Musically Vending

Vendors on the street

Entertaining us

Selling merchandise

With their song precious

Hoping what we buy

Will make us come for more


Are they really vending

Their stuff compelling

Or is it an act—

Musical yelling—

To distract us so

We spend our cash galore!

(Sung to the tune of Strangers In The Night!)

Entertaining to expect money on the street, also called busking, is the act of doing a show in a public place, without a formal platform. Whatever people enjoy watching is brought to a public place in expectation of tips: singing, playing instruments, juggling, ventriloquism, comedy, making animals dance or ride bicycles, snake-and-mongoose fights, cock fights, drawing pictures on a pavement, skills with fire, street theater, miming, becoming a living statue, riding a cycle non-stop for days on end, and so on. Busking also includes carol singing to raise funds, as also singing Lohri folk songs door-to-door, an annual occurrence that many residents of Punjab and Delhi are acquainted with.

Musically vending is not busking

Do recall Waheeda Rehman’s tightrope walk to the accompaniment of the song ”Jo hain deewaane pyaar ke, sada chalen talwaar pe” from Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962). That’s entertaining the crowds with a balancing act on a tightrope. It is an example of busking, as is “Jhumka gira re, Bareilly ke baazaar mein” from Mera Saaya (1966), in which gypsy-girl Sadhana and her musicians busk inside a circle of men enjoying the oomph in her song and dance. Neither is actually selling anything. But if Mumtaz is entertaining us on a Bharat-darshan tour in “Dekho dekho dekho, bioscope dekho” in Dushman (1971) it is not busking, because she also adds, “paisa phenko, tamaasha dekho”. Again, when she switches to selling coconut water for a rupee in “Le ro le lo baabu pee lo nariyal paani” Apna Desh (1972), she cannot be seen as busking. She is musically vending in both cases. Buskers hope for financial rewards, vendors insist on payment.

Neither is every street performer a busker

Busking is a huge thing abroad, but vending apart, many other performances on the street are not called busking. When beggars sing or play music, it is not called vending or busking, since they always seek our sympathy for tips. Singing in a public place only because you are happy or have just been dumped is also not an act of busking or vending, nor is it so when we do a “Govinda aala re” act on Janmashtmi. In fact, many cities abroad have quite clear ideas of what does not constitute busking. The City of Melbourne for instance treats the following as non-busking activities: Vending—selling of goods or services—of any kind, political rallying, touting for business, religious spruiking, palmistry, tarot card reading, and a few more.

Different cities around the world have their own ideas about street performances, but most remain in concord about vending as not being an act of busking. While we in India do not take any street performance seriously, we have for long had people vending their stuff on the street in a musical way. The man who comes to our neighbourhood to sharpen our scissors and knives may have a musical note in his loud cry. The fish-seller vending Pomfret (“Paaplet!”) and the mango vendor selling choice Alphonsos (“Haapus!”) can be quasi-musical in their call too. The dense Indian ice cream called kulfi is sometimes sold with a musical call that goes Kulfeee! The raddi-waala kabaadi may buy your used valuables or newspapers, the kalai waala wants to re-line your utensils, and many of us may have seen the man who comes around to refluff the cotton in our quilts, pillows and mattresses, with his harp-like instrument making a musical twang as he beats out the lumpy cotton. We have had a long and diverse history of vending goods, especially in a musical way. This vending can also apply to services like massages, haircuts and what have you.

Selling on the street is in fact universal and goes back centuries, with people traditionally offering us elixirs for youth and magic potions for getting healthier or younger. The fun is if they promote their stuff in a musical way. Think of these film songs, all of which had someone vending goods or services musically. The products are also mentioned:

