Big draw at Church St First, busking falls silent again

Big draw at Church St First, busking falls silent again

Street art saw four months of glory during the pedestrian-only initiative, but it is back to being at the mercy of the police

There’s little doubt that street artists were the biggest draw of Church Street First.

The initiative turned the street into a traffic-free pedestrian zone on weekends between November 2020 and February 2021.

About 120 buskers entertained passers-by with music, skits, poetry, and juggling. Artists set up stalls to sell photos, paintings and postcards, and art lovers could pay what they felt like paying.

The experiment was welcomed by Bengalureans, a study says, but it hasn’t done much for the cause of busking, the practice of performing on the street.

Popular in cities like London and New York, impromptu street gigs are seen by the Bengaluru police as a public nuisance.

And so, the scare of Covid aside, Bengaluru artists don’t plan to hit the streets again. Who wants police troubles, they say.

Why take risks?

Network engineer-cum-hobby musician Neil Newton has given up on performing on the street.

“Back in 2016, my friends and I tried to sing and play the ukulele and guitar outside MG Road metro station, facing Church Street. The police warned us and said we could be booked. I have dropped it since,” he says.

He misses busking though. “Once, a man in a dhoti and shirt in his 50s approached us to sing ‘Hotel California’. He started dancing. It is sad that the city doesn’t allow these beautiful moments,” says the 28-year-old

Visual artist Vishnu Nair had internalised the fear of police action so much that he never went busking in the city until the government-approved Church Street First came along.

“For amateur musicians like me who don’t have a stage to perform, streets become a platform to test our work and get live feedback. I find it ironic that we can’t use the streets (for culture) when they belong to us, taxpayers,” says the 25-year-old.

Byraa is a full-time multi-instrumentalist who travels around the country busking. He says he packs up and leaves the moment the police ask him to.

“They say if they allow me to play at a corner, they would have to allow others and that could lead to congestion on the street. This is difficult to argue against, isn’t it? If I wanted more details, they said I could talk to the commissioner,” the 24-year-old recalls.

His encounters with the police have been cordial though. “One asked me which country I came from. The moment I spoke to him in Kannada, he let me carry on. In another case, they asked me to leave because a senior cop was on the way. Once, they reprimanded a woman who was interrupting my music,” Byraa says.

Loud versus soft

The trick, he says, is not to attract a huge crowd, which is difficult when it comes to music and theatre as opposed to writing poems or selling postcards.

Architect Yatisa used to sell postcards alongside street poets outside the Blossoms bookstore on Church Street. They would take permission from the owner of the building and also the bookstore and there was mostly no hassle. But there were times when the crowd swelled and they were asked to seek permission from cops, which a few did, he remembers.

Yatisa co-runs Broke Artists’ Collective, which promotes busking in private spaces and events where people can pay what they like for a work of art.

It was through this collective that so many buskers got to participate in the Church Street First experiment.

“The experiment wasn’t done to promote buskers but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” he says. A few buskers got paid gigs at private events in Bengaluru after that. 

CHURCH STREET FIRST WAS SPECIAL CASE, SAYS COP

A senior traffic police officer told Metrolife that street artists have to take permission from both the traffic and law and order departments to perform. “Busking during the Church Street First event was an exception. It was permitted by a notification that blocked vehicular traffic and encouraged artists,” he says. If you would like to perform at a park, you need to consult the horticulture department. Every case is different, he says.

BUSKERS' GROUP MOOTED

Buoyed by the response to the Church Street show, Mariyam Saigal ,24, decided to sit on a street in Gandhi Bazaar, next to a flower-seller. She wanted to write poems for strangers but she was asked to leave by a Covid marshal in less than 40 minutes. “I wasn’t even blocking the road,” the copywriter recalls. She is thinking of forming a group that can liaise with the police for permissions. “That way, every artiste doesn’t have to run to the police,” says Mariyam

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