India, Pakistan and other neighboring countries have traditionally enjoyed different types of street performers, jugglers and magicians, known as madaris. Their helper or sidekick was a jamoora or simply called a bachha (child). He was expected to comply with every command, right or wrong, from his “master” the madari but would occasionally trip up and “play the fool” to raise a laugh.
The bandarwallah madari was a hot favorite with neighborhood kids, as he would saunter on to the scene leading a male and a female monkey decked up in tailored dresses as a newly wed couple. He would announce his arrival by loudly rattling the damru or dugdugi (a small six-inch mini drum) and within minutes collect a crowd by the side of the road or in the local park. Children and their accompanying nannies and grand/mothers, servants from neighboring houses, returning office-goers and general hangers-on would gather around for the impromptu performance. The madari would tug at the rope holding each monkey and get the female to enact the role of a bride preparing to return to her family home because she was upset with her “groom” who would be cajoled to perform tricks for wooing her back. Onlookers would shout encouragement to the groom to pacify his “bride”. At the end of these antics, the jamoora would go around collecting a few pennies from each of the audience members and roundly curse those trying to slink away without paying.
In addition to the bandarwallahs, there were the bhaluwallahs (bear performers) and snake charmers. The latter would play the been (a wind instrument made of gourd and two reeds) to create the impression that its music was hypnotizing the snakes, as the reptiles swayed their raised heads from side-to-side, tracking the movement of the been. The snake charmer would also arrange “fights” between a nevla (mongoose) and a “king cobra,” building up anxiety and fear in the crowd gathered around.
Young child acrobats, often times no more that 7 or 8 years old would “walk the tightrope” strung high up between bamboo poles and perform balancing, knife throwing and other tricks with older members of their family.
In a period when television had not yet arrived on the scene, the bioscope (colloquially called a biscope) was a favorite with the kids, who were thrilled to watch moving pictures through this traveling cinema box. All for the price of a few pennies.
Many years ago, we even had the odd hathiwallah (a mahout, or a person with an elephant.) Is it any wonder that until very recently people in the West only spoke of India as the country with snake charmers and elephants roaming its streets! Thanks to organizations calling for an end to cruelty against animals and protecting children against abuse, most of these street performers are now a dying breed and infrequently seen on the streets of larger cities in India.
At school, we had a wonderful music teacher whom was respectfully addressed as “Guru ji, or Sir, Sood Sir”. Mr. Sood was a multi-talented man who told us that having run away from home at a young age, he had spent his formative years as a disciple in turn, of Pandit Birju Maharaj (exponent of the Kathak dance form), Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa (the famous tabla (pair of Indian drums) maestro) and the legendary magician Gogia Pasha. While we could not vouch for the veracity of these claims, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Sood Sir was indeed a wonderful tabla player, a great dancer, singer and composer of music and very adept at sleight of hand tricks.
I must have been around 8 or 9 years old, when he selected me for a special “magic” show that both of us would perform for the school’s Annual Gala. Having watched magic acts by street performers I was astounded by the ability of a blindfolded jamoora to accurately answer the questions posed by his madari. For instance, the madari would randomly pick out an individual in the crowd and ask the jamoora whether it was a man or woman, what dress he/she was wearing, or what color was a man’s shirt etc. Things would get more complicated when the madari would request a member of the audience quietly to take out a few notes or coins from his wallet and then call out the jamoora with rapid-fire questions and get the sidekick to correctly identify the currency denominations and amount etc.!
Sood Sir was to be the madari naturally, while I would be his jamoora. We spent many afternoons after school practicing our craft in complete secrecy and I learned the trick to this magical act. There was an elaborate system of codes that my madari had devised, which I had to memorize. For example, if the question was preceded by “Jamoora” it implied that the madari would ask me something about a male member of the audience; by proceeding next with “Mere haath mein kyaa hai? (What is in my hand?) it meant his question related to a ring, and so on. With practice, I became adept at correctly picking on the coded words that helped me to provide answers. If I slipped up, Sood Sir would easily step in and change the narrative to get me back on track. The show was a resounding success and I never let out the secret to our magical act, until now.
The news these days remind me of the well-orchestrated and intricate madari and jamoora shows taking place the world over. It is almost as if on cue that we accept budgets balanced only by sleight of hand, trust billion-dollars valuation of companies that are yet to generate revenue, implicitly trust memes spewing forth from Facebook, WhatsApp and other sources including “fake” news channels, while continuing to believe that good days are just around the corner. But then, as an innocent child I did once believe in tooth fairies as well!