The shadow of the pandemic-induced lockdowns fell on 22-year-old Deepak Upadhyay’s family in ways he couldn’t have imagined. For starters, his father, a tea seller who sold tea in passenger trains, lost his job because trains stopped running for several months at the time. The loss of income meant that he’d have to drop out of college and leave India’s capital city of Delhi, where he was studying, to return home to the city of Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.
“A few months into doing odd jobs in Gwalior, I realised that the real Deepak was slowly dying because those jobs gave me no joy,” he told VICE in Hindi. “So, I decided to go back to Delhi without any plan.”
Armed with little other than a Bluetooth speaker, a few books and some money in his wallet, Upadhyay returned to Delhi. No longer a student and with no job in sight, he hung on to the belief that nothing could go wrong. He moved in with a friend who was preparing for the civil services exams, as he didn’t have enough money to rent his own place. Little did he know that his career as a busker was already beginning to take shape.
“I was walking down the streets of Connaught Place (a bustling business and tourist hub in New Delhi, where he primarily dances) with just my speaker and a bag of books,” he said. “Before I knew it, my bag was stolen and all I was left with was the speaker.”
The music continued to flow through his speaker and, soon, street children gathered around him and began grooving. They were vibing so hard that a passerby gave one of them a Rs 100 (a little more than $1) note. “I was surprised [and thought] if they could make money out of it, why couldn’t I? I was anyway a professional dancer in my college days. So, I [began to] dance too, and the passersby started paying more. But I was still intimidated by the [prospect of] dancing on the street. After all, Delhi is a strange city and holds all kinds of horrors and blessings. What was my place in it?”
Upadhyay is aware that the practice of busking or performing in public spaces for money has been around in India and the rest of the world for a long time. From juggling to sword swallowing to clowning and puppetry, the art of street performance was widespread in the Mariachi bands of Mexico where they still perform in the streets, the music of the Romani People (the nomadic community settled in Europe and Anatolia), and the buskers of medieval France, popularly known as troubadours, who performed lyric poetry. In India, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) is often credited with bringing drama and performance to the streets from the theatre, rooted in the anti-fascist sentiments that evolved in Kolkata in the 1940s.
“We [regularly] see street performers miming and [balancing] on a tightrope for money, so what I’m doing with dance is not a novelty in itself,” said Upadhyay. “It was only when I met my friend, Varun Dagar, who was featured on TV shows for his dancing skills that I believed it was possible to leverage one’s art like this.”
Dagar presented a shining example of all that was possible with street dance — one could earn a living from sharing one’s art on TV screens while living on a street corner. Upadhyay often saw Dagar perform and win over the people on the streets of Delhi. He realised that there was a lot of love for dance in the hearts of people. He only had to take the plunge, dance his heart out, and let the music take over.
“When I started busking, people showered their love [on me],” he said. “Some with money, others with a heartfelt hug and a forehead kiss. People would take my videos and put them on Instagram and they would go viral.”
When Upadhyay dances, his cap lies inverted in front of him to collect from passersby. The daily income comes up to Rs 400 to Rs 800 (five to ten dollars). For those going around sans change or cash in their pockets, there is also a plastic-wrapped printout of his QR code for online payment, propped next to the cap.
While busking, he switches between different dance forms – from the hip-hop style of breaking, locking and popping to slow, fluid moves that blend various Indian classical dances in a contemporary form. Mostly, he dances to romantic Bollywood numbers, even emoting the pain of a jaded, heartbroken lover through his facial expressions. However, he clarified that the foundation of his dance movements is not rooted in hip-hop culture but instead derives inspiration from the fluid movement of snakes and trees.
But it’s not been all fun and dance. The streets of Delhi, a city often described as India’s crime capital, hold many worlds, even sinister ones in ways you can’t imagine. Over the past year that Upadhyay has been busking, he has encountered them all — children under the influence of cheap, synthetic drugs almost knifing him to death for money, cops kicking him off the streets because busking is not legal in India, and the looming, persistent threat of being robbed.
“Some cops break our speakers, too,” he said. “But the way I look at it is that if there’s love, you will also receive such hate in the streets.”
It doesn’t help that busking is illegal in India, no thanks to discriminatory laws like the 1959 Bombay (Prevention of Beggary) Act and the colonial-era Dramatic Performances Act 1876 that makes it legally impossible for anyone to perform in Indian streets.
Aided by discriminatory laws, even Varun Dagar was beaten up and abused by cops in Delhi for busking in June 2021, captured in a viral video that enraged people. The cumulative effect of such incidents results in busking being looked down upon in India and not considered a “real art,” and buskers are often viewed with suspicion, or assumed to be beggars or thieves.
Against all odds, Upadhyay still believes that art is an extension of one’s inner self. It is only in the realms of art that he finds solace. He’s tried it all — working in a call centre, as a watchman for a week, only to be fired because his reporting manager considered him too short to be able to do his job well. Amidst all this real-life drama, however, he received a graduate degree in physics from Delhi University, six months ago.
“One of my videos got nearly six million views on Facebook. I got calls and DMs from people across the world,” he said. “But I had to stay grounded, the real world has nothing to do with views on social media. Every day, the streets have new worlds to offer. This allows me to experience life in its truest sense, helping me hone my art.”
Last year, Upadhyay also “lived” the character of a trans woman for a street play involving a theatre group. This was the first step in understanding a world he’d previously been drawn to. Over the past few months of performing on the streets, he feels he most resonates with sex workers and transgender people. “I find myself at peace when I’m with them.”
“Recently, I came across a trans friend and gave her a Rs 20 note from my cap. She was so moved that she returned the gesture by giving me a Rs 100 note and hugged me,” he said.
Despite having a special place in Hindu scriptures and being legally recognised as the “third gender” in India, transgender people lag far behind in socioeconomic parameters, often having to resort to begging at signal stops, in the streets, and in local trains, making them their home. During an investigation by VICE World News in December 2021, I reported on how trans people also face discrimination in accessing vaccines. In this sense, these streets are what Upadhyay has in common with them.
Does he envision busking to be a viable career choice, I asked him. He recalls his mother hitting him, whenever he attempted to dance in their home, in Gwalior. How does she view his full-time busking now?
“[My family is] certainly not happy. Perhaps, they had hoped for a more conventional career choice for me,” he said. “But I’ve never been more sure that my life will always be dictated by art. How feasible will that be? I don’t know. But there is no other way.”