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.