Love is a mystery. Love is unitive. Love is how we connect as human beings with one another and with the whole universe together. Love is how we learn, how we become better, and make the world a better place to live, for us and others. Love needs freedom to breathe, equality to thrive, and openness to flow and grow. Love is personal, political, sexual, philosophical, social, historical, metaphysical, transcendental, et al. Sadly, we have only one word to describe an emotion so complex. The ancient Greeks had six different words, but even that’s not enough. 2021 taught me new ways to describe the complexity of love and its various hues. Love lost on many counts, but like a phoenix, it miraculously sprang on a few occasions. My vocabulary of LOVE was defined and redefined by people who touched my life one way or another this year.Shillpi A Singh
LOVE IS MUSIC: The Busking Man
“If music be the food of love, play on,William Shakespeare
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
If life is a song, then love is music for Debojyoti Nath, aka The Busking Man. Nath wears many hats. He is a singer-songwriter, busker, life-skills educator, storyteller, and Musart Brigade’s founder. In a heartwarming chat, he takes us along his eventful journey, and gives us a sneak peek into what music means to him… it is love and peace.
Would you please tell me something about your initial years and initiation into the world of music?
I was born in a small jungle town of Umrongshu in Assam and moved to Shillong a few years later. It was there where my love for music took birth. Being in Shillong, you couldn’t escape music. I would go to the tiny shacks for some tea and momos in the mornings and evenings and invariably find western rock, pop, and folk music playing all day. I started being a part of our school musicals in class four and did it every year.
I had a very musical family growing up. My father was Indian classical, my mother was Rabindra sangeet, and both my sisters were classically trained pianists. So there was music everywhere. My sister tried to teach me the piano, but I found it intimidating because of a deep-rooted fear of maths. I grew fond of the guitar instead and eventually learnt how to play it by myself. I loved to sing and play the guitar. And after winning the solo singer prize in Class 10, I felt like I made it!
Then I studied in Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, and all these places impacted me and the kind of music I listened to or sang.
Since I was 16 years old, I always dreamt of putting out my album containing my original songs. Nearly two decades later, I fulfilled that dream when I released my album Rolling On under The Busking Man’s name in January 2021. When the album was out on all the major streaming platforms, I felt like I did justice to my life and dreams. And no matter how long it took, I am glad I never gave up on myself.
How did busking happen? When and where did it all start? What was the trigger to embark on this nationwide journey?
My journey as a busker began after a massive internal frustration of not being able to do my bit to promote Peace and Love in a world filled with hate and wars and violence and brutal rapes, and mindless violence. After the Nirbhaya case that rattled the nation, I was quickly filled with the undying need to do my bit to spread the message of peace and love through music. I was working for the media industry then, and I also got to see the madness of media and how quickly a tragedy became fodder for the media. Being completely disillusioned and disheartened by it all, I was dying to take a stand for myself, if not for what was happening around me.
Having studied and been inspired by iconic movements like John Lennon’s Bed-In for Peace, the Woodstock concert, the Vietnam protest movement, I knew I wanted to go out there in the masses and sing songs of love and peace. Also, I was 29 going to turn 30, and I wanted to do something for myself that made me happy and content as a human being.
So one fine, chilly Sunday morning in October of 2014, I painted a couple of placards with the words Peace and Love and headed over to Connaught Place in Delhi. I hovered around to find a suitable spot, and once I did, I busked my heart out. It was the most incredible feeling ever. Initially, people gave me funny stares, but gradually people stood and heard the songs I was singing and even started donating in my little box.
Literally, two weeks later, one evening after coming back from a frustrating day at work, I almost instantly decided to quit my job and busk around the nation. I wanted to busk in all the 29 states of India and spread the message of Peace and Love through Music. I tried to busk in all the state capitals and other cities as well. I pulled out a map of India from the internet and plotted my journey. That was all that I had planned.
I decided to start my audacious journey on the 1st of January 2015 from Kolkata and reach back home on the 17th of July on my birthday as I turned 30. I wanted to turn 30 on a train back home, and that’s exactly how it happened.
