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Taking the snake out of snake-charming

The saperas are in a state of flux – they cannot ply their traditional art, or practise their life-saving skills, as the law denies them access to snakes, a pivotal necessity. The writer outlines their plight

No, there was no snake swaying to the tunes flowing from the been, the traditional musical instrument of the saperas, the snake charmers who have been practising their art over several generations. Instead, members of the sapera group danced and beat their drums to the familiar tunes.

The group of snake-charmers from Molarband Village near Badarpur in Haryana, clad in their traditional orange outfits, was performing at the Suraj Kund Mela this year. Originally from Neem ka Thana in Rajasthan, the eight-member troupe is led by Raj Kumar.

Snakes swaying to the hypnotic tunes of the been played by the saperas was a familiar scene in villages, small and big towns in India for ages. In fact, the country was once somewhat derisively known as a ‘land of snake charmers.’ Less publicised was the fact that the snake-charmer community was also adept at catching snakes and saving the lives of persons bitten by snakes.

“We cannot have snakes for our performances any more, as such shows have long been banned; and so we have to device a way to earn a living,” says Aakashnath who belongs to a sapera family. Time was when snakes were so integral a part of the community’s life that they were even given as part of the dowry for their women.

But Raj Kumar says the saperas no longer go to the jungles to look for snakes. “What is the point?” he asks. “Even saperas who have the license to keep snake as pets cannot take them out of their homes. Several times, snake charmers have been arrested and harassed despite the fact that they had valid licenses.”

Kumar says, “The older saperas knew how to prepare antidotes for the venom of all the poisonous snakes, including the cobra. They would spend days in the jungle looking for a variety of ingredients to make the desi davai as it is known to the saperas. So knowledgeable were some of them that they could identify the species of snake just by looking at the bite, and could then administer the appropriate anti-venom.”

Kumar recalls that the families of those the saperas saved would pay them in kind, and also cash – sometimes running to thousands of rupees. But for the saperas, the greatest reward was that they were able to save a life. He remembers how his father-in-law, the late Megh Nath, who was much revered among the snake-charmer community, had saved the life of a man who was on the verge of dying after being bitten by a poisonous snake.

“The poison had started spreading and he was beginning to lose his sight, but my father-in-law gave him a potion, and he survived,” says Kumar. He rues that such knowledge has almost become extinct.

People now turn to saperas only in places which are far away from hospitals. But in any case, Raj Kumar says the present generation of the community does not have the expertise to prepare the life-saving desi davai because it needs venom extracted from snakes, and they cannot keep these snakes at home. Earlier, the saperas would go to the jungles and bring back snakes either for making them perform or for preparing anti-venom. “Now, even if we capture snakes that sneak into houses or godowns, we release them in the jungles. Who wants to be arrested?” he says.

The saperas still earn some money by capturing snakes that enter homes or other inhabited spaces. “We get calls to catch snakes that have entered homes mostly during the rainy season,” says Akashnath, adding, “Sometimes, it takes a whole day, if the snake is hiding in cartons or behind heavy furniture. The place has to be cleared out before the reptile can be caught.”

While the younger generation is looking for new avenues of livelihood, the older saperas who once entertained crowds with their performing snakes now simply play their beens while other members of the troupe dance to the tunes.

Akashnath says when members of the community go from village to village to stage performances, they educate the people on what to do if they are bitten by snakes – tying a tight torniquet over the bite is a way to prevent the poison from spreading, he notes. The saperas are usually called to perform at government functions, fairs, marriages and birthday parties. Street performance with snakes is history, and the general public have no interest in seeing performances without snakes.

Kumar says while the leader of the sapera troupe is usually paid Rs 2000 a day, other members get Rs 1000 each, in addition to some money to defray travel and food expenses. At the Suraj Kund Mela, which has international appeal, the group leader got Rs 5000 and the other artistes Rs 2000 each.

Children are taught to play the been right from the time they are 3 to 4 years old. They also play the tumba and prem-taal, made from dried bel gourds. “We make the tumbas ourselves with the help of a Japanese wire.” Sometimes, instead of the dry bel, wood is used to make the prem-taal,” says Rohtas Nath, another member of the group.

Deprived of their traditional livelihood, the snake-charmer community is seeking pension for the older saperas and loan facility for the younger generation to start small businesses such as shops. Kumar suggests that they can also be appointed in zoos and parks and other vulnerable sites to trap snakes, in the interests of public safety.

Kumar has three sons. One of them is a postgraduate, but was unable to get a job. He and another brother are part of the sapera been troupe, while a third son is working for meagre pay in a private company. He says the community is changing, and even educating the girls, but they need hand-holding to earn a livelihood. He also urges the government to take steps to see that this ancient art survives.

Sarita Brara, New Delhi