End of a charmed life
The haunting sound of the been, a gourd-like instrument played by Indian snake charmers, reverberated on Sunday through the plush auditorium of the Habitat Centre, a cultural venue frequented by the elite.
That sound used to be heard on the streets rather than in trendy auditoriums. The moment children heard that distinctive wail, they used to rush out to see the snake. But, faced with ruin, 80 snake charmers turned out to perform at the Habitat hoping to make educated Indians aware that their ancient art was dying.
Snake charmers are a quintessential symbol of India, but wildlife laws that prohibit the keeping of snakes as pets make it impossible for them to earn the few rupees they used to get from children in return for the thrill of seeing a snake.
In desperation, snake charmers have been trying to earn some money surreptitiously by avoiding the police on the streets. They board crowded buses in a gentle form of intimidation designed to make nervous passengers reach for their wallet just to get rid of the snake in their midst.
This has become harder by the day, though. Commuters have complained, prompting police crackdowns.
'We have to educate our children, but don't have any other skill,' said Satpal Pathram, who wears the traditional bright orange clothes of a snake charmer. 'We want the government to give us jobs in zoos or wildlife parks.'
Wildlife expert Belinda Wright says their extraordinary knowledge of snakes and snakebites must not be lost. 'The government needs to preserve and harness this knowledge,' she said. 'They are amazingly effective in treating snake bites and in handling snakes.'
Apart from police action, snake charmers have been suffering from the impact, on younger generations, of cable television and wildlife documentaries.
'What they see on television are animals close up and vivid,' said Babu Sri Nath. 'With all that in their living rooms, why would they come to see my cobra?' The other culprits are computer games that keep children indoors and the trendy tunes they hear in Bollywood movies. Against this kind of music, the traditional sound of the been is hardly a match.
But volunteer groups working with snake charmers are determined to help them survive. One idea is to set up a 'Dial-a-Snake Charmer' service for families in New Delhi who suddenly discover, to their horror, a snake in the house.
'We're harassed all the time, but when people want a snake removed, they come to us,' said snake charmer Prakash Nath. He is often summoned by rich Indians who live in sprawling farmhouses outside New Delhi, where snakes crawling in from the surrounding fields can be a nuisance.