Snake charmers on the road to revival

Armed with their beens, charmers sans their snakes are hypnotising audiences with their tunes.
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Published on Mar 05, 2007 05:27 PM IST
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IANS | ByAzera Rahman, New Delhi

Snake charming, one of the oldest professions of India and the 'mystic' factor that people all over the world are fascinated by, was dying a slow death until recently.

Armed with their 'beens' (flutes), these charmers sans their snakes are now hypnotising audiences with their tunes and inviting serpentine queues for their performances.

Take the case of Patram Nath Sapera. This 60-year-old man from Gogameri Gaon in Rajasthan, dressed in a typical snake charmer's attire - orange robe and turban - and carrying his been, says he was stripped of his daily income when his snake was taken away from him five years ago because of strict wildlife laws.

"I didn't know what to do. This is what I have been doing for ages just like my father and my grandfather did. Without my snake, I started coming back home empty handed. Earlier on I used to earn at least Rs 100-150 a day and I could buy food for my family.

"My kids had to drop out of school. With no other option I had to do odd jobs like rag-picking," he said.

But thanks to the Jeevika Trust, an NGO promoting biodiversity conservation and promising rehabilitation to this community of snake charmers, Patram Nath's life is back on track.

Today he and many like him who are part of the Sarprakshak Group (or protectors of snakes) project mesmerise people with their unique brand of music as they play handcrafted instruments like the been, khanjari (tambourine) and tumba (string instrument).

The community was dealt a hard blow following severe criticism by wildlife conservationists and stringent laws like the Wildlife Protection Act, which came into force in 1972 and ended in the snakes being rescued from the snake charmers.

According to the Jeevika Trust, 80 percent snakes die due to shoddy handling by these charmers. However, simply by rescuing the snakes, without giving the snake charmers an alternative means of livelihood - as they didn't know any other skill - only resulted in nearly 200,000 snake charmers becoming jobless.

Understanding the deep-rooted problem, wildlife conservationist Bahar Dutt formed an NGO, Friends of Snakes.

"Several groups have tried to rehabilitate them by teaching them to be drivers or tailors but that hasn't worked because there was either too much competition or they simply didn't have the right skills," she said.

The way out of this convoluted problem was devised in the form of the Sarprakshak Group.

"We, with the help of snake experts and wildlife scientists, started training snake charmers about identifying different species of snakes, how to take care of them in captivity et al," said Raju Paswan, project officer of the Sarprakshak project.

"So now they go around educating people about snakes, about their ecological value and saying they are harmless. This training has enhanced their on-field knowledge and they can be absorbed in zoos, ecological parks etc for regular employment."

But that's not all. "Earlier on we thought that without our snakes, the been has lost its worth. But then we realised that we can still create music and enthral people," said Mani Ram Nath, another snake charmer from Rajasthan.

And that's what they did. From Hindi movie numbers to folk songs to self compositions, this talented lot can make real music on their been, khanjari and tumba.

Some of them even went to Scotland and gave a performance there. As they perform back home they don't forget to play the Scottish tunes they picked up there.

Starting with 20 snake charmers a year ago, this group has now grown to a hundred. Hailing from various parts of the country like Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, these snake charmers have surely had a melodious revival.

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