Snake tricks lose their charm
It looks just like any other north Indian village. There are buffaloes roaming around neatly scrubbed streets, fields of rich green wheat and rows of tidy mud houses. But the inhabitants of Salenagar – an hour’s drive from the city of Lucknow – are unusual because of their profession.
Ever since their ancestors migrated from Bengal to the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the locals here have made their living from snake charming. But the hereditary profession that has been going since the 18th century is now in trouble. The snake-charming business, I discovered during a recent visit to Salenagar, has fallen on hard times.
“I blame the rise of nature documentaries,” the village’s headman or chief Baba Sri Ram Nath told me dolefully, as we sat under a string bed in the shade.
“The problem is the people have watched too much TV. Kids and their parents are always watching it or playing with computers. They don’t bother looking at us anymore.”
Snake charmers, who were once a regular feature across India’s large towns and cities, have also found their line of work undermined by Bollywood, Mr Nath said. The snake charmers’ act used to involve playing a traditional tune on a bean or pungi – a gourd-like instrument that sounds a bit like a bagpipe.
“The new generation don’t listen to the old melodies and songs. They only want Bollywood songs, not bean music. The kids are just interested in pop. Now they have drums and sophisticated instruments,” he lamented.
The decline of snake charming says much about modern India – not just about the demise of romantic-seeming occupation but about the country1s invidious caste politics. Many of the “sapera” – the snake charmers’ hereditary caste – admit that they don’t even like snakes.
“I just do this to make ends meet,” Sadhu Nath admitted. “I’m 55 years old and I’ve been snake charming for 50 years. I do it to get a bit of food for my family.”
“It is a dying art,” he added bitterly.
The reality of snake charming has little in common with its exotic image in the west’s imagination of India. The villagers’ main demand is that they are recognised as a scheduled caste. Under India’s constitution this would entitle them to government jobs and other privileges.
The scheduled caste scheme was established to try and give some of India’s most backward communities a leg-up into the worlds of bureaucracy and politics.
In practice, though, while some backward communities have benefited from reservations, others have found that they fail to qualify. They have watched their already meagre standard of living decline.
“The government should recognise us as Bengali saperas,” Mr Nath said. Most of Salenagar’s 600 villages are still snake charmers – travelling across the towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh by bicycle or bus, to nearby Lucknow or Kanpur.
Some of the village’s brighter teenagers have managed to obtain higher qualification s- only to discover that they are then unable to find a job. Few see much future in snake charming.
“I’m not interested in it,” 15-year-old Ishwar Nath said. “We don’t want to do it because it doesn’t make any money.”
“I want to study more but I recently failed my exams because I didn’t have any books,” he added.
“I’m too scared to do it,” student Gautham Nath, 17, said. “I’m the black sheep of the family.”
There is nothing especially dangerous about snake charming, the villagers explained. Most of the snakes are cobras caught from the surrounding fields. The cobras are stupefied with a diet of leaves and herbs, which means they are unlikely to bite anything. Most, it seems, would prefer to stay in their baskets, preferably asleep.
In the unlikely event that a snake does manage to bite its handler, the villagers know how to effect a cure using local plants. Nobody had ever died of a snake’s bite, they said.
The snake charmers are proud of their piratical appearance. They have long hair, wear turbans, necklaces made from shells and glass beads and have their ears pierced. The uniform has been the same for generations.
“My father and grandfather did the same thing,” Mr Nath said. “Right from the inception of our ancestors we have been doing this.”
Mr Nath was uncertain what his community would do next. “Our children don’t want to carry on. Our future depends on God,” he said. Autor: Luke Harding