NEW DELHI — Wearing orange dresses with matching turbans, a group of folk musicians play tunes on their pungi, also known as been, a traditional flute made from gourd fruit.
The audience at Surajkund Craft Fair on the outskirts of the Indian capital is enthralled. Many break into dance. But the musicians themselves don't look very enthusiastic. "This is not what we want to do; it's been thrust upon us," says Badri Nath, 75, who heads the troupe. "But since our original work has been banned, this is all we can do. Whether we are happy or not doesn't matter."
Badri and his companions are snake charmers. For generations, they made their living performing with snakes on streets and in villages across India.
But snake charming is no longer legal, and Badri says they're no longer able to make ends meet.
We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots.
"Snakes and snake charmers have been together from time immemorial. It's the only thing we and our ancestors have known, and we lived on it for centuries," Badri explained. "Now it has been taken away from us. We have not only lost our livelihood, we have been cut off from our roots. These performances here can sustain a few us for a few days. But what happens after that? And what about the rest of the community?"
Snake charming was banned under the Wildlife Protection Act amendment in 1991. The law prohibits catching, owning and performing with snakes.
Initially, the government did not enforce the ban, and snake charmers continued. But as animal rights activists pressured the authorities to clamp down on snake charmers, their numbers declined. Kartik Satyanarayan, from the conservation group Wildlife SOS, says the tradition is abusive.
"They basically dehydrate them; they stick them in a box and forget about them, use them whenever they want to perform or beg for some money from people, and once the job is done they just throw the snake away because they don't care," says Satyanarayan.
"And the snake then sometimes dies; it takes some weeks of starvation to die because the fangs have been removed, the venom glands have been removed, they can't really hunt and fend for themselves anymore," he said.
Some snake charmers refuse to give up the tradition — Photo: Jon Hurd
But snake charmers strongly deny charges of animal cruelty.
The ban affected an estimated 800,000 snake charmers in India. Many moved into other occupations like rickshaw pulling, street vending, construction, or agricultural labor. But according to the snake charmers' union, the overwhelming majority remains jobless.
Some refuse to give up the tradition. Snake charmers in yellow dhoti kurta and turbans performed recently on a Delhi street. They arranged a couple of wicker baskets in front of them and started playing the been. As soon as people gathered, one of them opened his baskets and three snakes rose waving their heads, looking like they were dancing to the music of his been. He then moved closer to the audience, showing them the reptiles and explaining the differences between the species. But when a policeman arrived, the snake charmer quickly escaped.
The charmer's brother, Birju Nath, says they're used to playing this game of hide and seek with police and forest officials.
"They arrest us and take away our snakes. But if we stop doing this, what else is there for us? We have no business or land to fall back on. Without this we will simply starve to death," Birju said.
The younger generation shows no interest in continuing the legacy, a development welcomed by Satyanarayan from Wildlife SOS. "Life moves on," he says. "Our lives have changed culturally. Why should the poor snake charmer continue to live a life of poverty, and disadvantage himself and his family, just because some other people like to see that and like to call it tradition?"
Back at the craft fair, the snake charmers are playing a Sufi song — or Qawwali, as the audience sways to the music.
With the snakes being sent back to their natural habitat, the snake charmers are pinning their hopes on their instruments.
"There are so many musical instruments out there but the been stands out," says Vikrambir Nath, a member of the troupe.
"It belongs exclusively to us and it is completely homemade. We make it from gourd and bamboo. It represents us as a community and our unique way of life, and it is part of India's cultural heritage. It needs to be protected and that would require state patronage and promotion." He says that unless the government invests in preserving the history and music of the snake charmers, within a few decades the centuries-old practice will disappear without a trace.