In 2008 I was helping an NGO put together an oral history archive. Armed with my minidisc recorder, I had travelled to some remote villages in India where this NGO had had an impact. I was visiting remote village in Madhya Pradesh because the children here had demanded that their elders hire for them a teacher to help them with their school homework. The elders had argued that they did not have the monetary resources, but the Sarpanch (village head) had with the help of the NGO worker and the school-going children conducted a quick survey of how much the village spent every year on smoking and drinking. The figure was a staggering Rs. 200,000 annually. Embarrassed, the adults in the village agreed that it was only fair to contribute Rs. 10 every month towards the fees of a private tutor. And that is how the children of this village, all of them first generation school-goers had found a teacher. This was an obvious success story that fitted in well with the NGO’s mission to understand its impact on the communities it had set out to nurture. But like most oral historians, I was happiest when exploring conversations that were about people – how they lived, what work they did and the ways in which they had learnt what they knew. And these simple questions revealed an interesting history about this little community.
The people I met at this village were all from the sapera community – they were traditional snake charmers. The colonial period had, as we know, made the snake charmer a symbol of India that was exotic and primitive. They played the been – a flute made from dried bottle gourd, and their snakes swayed to the music. I recall seeing these performances on the streets of my hometown as a kid. It was fascinating to watch the cobra uncoil from inside its basket and raise its head as the music started. Snake charmers would bring along several types of snakes and talk about them. Many also carried little boxes with live scorpions which they displayed to jittery children and adults. I remember one particular snake charmer who had brought with him a mongoose and demonstrated how the two arch enemies – the mongoose and the snake, fight. The crowd gathered around the performance would pay them, some would offer rice and vegetables to the snake charmers. Afterwards the sapera would wander off. They were never too far away to call into the house every time a nest of snakes was discovered in the garden. Most snake charmers also functioned as snake catchers in our little town. In 1972, the Indian Wildlife Protection Act banned snake charmers permanently. Even then they took nearly a decade to disappear. From the 1980s onwards I have not seen a sapera on the streets.
The Sarpanch (the village chief) of the village I was visiting was away so I met with the former Sarpanch who told me that most of the men worked as construction workers in the nearest town. They broke stones, carried bricks and helped move bags of cement. Did they ever learn how to catch and tame snakes? “Of course not! We are not snake charmers!” – the old man’s answer was too quick, too emphatic. So, I persisted, “ And you never learnt to play the been and make the snake dance?” “No!” he replied, “Our elders never taught us anything.” “And nobody keeps snakes here?” “No, no!” He shook his head to say there were no snakes in their homes. Then, sensing my disappointment, he added, “Well, there is a eighty year old man who has one – nobody minds that.” He continued with great seriousness, “It is now illegal to go out with snakes. We wouldn’t disobey the law.” Then, he said, almost to himself, “Except on naga panchami day when villagers worship snakes. We do go out on that day. But we don’t earn much.” The implication of his words does not escape me but I am unsure if it is the right moment to ask about the snakes that accompany them on the day of worship.
It turns out that there is a blind-man (who the villagers refer to as their own “Sur Das” – the blind medieval saint-poet) – the only one in the village who knows how to play the been. He is now summoned to join our meeting and before I know it a wicker basket is lowered at my feet and gently uncovered. A cobra sways to the strains of the blind snake charmer’s flute. What is clear is that the snake and the man are without fear; they share a language and communicate with each other; they seem to share a relationship that most of us living in cities could never grasp.
“None of the children learnt how to play the been?” I ask expecting to hear the villagers echo my outraged lament for a musical skill that would soon be extinct. But the old man is wise and knows that traditions change and are often reconfigured. “Our children don’t play the been but they are natural performers. Why don’t you go into the school building and hear them sing?” He urges. My urban sensibility anticipates a stereotypical “folk” song from the children of this community. Instead they sing two songs from Hindi films – a love song and a patriotic song. The children are seven or eight years old, their voices refreshing and naturally melodious; they sing with ease and enjoyment having made those songs their own.
