Long before even going there, many questions stood unanswered regarding the potential of India as a country to play street music. How could it be morally justified to play music for money as a traveler, considering the boundless poverty in large parts of the country? Would the concept be understood and if yes, would it be accepted? Would one feel suffocated as India has a different definition of culturally accepted distance between people? Lastly, would it even be possible to make a small amount of money to cover some costs?
While some answers had to be solved in the head before, the reality could only be grasped by actually just doing it! And it turned out to be a most surprising, entertaining, beautiful, funny and rewarding busking experience far exceeding expectations and quickly eliminating fears and doubts.
Nearly every single busking session in many different places turned out to be a spontaneous street festival of joy and human interaction. Once the violin left its box, people stopped and started watching full of curiosity, partly slightly hesitant and shy, partly visibly excited – but always very respectful! After a few minutes usually a crowd of up to 60 – 70 people of all kinds was gathered, applauding after each songs, raising questions, asking for permission to film or take pictures. Many stayed from the first to the last song, most truly appreciating the music – while some never listened to a violin live before.
Still, as much as the natural joy was a given – people were still bewildered and confused: Why is a white girl playing music on the street and even collecting money? The most common question without doubt: “What is the purpose of all this?” We replied honestly: “This is a job at the moment, playing music on the road to finance our travel!” Ben was usually busy enough answering to hundreds of questions and giving spontaneous interviews, while I attracted more and more people.
The interaction was usually just beautiful and as entertaining for us, as the music was for the people. Request for specific songs came in, the top choice being clearly ‘Titanic’. Often somebody contacted the local media, journalists and sometimes even television showed up, young local musicians suggested jam sessions, knowing people explained the astonished crowd that it is actually concept to put money in the open box and so on and so forth. We also adjusted and like in no other place before, Ben sometimes gave a short introduction after a few songs: Who we are, why we are here and why we are doing this. Fortunately there is basically always a good number of English speakers around who would care for the translation.
So the experience while playing was doubtless as good as it could be – but what about the financial side and how did the economically weakest react?
It can’t be expected to make the same money in India like in for example Oman, but we were very positively surprised by the results! It was mostly the quantity that made the difference. While fewer people gave bigger sums (although it sure still happened!) it was impressive that such a high percentage of the spectators gave at least something – even if just a ten rupee note or a few coins.
The reaction of the poorest who inevitably came closer during the spectacle was astonishing and often immensely humbling. We surely did avoid busking in places where many beggars are trying to get their share to survive – but those who came seemed nearly always sincerely happy about this pleasant change in the drab daily routines. Also, it never felt like they perceived the busking as something like competition – the toughest moments were when a poor person took courage and really dropped a few coins in the violin box. We felt immediately like giving double the sum back – but after a few occasions we got the impression that it could mean a lot for somebody to be on the giving side for once, instead of always receiving. We tried our best to share the gain in the end if possible or at least buy some tea or let kids try the ukulele for example, which caused usually greatest joy!
Our experience started showing that it is not necessarily a good idea to seek places with many foreign tourist to play. Usually economically the best are the slightly wealthier locals or domestic tourist. Sure, most westerners have seen many buskers before – but for Indians it was something very new and exciting. Furthermore, popular tourist places mean also stiff competition of touts and others who try to make money. Surely no advantage!
After all those ‘ups’ finally the one major ‘down’: It turned out to be incredible tough to just find a proper place to play! The biggest problem is doubtless the traffic and noise in general. Then many sidewalks are already so crowded that a busking sessions would have caused a street blockade. Nearly no pedestrian areas are existing. Finally, like mentioned, it should be avoided to play in quarters with many poor people fighting hard to get a share to live. There, no one should hesitate to play music for free, though – the reward could beat a pile of rupees!
Briefly the experience in different cities:
Fort Kochi: Relaxed atmosphere with nearly no traffic on the sidewalk by the sea. Quite good feedback from both Indian and western tourists.
Ernakulam: When playing on the marine drive, the atmosphere is nearly as relaxing as Kochi. Other places seem senseless, as the traffic will smash the sounds of your music. Play before sunset, as people seem to like going home early.
Mysore: The only reasonable place to play is at the famous Mysore Palace. Especially during weekends, it’s crowded with tourist (mostly domestic). You could try to play inside the park area but the security might ask you out. At the entrance area there are many touts and not much shadow, but still a good place to try.
Bangalore: We failed to find a half-way silent spot, except parks with just few people spread out. If you’d manage to find a proper place, results could be potentially great as there are many rather wealthy and energetic people around.
Hampi: Not much worth trying at all. Hampi is, as beautiful as it looks, a tourist ghetto. The tourists are usually busy shaking off all the touts and the touts are not much in a position to just drop their hard earned rupees into your hat.
Kolkata: Tried mostly around Sudder Street, in the New Market area or on most evenings at the relatively wide sidewalk of Nehru road around Park Street metro station. Mixed experiences, some real nice sessions, some poor and uneventful. Once tried at the park of Victoria memorial, but it wasn’t too busy that day and the place is very wide. Expectantly, noise and crowds are a major problem!
Shillong: Definitely (and surprisingly!) the best place to busk in India we encountered! Great upside: a wide pedestrian shopping street, where people can stop and listen to the music. People were incredibly interested, interaction was amazing and also financially clearly the best place.
Darjeeling: Nehru Road is a long pedestrian street, pretty busy over the whole day. It leads to the popular hang out spot Chowrasta Square. The city has good busking potential in general!
Delhi: Just like in Bangalore, if you manage to find a silent place the results could be great for obvious reasons. We tried at Connaught place, which offers a wide sidewalk and not too crazy traffic noise. It is also a popular spot for the wealthier people to walk, dine and shop.
- An old Sadhu dancing and meditating to the music
- Performing with BubbleMan in Kochi
- Busking for Nepal with two young Indians
- Teenagers hugging each other and getting all emotional, squeezing tears out
- A dance crew from Kerala dancing Keralan dances to Irish music
- Improvising on Nepalese traditional music of two Nepali buskers in Darjeeling
- Being interviewed by The Times of India and other local newspapers about what we do
- Being invited to a fancy lunch by the ex-Chief Security Officer of the Indian Prime Minister
- Being interviewed and sponsored financially by Eastern Panorama, a magazine covering North-East India. The nice crew also provided a workplace for us in their office and sent a few issues with our stories to our families in Europe
- Connecting with all those incredibly different people while busking