An Indian Street Juggler

By Lloyd Timberlake
London, England

Juggler's World, Vol 34, No 5, December 1982

Balraj Nagishetty travels India performing feats which have stood the test of time.

London: Balraj Nagishetty does not know how long his ancestors have been street jugglers, certainly as far back as anyone in the family can remember. Each has done the same act, using the same props; Balraj's knives are 40 years old and belonged to his father.

But 24-year-old Balraj may be the last of his line. He wants his children to go to school, "and once they go to school they will not want to juggle," he said.

Balraj, his wife, 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son live in the village of Antargram, a place of 400 families in the state of Andhra Pradesh, east-central India. The family stays in the village during the rains and for the harvest, but for six months of the year they travel, with another couple and their child, around India.

Ranging mostly north, where India tends to be richer, they have been to Delhi, to Calcutta and the villages along the Bangladesh border and even to Bombay, the Hollywood of India, where Balraj once found a few hours work as a film extra. But most of their time is spent in the central states of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. They mostly walk, sleeping at night in a small tent.

Balraj's travelling companion "plays the drum and is a very good talker. When he talks, people get caught and cannot leave, even if they do not like what I am doing just then. When he plays the drum, people walking many streets away know that a show of some kind is happening and they come running."

The drum is a "Dholak" - narrow at both ends and thick in the middle, played at both ends. The show lasts about 45 minutes. Some of it is the sort of thing Westerners think of as the tricks of the Indian "fakir," rather than juggling. Balraj sticks a curved wire, the consistency of a coat hanger, into a nostril and pulls it out his mouth, rattling it loudly against his teeth. It is a variation on the yoga cleansing exercise done with cotton. He lifts a l0-kilo (22-pound) stone with his eyelid, by hanging it from a wire attached to a small metal, monocle-like circle.

Yet his most bizarre move is to clutch a small, hard pebble with his lip against the bottom of his nose. He then throws, very accurately and very straight, a glass marble some 10 meters (35 feet) into the sky. He holds his face beneath it as it falls, letting it shatter into fragments against the pebble on his face.

He tried the trick on a London rooftop, throwing the marble so high he lost it in the grey sky on his first few attempts. He then shattered a few and said, "It is much easier under the blue skies of India. I can throw them really high there."

There are several moves involving a heavy wooden top, which Balraj gets going by flinging it toward the crowd, holding onto the string and jerking at the last instant so the top comes back toward him and lands spinning in his palm.

He balances it on top of a short stick covered in tiny tassels, with that stick balanced on a mouth stick. Somehow -- Balraj makes it look as if he does it by tugging an earlobe - he can make that small stick either spin with the top or remain still. When it spins, the tassels stand out; Balraj with a flick of his lips stops it from spinning, then starts it again. He also balances the top on a springy stick about a meter long, that stick balanced on his chin, the top spinning and bouncing up and down dangerously above his head.

Even the "straight" juggling he does looks odd to a Western juggler. Balraj's knives are about a half-meter long (18 inches), with very light, thin blades like huge butter knives, and very heavy round wooden handles. He does not flip the knives blade over handle back toward himself as a Westerner would. He throws reverses, holding the knife high, flipping the handle toward himself so that it somersaults handle-over-blade.

This lends itself more to two-in-one-hand juggling, and that is the main bit of his knife work: singles and doubles so fast that it looks as if he were spinning two batons in one hand rather than throwing and catching knives. The blades are thin where they join the handle, and around this bit are two "washers" of thick, rigid wire. Balraj spins the knives around their long axes as he flips them, and the washers make them "sing."

The speed, the noise, and the highly polished blades flashing in the sun make an impressive show. He also does three, but throws mostly flats (no flip) or what Westerners would call "reverse spins."

Balraj's round juggling objects are bronze/brass bells of the sort hung on elephants, camels and oxen all over India. But they are specially cast for juggling: perfectly round with no attachment for a hanging line and only very narrow slits to let the noise of the clapper out.

Balraj starts with two, throwing and catching with his left hand only while he bounces them off the back of his right palm, right forearm, right elbow -very fast and tight. The bells ring differently as they hit different body parts, and the act makes music accompanied, of course, by the dholak.

He does three bells and four bells, using moves similar to Western ball juggling. Despite the act being centuries old, Balraj practices to improve. He has an uncle who does six bells, and feels that if he could do more he could become famous.

In India, Balraj halts his act halfway through to pass around the "thali." This is the plate from which food is eaten, so it is a symbol throughout the land of livelihood and survival - much more appropriate than a hat. He tells the crowd, "For you we have performed, and you must help us so we can live. The one who pays is welcome; the one who does not is also our guest."

Doing only two or three shows a day, Balraj and his troupe earn 7,000 - 10,000 rupees ($1,000 - $1,400) per year, money which must support seven people. This is not a bad Indian income, but they have only been earning this much money for the past three years. Balraj says street acts have become popular in schools over that period, and he is often invited in to perform.

He and his family are members of a low caste and own no land. They do not work much in their home village, but take part in the harvest festival and other celebrations. At harvest time especially, the farmers are expected to be generous to any artistes living among them.

But when his children grow to school age, he will have to leave them and his wife in the village and travel without them, sending money home. He will get little help from the government - no social security, pension, or sickness benefits. But his children will be educated free, and Indians get free health care - if there is a doctor nearby. If he is injured on the road, if that coat hanger pierces a sinus or if that marble takes out an eye, he will become another of India's landless unemployed; the children will not be going to school.

Balraj makes more money in the big cities than in the villages. "But I have trouble with the police. It is the biggest problem of my life. I must bribe them and the local 'big men'. Sometimes they even move me on without asking for a bribe. They sometimes take all the props of a juggler, but that has never happened to me. I have been taken into custody twice, but that was when I was only young and did not know how to talk to them."

In London Balraj has not been moved on by the police, nor does he pass the thali. He performs all day in an art gallery. He and a street magician, musicians, dancers, potters, weavers and the like have been flown in to take part in the "Festival of India" - happening all over London this past summer - at the Barbican Centre, a new concrete and glass art gallery, theatre and concert hall complex in the heart of the City. The artistes and artisans perform all day as visitors stroll about and watch them.

The exhibit is nicely staged, but there is something a little chilling about human beings - especially human beings as skilled, bright and ambitious as Balraj - becoming museum displays, as if they were of another era and must be preserved in a glass case. A bus brings the performers from their hotel every morning and takes them back every evening. Balraj has been on a children's television show here, but has seen none of London and met none of its Asian community. (He speaks no English; I speak no Telugu; so we communicated through an interpreter, Balraj and the interpreter speaking Hindi. He tried my fiberglass clubs, plastic rings, hard rubber balls and cigar boxes. I tried his bells and knives. Neither found the cultural leap easy, but we were deeply impressed by each other's props. He was amazed by a copy of JUGGLER'S WORLD, and was especially taken by the photo of Ignatov doing 11 rings. "I wish I could read it," he said.)

More and more Indian villages have a central TV set and more people see cinema. Thus the same forces - TV and cinema - are at work in India which wiped out the hordes of variety artistes who made their livings touring Europe and the USA earlier this century.

Also, more and more street jugglers must have the same hopes for their children that Balraj does. An office colleague of mine, an Indian recently moved to London from Delhi, says her impression is that India's traditional street performers are succumbing to such pressures, becoming scarcer. Maybe it is appropriate that they perform in a museum in London.

But not Balraj. He says he cannot wait until his month in London is up and he is back in India again - back on the road.

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