As I am about to leave, a young boy, about nineteen joins us. I ask his name, he answers, and that’s when his grandfather interrupts. “But I would not like him to be known as a sapera – it is best you write that he is a saharia. Saharias are on the ‘List’.” His grandfather continues, “That way there will be some chance of “compensation”, and of course, also apply to the government schemes.” It strikes me that this old sapera was alerting me to the mechanisms by which the Constitution of India ensured the well-being of those it categorised as backward communities. Members of specific castes and tribal groups identified in this way could lay claims to the educational, economic and social empowerment schemes of the government. Since these saperas no longer belonged to a community that was identified as backward on the list, it was best to lay claim to being saharia, a different community that was named on the list. I did not at that point, fully comprehend the idea of “compensation”. I learn much later, that in the year 2000, the government had evicted people from 24 villages that were near a large Wildlife Sanctuary to prepare for a wildlife conservation project. Most of the villagers belonged to the saharia community. They were moved into rocky farmlands with a small amount of money to build houses. This was probably the compensation, the old man referred to. The saperas were prevented by law from displaying their relationship with snakes in public and practising the trade which used to earn them a livelihood; the saharias were exiled from their natural environment by government order. Both communities now worked as unskilled labourers on construction sites. The work they now did was one that rendered their knowledge of the natural world useless and irrelevant. For the saperas, working with snakes was part of their world-making and it conferred on them their distinctive identity. If the law had criminalised their occupation, it had also erased their identity. Maybe, what I was hearing in the interview was their attempt to articulate a complex self-image that amalgamated their past, present and future – their earlier relationship with snakes and their knowledge of poisons, their present-day attempts to negotiate with the state mechanisms and perhaps a desire to metamorphose into performer-entertainers in the future. The world that they were a part of in the past was no longer available to them. Their struggles in the present offered them a livelihood but no occupation nor identity. Their legacy could perhaps live on in some form if they presented their children as performers. But that would be a dubious legacy, disengaged from their past, disconnected from nature and tarnished by a profound loss.
Yet the relationship of the saperas to snakes had been nurtured and sustained through generations, I was not quite convinced that the law could really have severed such a bond permanently. As we leave the village, the NGO worker accompanying me whispers that every home had at least three snakes. “They cannot live without their snakes,” he smiled. One of the largest wildlife sanctuaries lies just beyond their village. I wondered at that time, why communities who know animals intimately, were never viewed by the state as people who could have contributed to the making of such sanctuaries? Could the sapera community with its knowledge of snakes and poisons not make a useful contribution to a wildlife sanctuary? Perhaps, I mused, they could serve as guides, enabling visitors to really observe animals in their habitat. While at first the idea seemed interesting, I soon realised with a sense of deep shame that I was thinking of thrusting together, by force, two mutually opposed worlds. The saperas and other communities that live among animals, or are familiar with them, represent a world that views animals and humans as belonging to the same circle of life; wildlife sanctuaries, on the other hand, are places where animals are “looked at” apparently within their “natural habitat”. This act of looking at animals, represents what John Berger has called the “marginalization of animals”, a process that has been sadly followed by the “marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and the small peasant.” (John Berger, “Why Look at Animals? 1977 in About Looking, 1980). To Berger’s peasants, I would add the tribal population of India who remain familiar with animals and have the wisdom that comes with that familiarity. Their perceptions and understanding remain unacknowledged, misunderstood and often ignored by state mechanisms. It is their wisdom that reflects in the old man’s statement, “We are not snake charmers”. They are not. In fact, they are much more than that, because they share their world with the snakes and offer people like me a tiny glimpse into their vanished world, one which I could never hope to make my own.
I have deliberately refrained from naming the villagers and their village I write about here, but I acknowledge gratefully these insights they offered me like so many gifts.