In the neighbourhood: Madari

Madari: Street performer who entertains people with help of their trained monkeys, Magician, Conjurer, Trickster.

Monkeys and their performance acts have been my earliest memory of witnessing performing arts. I have stories told to me about my great-grandmother making me dance with them to the beat of her walking stick. My fascination with monkeys’ acts as performance could also be traced to a favourite toy of mine- a monkey clapping cymbals attached to his hands.

In my memory, neighbourhood performances by monkeys were commonplace during the noon time of summer vacations. When all the kids were awake and getting restless for the evening to happen so that they can go out and play.

The performance came to us, travelling one block to another. Some people watched by coming out of their homes and some decided to stay in their balconies. The balcony viewers were also of two kinds, one who tried to remain hidden so that they didn’t have to pay the madari and the other who demanded the madari to show the acts of their choice.

During those days, toy phones that played Bollywood songs had newly arrived on market. They were utilised in the performance along with other props like a wooden board with wheels as a car, cloth pieces as dupatta and a hand-held mirror. One of the popular acts was a monkey dressed as a husband who tried to pacify his wife (monkey dressed as a wife) to come back from her father’s home to his home. The monkey dressed as his wife had left because of having a brawl with her mother-in-law (the monkey dressed as mother-in-law). Sometimes the same monkey changed attire/props and played husband as well as the mother-in-law. Such acts usually involving domestic drama were performed by madari for an audience of women/housewives, kids and senior citizens. There was also the option to customise the act and even the patronage paid to madari could be modified. It ranged from Rs 5 to Rs 20.

The following Images were captured on the lawns of India Gate. They show me witnessing a madari’s act with my cousins (Image 1). Another image (Image 2) shows how my father is fearlessly engaging with monkey performers, possibly an act of subtle lesson for us kids to see how similar we all are beyond our categories. Another image (Image 3) shows a crowd of kids gathered around a monkey’s performance.

Image 1: Me with my cousins witnessing monkey’s performance, India gate, 2002
Image 2: My father with monkey on his lap, India Gate, 2002
Image 3: A scene from performance, India Gate, 2002

Living in gated societies and constantly barricaded/monitored public spaces in times when animal rights are imposed without getting into the details of relationships that a man and animal can or have had shared in the past, imagining such free acts of performance is hard. Although performed by monkeys, the act is a madari’s act. His doing, his beats, and his training make the monkeys dance. The madari, with his troop of monkeys, travels around the city taking drama to people’s doorstep.