And so I did. I became the first busker and musician in India to have busked in all the 29 states of India and 36 cities over seven months. It was life-altering. It was my moment of self-actualization. I took trains and buses and shared taxis and even walked. I couch-surfed and also took shelter in a café in the hills. My friends spread the word, and through these connections, I always found a place to stay or find support. I gave up the little savings I had and used whatever I earned on the streets to travel. Later I also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund a major half of my travels. On average, I would make about 800–1500 a day just by playing on the streets. The earnings from the streets would be more than enough to help me get three meals a day and even shelter in places where I had no contacts. People were extremely generous towards me as well. It was all like a dream.
You have performed abroad as well. How was it different from the Indian performances?
My busking performances aboard were more novelty and tributes than a complete busking set. I played my original song on the hallowed grounds of Woodstock at minus 14 degrees because I just had to. I also performed in New York at the Lennon memorial in Central Park.
These were more for myself as I played in some of the most iconic spots in music history and that in itself was a big deal for me.
What has been the most memorable busking experience? And why?
This is a tough one to answer. To date, every place that I have busked is super special to me. But if I had to answer, it has to be the first time I ever busked in my life in Delhi. I chose that because it is where everything started. That one and half hours of busking changed everything for me. It gave me a new identity as The Busking Man, it gave me direction for my future, and it was instrumental in helping me take control of my life and focus on the things I wanted to do.
How was the crowd experience? Did you feel let down anytime?
The crowd experience was magical. For me, it was the crowd experience that made everything worthwhile. An artist is nothing without an audience. People gave me love, and I will always be grateful for that.
Every place I went to and performed, at least one or two people would stay till the end to have a conversation, and those conversations are priceless. Those conversations made me a more empathetic human being. They would share their life story and how they wish they could do something else from what they were doing. I met people from all classes, religions and economic backgrounds, and it helped me understand people a little better. Everyone has a story to tell, and I was all ears for every one of them.
What stood out at the forefront of my busking journey was the power of music. Music was the key. It did not matter what genre it belonged to or what state I was in. I truly understood the power of music by being on the streets in all the 29 states of India. Wherever I went, people understood music, even if it was not in a language they understood or spoke.
Initially, I would only sing in English and literally, in the second city I went to, Jaipur, I was standing in front of the Hawa Mahal and singing English songs. People loved the music but did not connect to the words. I sang about people and love and non-violence, but no one could understand. So I instantly composed a Hindi song called Nafaratey Bhulao Yaar, that said everything I stood up for. It was just a couple of lines. And as I sang it, I could see the people instantly understanding the words, and they had smiles on their faces. So I made it a point to include multiple languages whenever I sang. I sang, mimicked or tried to sing songs in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali, Khasi, Assamese, Nepali and Spanish. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Lucknow and Jaipur to Shillong, Manipur and Nagaland, no matter where I performed, people danced and enjoyed themselves with this odd guy singing on the streets with his guitar.
No matter what genre I sang, I made sure I sang songs that would make people dance or groove or casually headbang or bob their heads and tap their feet. Every day was a performance. I did not want to be meek in my performance. I wanted it to be explosive and joyful, and thought-provoking. Even though technically it was a ticketless concert, I did not take it lightly or take it for granted. I gave it my all, and the audience gave me theirs. All I wanted to do was spread love and music and make someone’s day a little happier and brighter. And invariably, they would give me back all the love tenfold. It was a win-win for me wherever I went.
I never felt let down in all these years. On the contrary, I have only received more love and care and compassion. I feel I let myself down if I don’t give my 100 per cent in the performances.
How is busking different and the same as doing a live gig in a ticketed event?
Busking is vastly different from doing a live gig as a ticketed event. It’s almost at the other end of the spectrum. When someone busks, no person is obligated to stop and stand a listen to your music. If they find you and your music appealing, you might gather up a crowd.
Also, no one is obligated to pay you for the music or your performance. It usually depends on the kindness and generosity of people.
Coming to the logistics, I have never busked using a microphone or a PA system. So I had to be louder than the traffic or the hustle and bustle to be even heard. It’s great that I am generally loud when I sing, but I also had to maintain my voice and fitness to do so day after day for seven months while travelling.
Busking also eliminates any boundaries of privilege. Everyone has access to a busker, just like radio. It is free and your choice whether to listen or not.
You have beautifully documented your busking journey on the website. Do you intend to bring out a memoir?
