Children of Jogi Dera, an ancient hamlet on the outskirts of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, indulge in an activity that their peers can’t even imagine – the art of playing with snakes.
It is perhaps the most common sight in Jogi Dera, where a majority of the population belongs to a semi-nomadic tribe, ‘Baiga’ or ‘Sapera’, whose main occupation is snake charming.
“No snake can harm us as they know we care for them,” says Aina Nath, 13, who was born in Jogi Dera, as he lets a snake slither through his hands.
The son of a snake charmer, Aina had his first encounter with snakes at the age of 2, when his father accidently left his basket open. “My father was asleep when I noticed a King Cobra sneaking out. I caught hold of the snake and put it back into the basket,” he says.
Aina was perhaps the youngest in the village to handle the deadly King Cobra. The incident made him popular among other children and handling snakes became a routine affair for him.
Snakes interest Aina far more than his studies do. “I like this profession and want to master this art like my father. So, I have quit studying,” he adds.
Twelve-year-old Indu Nath, who is also a snake charmer like Aina, rues that he is yet to master the skills. “I am lucky that I haven’t experienced any snake bite so far. I keep anti-venom roots of medicinal plants (known as ‘jadi booti’ in local lingo),” he says.
Chakarmukhi, Nagjadi, Jahar mohra, Sarp gandha— Indu Nath recites a list of his trusted jadi booti. “My father got these especially for me from the forest. Some of these have magical powers and suck away the venom,” he says.
Some children from the village assist their fathers in snake charming shows that they put up at street–side corners or local fairs. “We help out our parents in staging the acts to increase the income,” says Pukar Nath, a contemporary of Aina and Indu Nath.
In Jogi Dera, there are many who have broken with tradition and given up their ancestral trade. Shamsher Nath, a snake charmer, says his son Virendra has moved to Rajasthan to work in a thread factory.
“I never wanted my children to get into this business,” says Shamsher. “I am fortunate that my son is settled.”
Chumbak Nath, head of the Bagi tribe, whom the locals call Baba, says he has never discouraged people from moving out. Many young men are now working in metro cities in other trades. “There is hardly any money left in our profession. On an average, we earn Rs 200-300 a day which is too little to meet our family expenses,” he says.
Nath says that if the situation does not improve, he will rally the 42 villages inhabited by snake charmers in Kanpur Dehat to boycott the upcoming elections.
According to Nath, the small community of snake charmers does not figure on the agenda of any political party. “The village is grappling with several civic issues. It has no brick road, no electricity. There are hardly any brick houses or drinking water facilities except for a few old wells,” he says.
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