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Learning to sway with swag

All for a livelihood--With their vocation banned, snake charmers take to professional dancing, thanks to Akhilesh Yadav

lucknow Updated: Jan 22, 2018 16:27 IST
Anupam Srivastava
Anupam Srivastava
Hindustan Times, Saifai
Snake charmers,Uttar Pradesh,Safai
Lucknow, India - Jan. 19, 2018 Choreographers training the Snake charmers in Community Hall of Saifai.(Subhankar Chakraborty/HT Photo)

It’s early January morning and the chill is at its peak.

A group of 35 men— youngest being 6 and oldest 64, are busy matching steps on a Bollywood number beats here at Saifai’s Kisan Bazar community Hall.

Snake charming
  • Snake charming refers to the practice of hypnotizing a snake by playing gourd flutes (Been). A typical performance may also include handling the snakes or performing other dangerous acts, as well as other street performance staples, like juggling and sleight of hand.
  • Snake charming, which is an inherited profession, was banned in India in 1991. Prior to it, public display of snakes was a common scene in most parts of the country. On occasions such as Naag Panchami a number of snake charmers display serpents along the streets and other places. In return, they get alms from devotees, who ass per Hindu mythology, treat snakes with respect.
  • The community of snake charmers is referred to as Sapera community. They are one of a number of semi-nomadic communities found in North India which live in camps at the outskirts of most North Indian towns.

The show, which goes on for over eight hours every day, is taking place for a past few days under the watchful eyes of professional choreographers, flown in from Mumbai.

They are raw, their trainers insist, their move, nonetheless, is charming.

Meet the erstwhile snake charmers, known for their ability to control some of the world’s most venomous reptiles.

“With court banning our traditional vocation of snake charming, this is our last hope of earning a livelihood through respectful means,” says Rajeev Nath, 64.

Camping in makeshift camps around the community hall, they have been picked up from adjoining Saifai, Etawah and Mainpuri towns as part of their mission rehabilitation, envisaged by Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav.

“With the court banning our traditional folk art, we were left to fend for ourselves. It was when Akhilesh promised us to provide houses along Lucknow-Agra expressway. Though his government was ousted, he did not forget his promise and have organised this training for us so that we could make turn into professional dancers and earn our livelihood,” says Raghuveer Nath, a leader of the Sapera community undergoing training in Saifai.

The batch of 35 is currently training to perform at Samajwadi Party office on Republic Day.

“That will be our first performance. It will be followed by another at the opening of Indian Grameen Cricket league on January 28,” says Nath.

But why dancing?

Saperas, Kalbelias, Bedias, Naikars communities are traditional snake charmers. Since their profession demands agility, they are believed to be fit but raw dancers, who are good in playing gourd flutes (Been).

Akhilesh decided to add professional aspect to their dancing ability so that they can earn by channelizing their talent into an art form which remains in demand.

“We are honing their skills. Next, they will be provided dresses, new hair style and new gourd flutes,” says Vijay Joy, who along with his assistant Chentan Keni, has been entrusted with their makeover.

“Three from amongst them will be chosen as master trainers and sent to Mumbai for another three-month course so that they can return and train more members of their community,” says Joy, who has assisted noted choreographer Farha Khan and Deepa Kapoor in number of Bollywood movies.

“I have been a professional choreographer for last 18 years but this is one assignment which I am enjoying the most,” he says while praising the dancing abilities of snake charmers.

“They are raw so much so that they can’t differentiate between a circle , square and a straight line but after 15 days of training their graceful sways of the hip and the waist are better than professional belly dancers,” he says while reminiscing the call he got from Akhilesh.

“When the first call came from Safai Mahotsav Mela Samiti, I was not excited but when former chief minister called me personally, I decided to up the challenge. More than a professional work, it is an emotional assignment for me as I am trying to shape the future of their families,” he says while hoping that 35 of them will soon help turn the fortune of around 50,000 families of snake charmers in Uttar Pradesh.

He also hopes some of them get to show talent in reality shows like Dance India Dance.

“They definitely have a chance. Once I am back in Mumbai, I will try introducing them to a few producers,” says Joy.

First Published: Jan 22, 2018 16:27 IST