very exciting as most of the times the legendary artiste doe not want to do anything by way of giving out his real identity so he makes no eye contact and tries to maintain that simplicity and to the raw talent he is exhibiting.

    i am sure you have come across this famous clip of sonu nigam performing dressed in rags with a harmonium in a street corner. none recognise him – a few people throng him – curious passers by and one even asks his permission to rfecord it in his cell phone and quietly slips in Rs.12/= into sonu nigam’s hands who is just a street performer. the singer has framed that Rs.12/= and says he would like to meet that man and do something for him. 🙂

    stay blessed bhau – 🙂

  11. Wow learnt a new word today, busking 🙂 and just remembered my DJ day in the RTS….Jamoore and Ustad 😀
    Great list of songs, Manek ji 🙂
    Will Dosti (1964) songs qualify for this?
    I also remember Amitabh performing on Ee hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh babua….Don (1978)

    1. Yes Deepa, I remember your presentations, all with Ustad and Jamoora 🙂

      And those songs you have mentioned? Bingo 🙂

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