Shobuj Miah, a thin middle-aged man from a remote village in Jamalpur, plays flute on the busy streets of Dhaka. He now lives in Badda and has been earning a living through busking since he moved to the capital 25 years ago.
Shobuj has had a strong connection with the instrument from the time when he was a child. He used to play his uncle's flute when growing up and later learned to play the instrument under the guidance of his guru, Ustad Jahangir Miah, for four years.
"People had a penchant for flute in the past. But it is fading with time. When I used to perform on the streets back in the day, more than 50 people would gather around to enjoy the music, and my earning was good too. Now barely 10 people gather when I play, and the money is tight. I only earn Tk 15,000 to Tk 20,000 in a month, sometimes it is less than that. I am living in debt," said Shobuj.
For additional income, Shobuj makes and sells flutes. He even gives flute lessons to people who love this art and want to learn at their respective places. To date, he has taught more than 20 students.
Busking has been around for centuries. It is an easy source of income and most buskers do it due to constrained finances. Some, however, do it out of passion, or to get exposure.
Begging has also been a common practice throughout the history of civilisation. But the main distinction between the two is that busking is a way of making a living by entertaining people.
Beggars operate through a racket in this city, whereas buskers work on their own.
"Since I do not busk at any fixed place, I am not extorted by anyone. But I have heard of some buskers who need to pay to perform at designated places," added Shobuj.
Busking can be vaguely compared to public concerts, only you get to choose how much to pay for your ticket, and how long you want to enjoy the show.
Back in the 1980s, busking – in the form of snake charming, monkey puppeteering, etc – was a common sight on the streets of Dhaka city. Snake charmers carried with them a unique flute and several snakes inside a big jhola (cotton bag), which they slung over their shoulders.
People used to invite them to perform at their homes, especially for the children. They made the snakes dance to the tunes of their flute, which they called 'bin.'
However, due to strict wildlife laws and strident initiatives taken by animal-rights activists, these performances have stopped in the city.
Similarly, monkey puppeteering shows have also halted for the same reasons. You may still find a meagre number of these entertainers outside of Dhaka, but in the city belt, you will only find beggars of different ages.
"If a busker does not perform well, they won't get paid. It is important to have a unique talent, something that grabs the attention of the public. Mediocre performers don't make good buskers; they remain beggars," said Nabeen Khan, a Dhaka-based musician and the founding member of Music Wing, one of the most prominent music clubs of Dhaka University.
Nabeen believes our socio-economic system does not give us the opportunity to nurture our talents. "During one of my trips to Sylhet, I saw a bunch of street kids singing melodiously for money at tourist spots. I later found out they belong to a community. I am pretty sure someone leads this community, from whom these children learn to sing.
If Dhaka also had a similar community, we might have had more buskers," he explained.
Busking is a great way of making public spaces feel more enjoyable and attractive. But sadly, in Dhaka, public spaces are scarce in the city.
Many famous artists and performers – like Rod Stewart, BB King, Tracy Chapman, Ed Sheeran and Rodrigo Y Gabriela – acquired their initial experience on the streets, public spaces and subways of New York City. Even our neighbouring country India has a well-developed busking culture.
Reality shows like the 'Got Talent' franchise are a testament of the prowess of street performers. And research supports the view that street performance is associated with a positive perception of public spaces.
A study by Tanenbaum reveals that train riders felt safer with street music at New York subway stations. On the other hand, in many cases, the presence of beggars makes passersby feel threatened.
Eshika Zaman, a 10th grader of a public school in Dhaka, is scared to cross overbridges alone because of the presence of beggars. "Beggars come from a different social strata. Some of them are lunatics and behave belligerently. I am always afraid to face them," she added.
At present, Dhaka has more than 40,000 active panhandlers on its streets.
Everybody does not have the talent, which is the first and foremost requirement for busking. But it seems like those who have it are not interested in utilising them.
One day when I was returning home from the office, I heard a young man singing beautifully. He spoke in a very charming manner with an unmistakable north bengal accent. However, when the signal turned red and my auto rickshaw was at a stop, he came to me begging for money.
Upon asking why he does not nurture his talent and make some money out of it, he chuckled and said, "Apa, this is Bangladesh. Nobody cares for talent. I would rather tell people that I have not eaten all day and get some change from them."
Moreover, begging is an offence as per the law of the land. It carries a minimum punishment of three years in jail and a maximum of seven years, to be doubled upon repetition.
Busking is legal in many cities and illegal in a few. For instance, in Australian cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, buskers may obtain licences for performing legally in public spaces with the right to accept donations (McNamara and Quilter, 2016), whereas in Hong Kong, buskers may be arrested for conducting "unauthorised charitable behaviour" in public space (Lai and Da Roza, 2018).
No such rules exist in Bangladesh.
In a conversation with TBS, Iqbal Habib, a Dhaka-based architect, urban designer, and environmental activist, reminisced his childhood memories and the joy he used to get from buskers.
"Back in the 1980s, you would always see a crowd gathered around a group of buskers in front of Ananda Cinema Hall in Farmgate. Some of them used to sing and play the harmonium, some performed magic shows, while some pretended to possess supernatural powers," he said. "These performers entertained the people who waited for buses. Fast forward 40 years, that exact place can barely accommodate bystanders, let alone buskers."
Architect Iqbal Habib believes that in the present infrastructure of the city, given the fact how little public space we have, it is almost impossible to imagine the revival of busking. The only way to bring this culture back is to expand public spaces.
"If you build a park, birds will definitely flock there and sing. Inhabitation breeds successors," he concluded.