Snake charmers take to wedding bands – without snakes (Feature)

Sapera Basti (Delhi Border), Feb 22 (IANS) Their flutes still hypnotise, their orange turban-dhoti-kurtas are still intact. But as the saperas, or snake charmers, belt out their tunes at parties and weddings, in the back of their minds the picture is a little incomplete. They are bereft of their snakes.

At the Sapera Basti or snake charmers’ village near Badarpur on the outskirts of the capital, Nannu Nath, a former snake charmer, sits in his tiny home, narrating the hard life the community has had to face ever since a ban made snake charming illegal.

‘When the government suddenly said we could no longer keep our snakes, we were left in the lurch. What else were we supposed to do? Snake charming is an art that is passed from one generation to the next and was the only means to earn a living – we knew no other,’ Nath, with his big silver loop ear-rings, told IANS.

‘Education was never given any importance nor any other skill acquisition,’ he added.

Originally from Rajasthan, the snake charmers settled here more than five decades ago in search of a better life. For ages, music and snakes have been their only company and they have played in the lanes and bylanes of residential areas as well as at fairs, with onlookers marvelling at their skills.

After the Wildlife Protection Act made snake charming illegal, it was only the music they were left with to earn their bread and butter.

Rajesh Chauhan, another former snake charmer, said: ‘After the ban, we had to give up our snakes but started playing the ‘been’ at small gatherings, parties and weddings for money. But when we saw the wedding bands around, we realised we were in for stiff competition.

‘So some of us decided to learn to play a few new musical instruments. Soon we formed bands of our own and then started playing at weddings and parties for some decent money,’ he added.

According to Nath, there are around 40 such bands in the Sapera Basti, each group with 12-14 members.

As he shows pictures of his band – former snake charmers dressed in bright kurta-pyjamas and turbans, complete with various musical instruments like the trumpet – it seems like a far cry from the typical snake charmer look.

While some lament that by entering this trade those like Chauhan are leaving behind their art, others say this is the only way they can sustain themselves.

‘You have to earn to live and support your family. There are some saperas (snake charmers) who now work as masons and labourers, but most work in wedding bands like me. There are still others who just play the flute and manage to earn a little,’ he said.

Nath said the amount of money they earn in bands is much better than what they did earlier, but then the cost of living has gone up too.

‘Now we earn about Rs.3,500-5,000 which is better than what we used to earn as snake charmers. But then again, work flourishes only during the wedding season. During the rest of the year we either look for bookings for parties and get-togethers or end up doing odd jobs,’ said Sanjeev Nath, another sapera.

The women of the community are a hard working lot too. Besides taking care of their families, they also take care of the livestock and trek the nearby woods for firewood.

Despite the ban, it’s however not rare to see snakes in people’s homes in the village.

‘We know there is a ban, yet we sometimes get snakes from the nearby woods for our own entertainment. But at the time of getting a snake, we make a promise to release it on an auspicious day like Holi, which we do,’ Nath said.

‘In any case, we don’t have enough to feed the snake – so it’s better we release them,’ he added.

He, however, also said their younger generation is not interested to take the ‘art’ forward.

‘Our children these days are not interested in even coming near snakes – sometimes they are even scared, so taking the art forward is a feeble attempt now. Earlier we were not interested in education, and moreover our kids used to be looked down upon by others, but now things are changing and our kids are taking up other professions,’ Nath said.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.p@ians.in)

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