Back to the Streets

An afternoon with jugglers, contortionists and other magical beings of Indian streets.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi | Published: August 6, 2014 12:33 am
Magician Ishamuddin in a still from the film Magic Can Wait. Magician Ishamuddin in a still from the film Magic Can Wait.

The packed hall did not blink even once, so they saw clearly that the boy was sitting in a basket one moment — and was gone the next. Magician Iljam Ali beat his damroo three times. “Should I bring him back?” he asked casually. Half the hall murmured in assent; the other half was still figuring out what had happened.

The Indian Basket Trick was held on Monday at Studio Safdar, an arts organisation in Shadipur, as an effort by the Indian Street Performers Association Trust (Ispat) to raise awareness about the rights of street entertainers. The afternoon’s entourage comprised snake charmers, a behroopiya or traditional impersonator, a new-age juggler and a pair of contortionist brothers among others —  all frequently grouped under the dismissive title of madari. “We are actually seven performing tribes in India, each with a distinct character and repertoire,” said Ishamuddin, a magician who is famous for performing the Great Indian Rope Trick in 1995, and is the force behind Ispat.

Around four tribes presented their specials at the show. Wali Mohammed held an empty vessel before the audience and, from thin air, filled it to the brim with water. He conjured up solids too — when an iron ball the size of a fist popped out of his mouth, all jaws in the audience dropped. “The iron ball trick is very difficult for the performer, so it is famous throughout the world,” said Ishamuddin, whose son Altamas has trained in Japan in the fine art of juggling, including while riding a unicycle. Dressed in a jazzy costume and juggling clubs to music, he represented the new generation of performers, a world removed from Pritam Nath and Mast Nath, who were in bright orange robes and turbans and played the been and tumbak to tribal and Bollywood tunes. Ever since it became illegal to keep snakes as pets, the tribe of snake charmers has been trying to reinvent their identity through music.

A film on the lives of street performers in India, Magic can Wait, by Danish journalist, photographer and filmmaker Kent W Dahl showcased an odd dichotomy — street entertainers attract both large crowds as well as the police. “In sketches and books of Mughal and colonial India, we see performers in courtyards and palace grounds. Today, such shows are not even allowed on on streets. Are we set to lose our traditional art?” asked Ishamuddin.

As for Javed, the young boy who had disappeared in Ali’s basket, he reappeared as a snake and a pigeon and then, a head jutting from the basket with a dagger through his neck.

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