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Hiss-tory lessons: How Indian folk arts celebrated snakes

Pop-culture made snakes evil and conniving. Traditional Indian arts celebrated it. Folk singer Ila Arun clears the misconceptions

art and culture Updated: Jan 27, 2017 17:54 IST
Poorva Joshi
Poorva Joshi
Hindustan Times
Ila Arun,HT48Hours,NCPA
Traditional Kalbelia dancers. (Photo courtesy: NCPA)

Producer Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms ventured into supernatural dramas last year when they launched Naagin, a show about a 20-something ichhadhari naagin (a shape-shifting mythical snake), on a mission to avenge her parents’ murder. Her powers include mind control, and morphing into another person (like Mystique in the X Men universe).

Despite the incredulous plot, Naagin was one of the highest-rated shows on Indian television in 2016. Why? Because the naagin represented shakti (power), a self-reliant woman who is also a skilled assassin. “For once, snakes were represented in a positive light, driven by love and loyalty, instead of cunning like Bollywood has portrayed them for years. In fact, folk tales from all over India have always represented snakes in a positive light,” says folk singer Ila Arun.

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To shed more light on the reptile’s association with Indian culture, tradition and performing arts, Arun will discuss mythological stories and the Rajasthani dance form called Kalbelia, which is inspired by a snake’s movements. The talk will also launch the National Centre of Performing Arts’ Lok Gatha, a series of talks to highlight indigenous folk art forms.

Traditional Kalbelia dancers.

“Snakes played an important part in my cultural knowledge while growing up in Rajasthan,” says Arun. She recalls watching men playing their been (a musical instrument) and snakes coming out of their cane baskets. “On other occasions, people would gather around to tell stories such as that of a girl who befriends a snake and discovers his underground snake kingdom,” she says.

So, what happened? When did snakes become disreputable in popular culture? Arun reckons the change occurred when, under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, snake charming and breeding was banned. The country’s snake charming community suffered economically and the tradition was lost. The one community that carried the legacy of the snakes, however, was the Kalbelia nomadic tribe of Rajasthan. “They practise the dance form in black robes to represent the snake, and it involves flexible movement to the music of the been,” says Arun.

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Kalbelia even received national recognition last year when an exponent, dancer Gulabo Sapera, was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to the dying dance form. And though Sapera herself won’t be a part of the talk, Arun says other members of the Kalbelia tribe will be present.

Folk singer Ila Arun ( Photo courtesy: NCPA )

First Published: Jan 27, 2017 00:00 IST