  • Chane jor garam baabu main laaya mazedaar (Spiced black grams/Arun Kumar/Bandhan, 1940)
  • Boot karoon main paalish babu (Shoeshine/Suraiya/Nayi Duniya, 1942)
  • Tera khilona toota (Toys/Rafi/Anmol Ghadi, 1946)
  • Boot paalish karwa le baabu (Shoeshine/Meena Kapoor/Ghar Ki Izzat, 1948)
  • O koi maakhan le lo (Butter/Zeenat Begum, SD Batish/Patjhad, 1948)
  • Theher zara o jaane waale (Shoeshine/Manna Dey, Asha Bhosle, Madhubala Jhaveri/Boot Polish, 1953)
  • Naarangi le lo ji (Oranges/Unknown singer/Bahut Din Hue, 1954)
  • Yaad rakhna pyaar ki nishaani gori yaad rakhna (Bangles/Hemant, Lata/Nagin, 1954)
  • Tarkaari le lo (Vegetables/Asha/Dhola Maru, 1956)
  • Phoolon ke haar le lo (Stringed flowers/Hemant/Inspector, 1956)
  • Lo har cheez le lo (Shoe polishes, combs, lipsticks, toys, stringed flowers and hairpieces/Sudha, Asha, Geeta/Ab Dilli Door Nahin, 1957)
  • Saiyaan jhoothon ka bada sartaaj nikla (Toys/Lata/Do Aankhen Baarah Haath, 1957)
  • Albela main ik dil waala (Balloons, dusting cars/Asha/Miss India, 1957)
  • Sar jo tera chakraaye ya dil dooba jaaye (Head massages/Rafi/Pyaasa, 1957)
  • Surma mera niraala aankhon mein jisne daala (Kohl/Kishore/Kabhi Andhera Kabhi Ujala, 1958)
  • Main riksha waala (Hand-pulled rickshaw rides/Rafi/Chhoti Behen, 1959)
  • Dilbar pe ho na qaabu (Instant photographs/Rafi/Pehli Raat, 1959)
  • Laila ki ungliyaan bechoon (Cucumbers/Rafi/Ghar Ki Laaj, 1960)
  • Baabu insurance kara lo (Insurance/Rafi/Kaala Aadmi, 1960)
  • Ek aana boot polish do aana tel maalish (Shoeshine and head massages/Mukesh/Tel Malish Boot Polish, 1961)
  • Aaj ki taaza khabar (Newspapers/Shanti Mathur/Son Of India, 1962)
  • Ber le o ber le o (Berries/Asha/Paisa Ya Pyaar, 1969)
  • Aaya re khilone waala (Toys and masks/Rafi/Bachpan, 1970)
  • Ari muniya re muniya tu bata main kaun hoon (Toys and masks/Kishore/Bachpan, 1970)
  • Le lo choodiyaan (Bangles/Kishore, Lata/Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, 1970)
  • Aahen na bhar thandi-thandi…garam-garam chai pee le (Tea/Lata/Banphool, 1972)
  • Le lo champa chameli gulaab le lo (Flowers/Asha/Sone Ke Haath, 1973)
  • Chakku chhuriyaan tez kara lo (Knives and scissors honing/Asha/Zanjeer, 1973)
  • Aaya re aaya khilone waala aaya (Balloons and masks/Rafi/Sone Ka Dil Lohe Ke Haath, 1978)
  • Logon ka dil haan jeetna tumko hai to (Teeth-cleaning twig called Datoon/Rafi, Tina Munim/Manpasand, 1980)

The following songs were also the musically vending kind, but in a faux way, because they happened only on a stage in the film:

  • Choodi main laaya anmol re (Bangles/Mumtaz Ali, Sunita Devi/Achhut Kanya, 1936)
  • Laayi re lo gajre le lo (Stringed flowers/Manju, Durrani/Nayi Kahani, 1943)
  • Le lo le lo do phooldaani le lo (Flower bouquets/Shamshad, Zohra, Rafi/Jaadu, 1951)
  • Chana jor garam baabu main laaya mazedaar (Spiced black grams/Kishore, Shamshad/Naya Andaz, 1956)

In India, our economy has crossed the cusp of a crucial phase this week with the new Goods And Services Tax coming into force. According to Government of India figures, there are about 10 million street vendors in India, many of them children. They are in what is called the Informal Sector, and let’s hope they will not be affected because the cascading effect out of there can be disastrous. We will need to wait and watch how this pans out. If they do get affected, some of them will try to find a competitive edge to survive. Singing to sell will be one such idea.


(Originally published: July 2, 2017) (page 11)

16 thoughts on “Musically Vending

  1. This is a great side-show to your buskers article. Street vending with song and dance. We don’t see much of that here, but vending carts with everything from the traditional burger to the Italian sausages to the much coveted french fries, even converted to the Poutine. The city of Ottawa decided to regulate these vending businesses and awarded licences to selected purveyors. Would you believe it, our Dosa made the cut and stood on one street corner, very cherished.

    An amazing article once again.. with the huge array of songs to fit the theme. It feels so nice to see the street artists and vendors finding a place in the HFM.. celebrated in their own way.

    Always love your presentations.. this one is no exception.. Amazed is a small word.

