Photography as a Performing Art, and the Art of Busking


Let me introduce you to a word that is not often used in India. Busking. In a literal sense, it means putting your act out there in public view, to be judged by anyone who is drawn enough to take a minute of their time to listen or see. India has had some famous buskers, especially in their early, formative years. Some of the most famous musicians in the world began as ‘buskers’, earning a living from coins thrown into a hat or a banjo case, and they continue in its tradition after they became famous, because it is the ultimate test. Because the only thing they sell out there is their art. The only thing they put out there is their bodies, and perhaps, a piece of their soul.

This isn’t very different from the origin of the word. Derived from Spanish, it seems, where the meaning of it is ‘to ask’ or more rather, ‘to seek’. Another meaning comes from old French, now archaic and unused, as a derogatory reference made for those who sell their bodies. In a sense, any art has just as much got to do with the physicality of using the body in the process of creation, just as much it also has been about ignoring the rigors to that same physicality, taking it to its limits, and in many cases, repeatedly abusing the body in a bid to create.

I have always had this strange and perhaps morbid curiosity about artists’ bodies. How far do they go to squeeze out performance? Van Gogh’s self portraits, where terrible physical hunger is met with an almost feral hunger to paint. In photography, it is Kertész, Bresson, Leiter, Cunningham. And S Paul. They walked and waited for thousands upon thousands of hours for their frames. Francesca Woodman used herself as her own subject. So did Vivian Maier.

Were one to distinguish between some of the common elements that form the most memorable works of art, be it music, painting or photography, it would be these… Technical perfection, in every sense of it, including in the performance, often at the expense of all else. Use of space, action, and silences. A capturing of emotion, an essence, a distillation of the subject, theme, idea, or moment. A heady combination of all three. Or a complete and extraordinary departure from it all. Then there is the intent, or the lack of it. And finally, the tales behind some of these works, and the stories about the artists, embellished in the telling, to be written about, discussed, ruminated over, to be a part of history taught to students. That is the final element, where the performances really come alive.

Can a performer be separated from the performance? I sometimes ask myself this. As a photographer with some practice behind me, I am confident of getting the job done, of making the frames that I know will make customers happy. Is that level of performance truly satisfactory? How often is it that I end up being my own client? On the other hand, sometimes I lose myself entirely to the process. The client be damned! It is extremely fulfilling when I let that happen. It makes my performance my very own. But there are the obvious pitfalls of just working for oneself. Performances, after all, need to be seen to be appreciated.

As a student, I was fascinated by Konstantin Stanslavski’s seminal book, ‘An Actor Prepares’, but it took me a long while to grasp this bit… “Never lose yourself on the stage. Always act in your own person, as an artist. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks the departure from truly living your part and the beginning of exaggerated false acting. Therefore, no matter how much you act, how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings. To break that rule is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying, because you deprive him of a palpitating, living, human soul, which is the real source of life for a part.”

I remember watching a biographical documentary that ends with the protagonist, a 14-time Grammy Award winner, being rudely asked to busk somewhere else. On the other hand, on a late night train ride from Churchgate to Virar, I reveled in the songs belted out so brilliantly by a three-member qawali troupe, that I joyously donated money without being asked for it. On another occasion some years ago, again in a crowded peak rush hour Mumbai train compartment, a desk officer from the Indian Navy enthralled his rapt, silent audience (if you know Mumbai locals, you know how incredibly impossible this is) with music from his accordion, not for money, but for the sheer pleasure of it. In the context of photography, it makes me wonder. Why perform? Why photograph? For ourselves? For a purpose? For the world to see? What are we putting out there, even in its digital forms, and why? For the money? To enthrall an audience? Why seek, and ask, and sell? And, if it indeed is the ultimate test, the question to ask is, am I up to it?

Busking is public performance on the streets. An old lady watched me curiously from her perch on a verandah. A minute later, she sidled next to me, peering at what I was trying to photograph. An old dusty window? Stone steps? A scrawny cat? A moment later, she beamed a toothless smile of understanding and nodded, and I loved her for it. At that moment, I was her performing artist and she was my audience. It really does not get more pure than that.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Better Photography.