Thank you so much. It took a long while to do that, but I am delighted I did. I put the entire journey as posts on my Instagram. Photo memoirs with stories. I made the whole thing during the pandemic. I have always wanted to write a memoir and put it out but lacked confidence initially as a storyteller. But having made this photo memoir and having received positive feedback, I can see there is a possibility to pen down a memoir. https://www.thebuskingman.com/
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You are a busker, teacher, coach or musician-singer-songwriter. Which role seems easier?
At many levels, all these are very closely interconnected. Having developed a love for music led me to become a musician. Being a musician helped me become a busker, being a busker helped me become a singer-songwriter, which led me to become a teacher eventually.
So it is pretty easy for me to switch between any of these roles as I am deeply passionate about each one of them.
Being a musician and a music and arts educator are two roles I love.
What do you do as a corporate music wellness coach?
As a corporate music wellness coach, I conduct various workshops based on the preferred modules that I have created. The wellness organization Good Lives have tied up with me to conduct workshops as well. I usually work around three main umbrellas — music wellness, mindfulness and expressive arts and lastly, sound therapy. I have developed modules based on each one of these comprising of various activities and instruction based tasks.
Please tell us briefly about Musart Brigade? How did it happen? Why is it Musart and not Mozart?
Musart is an amalgamation of music and art. Musart Brigade happened when I lost my job from the NGO I used to teach the children of South Delhi Govt. schools. It was in the middle of the pandemic, and I was quite heartbroken. But instead of being sad and dejected, I took this as an opportunity to start something of my own and take my love for teaching a little further.
So I teamed up with one of my colleagues from the same NGO we taught together. And after a lot of brainstorming, we came up with the teaching initiative called Musart Brigade.
Since taking physical classes was not possible as every school was shut for the pandemic, we decided to start giving online classes. My friend parted ways a little later, and I continued with the Musart classes. And now Musart has completed a year this November, and I can proudly say that Musart has reached close to 500 online classes and collectively will have done over 20 workshops, big and small.
How do you see busking gaining popularity in the age of social media?
Busking is super popular in the western and Latin American countries like America, Europe, UK, Australia, Brazil, Argentina etc. Some of today’s most prominent musicians started as buskers such as Ed Sheeran. And now, with social media, a lot of buskers have gained a significant fan following. It is a brilliant exposure and also free marketing for buskers.
In India, it is a whole different story. Busking is something that is very, very niche but slowly picking up some steam.
What are the legalities of busking?
What is interesting is that busking abroad has a well-controlled and regulated system. There are unions for buskers where every busker is auditioned and then assigned a spot in the city. For buskers, finding that perfect spot for busking is vital.
But in India, we are still far from having a body that regulates and encourages busking. When I started out busking, I did not need any permission. I also made sure I did not have any logistics that would require me to take prior permission. I always sang and played the guitar without any amplification.
But suppose a busker decided to go busking with some PA. In that case, it is always wise to check and ask around with the local authorities, police or the district municipality to avoid any kind of legal or police confrontation.
What is the future of busking in India?
I think the future of busking in India looks promising as new buskers come popping up in street corners and perform. I still keep receiving emails and messages from young buskers and musicians asking me about my experience and how to start busking.
Receiving these makes me happy, and I hope more artists, musicians, dancers, painters, theatre artists make the streets their stage and brighten up people’s lives.
How often do you see buskers in India?
When I started, there were hardly any buskers I encountered during my travels, except for Mumbai, where I performed with two other buskers. But through the years, I saw a lot more buskers on the streets.
Busking in India has always been there in the forms of nukkad natak, and in local trains or our dingy street corners, we mostly never called them buskers. We mostly called them beggars. I used to wonder how there could be privilege or class in busking till I started busking myself. I am privileged who can busk for music and passion and the pure love of it. For many people, busking is the only way to make a living for themselves or their families.
But if I ever encounter a busker, I sure do stop and listen to their performance and put some money in their hats or boxes. I know it can make their day.
Would you like to comment on Shakeel, who recently gathered ample funds for his music school by busking in Mumbai? Or Varun Dagar, who went on to taste fame by participating in the dance reality show?
Shakeel and Varun are doing something very inspiring, and their art is taking them to the next level of their lives. Doing your art for a cause is something to be appreciated. Busking in itself, I feel, is already a way of giving back to society. And when someone does it for a good cause, it doubles up the satisfaction.
I hope more people, young and old, get inspired by people like Shakeel and Varun and spread the joy of music and the arts in every street.