Snake charming has been a popular form of entertainment in India for generations.
For hundreds of thousands of snake charmers, it was their only source of income.
From New Delhi, reporter Bismillah Geelani finds out what’s become of snake charmers since the practice was outlawed more than two decades ago.
Wearing orange dresses with matching turbans, a group of folk musicians play tunes on the been, a traditional flute made from gourd fruit.
The audience at Surajkund Craft Fair on the outskirts of Delhi is enthralled. Many break into dance. But the musicians themselves don’t look very enthusiastic.“This is not what we want to do; it’s been thrust upon us,” says Badri Nath. He’s 75 years old and he heads the troupe. “But since our original work has been banned, this is all we can do. Whether we are happy or not doesn’t matter.”
Badri and his companions are snake charmers. For generations, they made their living performing with snakes on streets and in villages across India.
But snake charming is no longer legal, and Badri says they’re no longer able to make ends meet.
“Snakes and snake charmers have been together from time immemorial. It’s the only thing we and our ancestors have known, and we lived on it for centuries,” Badri explained. “Now it has been taken away from us. We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots. These [music] performances here can sustain a few us for a few days. But what happens after that? And what about the rest of the community?”
Snake charming was banned under the Wildlife Protection Act amendment in 1991. The law prohibits catching, owning, and performing with snakes.
Initially, the government didn’t enforce the ban, and snake charmers continued as they always had. But as animal rights activists pressured authorities to clampdown on snake charmers, their numbers declined. Kartik Satyanarayan, from the conservation group Wildlife SOS, says the tradition is abusive.
“They basically dehydrate them; they stick them in a box and forget about them, use them whenever they want to make a performance or beg some money from people, and once the job is done they just throw the snake away because they don’t care,” claims Satyanarayan.
“And [the] snake then sometimes dies; it takes some weeks of starvation to die because the fangs have been removed, the venom glands have been removed, they can’t really hunt and fend for themselves anymore,” he said.
But snake charmers strongly deny charges of animal cruelty.
The ban affected an estimated 800,000 snake charmers in India. Many moved into other occupations like rickshaw pulling, street vending, construction, or agricultural labour. But according to the Snake Charmers’ Union, the overwhelming majority remains jobless. Some, however, refuse to give up the tradition.
But on Delhi’s streets, some still perform, wearing a yellow Dhoti, Kurta and Turban, they look a little like a Sadhu or Hindu priest.
They arrange a couple of wicker baskets in front of them and start playing the been.
As soon as people gather, the snake charmer opens his baskets and three snakes rise up waving their heads, they look like they’re dancing to the music of his been.
He then moves closer to the audience, showing them the reptiles and explaining differences between the species. But when a policeman arrives, the snake charmer quickly flees.
His brother, Birju Nath, says they’re used to playing this game of hide and seek with police and forest officials.
“They arrest us and take away our snakes. But if we stop doing this, what else is there for us? We have no business or land to fall back on. Without this we will simply starve to death,” Birju complained.
The younger generation shows no interest in continuing the legacy, and Satyanarayan from Wildlife SOS sees this as a positive development.
“Life moves on,” he stated. “Our lives have changed culturally. Why should the poor snake charmer continue to live a life of poverty, and disadvantage himself and his family, just because some other people like to see that and like to call this tradition?”
Back at the craft fair, the snake charmers are playing a Sufi song -- or Qawwali, as the audience is sways and whirls to the music.
With the snakes sent back to their natural habitat, the snake charmers are pinning all their hopes on their instruments, the been.
“There are so many musical instruments out there but the been stands out,” says Vikrambir Nath, a member of the music troup.
“It belongs exclusively to us and it is completely homemade. We make it from gourd and bamboo. It represents us as a community and our unique way of life, and it is part of India’s cultural heritage. It needs to be protected and that would require state patronage and promotion.”
He says that unless the government invests in preserving the history and music of the snake charmers, within a few decades the centuries-old practice will disappear without a trace.