    1. Humbled Sneh _()_
      What is a Poutine, by the way? New word for me 🙂
      And the dosa made it, wow! I love dosas, especially if done kadak 🙂

  2. manekbhai – this is a very thoughtful article from your end. it also goes to show how humane you actually are. 🙂 you think of everybody and their problems and connect it musically. 🙂

    GST – good simple tea – courtesy chaiwaalaa – eating out in hotels is unthinkable on this new tax regime in place. 🙂

    what i forsee is – dhaba culture or street food will get a huge fillip as nothing applies to him – all that he has to do is – his ” verbal billing ” should have to be cheaper than a hotel. 🙂

    how is the government curb this – mind you as we are talking – the dhaba fellow is on the highways and he may give all this with some fantastic ” retro music “. 🙂

    if only these road side eateries ( where no tax applies ) maintain cleanliness and the hygene aspect taken care off – then the govt ploy with their heavy taxation on hotels and food will be an utter failure. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    we should welcome these eateries as many a man would not want to pay more for the same food so far enjoyed without any sweat. 🙂

    thanks for a great write manekbhai – stay blessed – 🙂

  3. You have picked a topic that most of us a are talking or agitated about. But the way you have thought out of the box to give it a cinematic context is really fascinating. And the songs that you have shortlisted relate both to the goods and the services. For the latter, I in particular liked the one from Boot Polish – thehar jara… – and the other from Pyaasa – maaleesh…….

    I wonder how long will the GST dispensation will take to get universally acceptable. The corruption is so deeply entrenched. The babus are not psyched into accepting it. Only a while before, I was watching a news report on the ABP, which showed the babus at nakas and tolls in chattisgarh issuing a hologram to each waiting truck driver, charging Rs. 900. No receipt, no record. Pure and simple coercion and graft. The Minister concerned refused to speak to the correspondent. Obviously he must be having share in the booty.

    Informal / unorganized sector in the country is essentially an aspect of poverty. GST will not be able to curb it. However it will shrink if per capita income grows.

    I wonder if any government will give legality to the woman’s oldest profession, that is prostitution – the kind of legality that it enjoys in Thailand and some countries of Europe. The truth remains that prostitution is beyond governments. And no one has an authentic estimation of amount of money it attracts. If prostitution can be legalized subject to conditions and brought under the GST, it can bring in enough money to sustain most of the help-poor programmes of the government.


    1. Awesome observations, Vijay, I doff my hat to you for them!

      Just want to say that I used to like Thailand with my many visits there. Then I went there last year after perhaps a 15-year break. Okay so the monorail is there, making life easier, and there have been a few more ups. Get out of Bangkok though and it’s a sad scene stilI took a two-hour journey to their old capital, Ayuthya, and was severely disappointed. But I’ll tell you what, Bangkok itself is a shame. They have converted the entire city into a huge whorehouse. It’s impossible to walk even in the best areas without being solicited. Very bad. So if that’s the legality you speak of, then I don’t know. As for Europe, many dens are legalised, so if they operate within legal norms, I suppose it’s ok. But there’s still no proliferation. India too has legalised the trade I understand. I needed to add the ‘I understand’ part 🙂

      1. Well observed Manek. The spill over could be a real risk. The city may no longer remain divided into white and black but may turn into all shades of grey. For area demarcations too will be in the hands of enforcerers who will not mind looking the other way for few bucks.

        1. Jee jee Vijay. During the last visit of mine, not only was I looking at the sea of young girls between 15 and 25 approach passersby, I was looking at how people were reacting to the ladies. They seemed strangely anesthetized. Perhaps that may happen to us, if everything becomes gray here…

  4. Manek it is your last paragraph which is of concern to me. There is a feeling amongst the trading and business community…and those not tech savvy whilst conducting their small businesses that the death knell is being sounded for their kind of business.

    Hope the informal sector will not be wiped out but will be able to earn their daily bread. All cannot become big businessmen with big turnovers nor thieves when push comes to shove.

    1. So true Balbir, I too see a lot of concern over this legislation. A vast majority of people don’t see the sheen on our Prime Minister now…someone till now seen as a clean and visionary politician…

    1. Thanks PS, thanks for that boost…sometimes you wonder if the message is going through….humbled 🙂

  5. If the street vendors and singers earn more than Rs 20 lakhs a year, I guess they will be subject to GST. I’m sure if they indeed crossed that mark, they will be happy too!!

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