FOLK PERFORMERS IN INDIA
India's traditional folk artists include sword swallowers who can suck down 36-inch blades; jugglers that juggle knives and spinning tops; women who balance on a teeter board while cooking eggs on a open flame on their head; impersonators who dress up like monkeys with three-meter tails; dogs that sit on their hind legs and smoke weed cigarettes; puppeteers who entertain children; high-wire acts two meters above the ground; children who contort themselves through metal rings; and men who dance and sing with a dummy horse to the accompaniment of drum. [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]
India's folk artists have been around for centuries. In the old days when bandits roamed the countryside, communication was difficult and most people were illiterate, the folk artists played an important role informing people in small villages about the outside world. In the old days, folk performers were patronized by local princes and rajahs, who hired them to perform in their courts and guaranteed them an income. They were often paid with goats, cows or farmland. Another source of income was female entertainers selling their bodies. Music, dance and theater have traditionally been associated with prostitution.
After independence, when they lost their power and much of their wealth, the maharajahs no longer had the funds to support folk performers. When the money from the rajah disappeared, the performers began traveling. Today groups that still exist spend most of the year following a fixed itinerary. They go to fairs, festivals, pilgrimage sites, cities, towns and villages. "Much of what the west calls folk culture is dead art, kept alive on life-support systems...It has no social function anymore," one historian said. [Source: Julian Crandall Hollick, Smithsonian magazine]
Many folk artist come from villages of folk artist. They live in their villages during the monsoon season, but scatter to various parts of India during the summer and winter. Sometimes the men travel and women stay in the villages. With the introduction of television, movies and industrialization, many folk performers can no longer make a living by drifting from village to village. Now they seek their fortune in the city, where many poor people can not afford tickets for movies or plays but can drop a few coins into hat of a street performer. The children of many folk artists are choosing different professions. One puppeteer who had three sons—who respectively decided to become an auto-rickshaw driver, bus driver and furniture polisher—said: "It's a living death for me to see my sons adopt alien professions. It means the end of a more than thousand-year-old tradition in my family. What else can I say? I am a broken man." [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]
The term “peripatetics” is used to describe nomads and traveler who do not live off the land or animals as most nomads do but rather earn money in other ways such as working as street performers, animal trainers, peddlers and tinkerers. They roam around the countryside and travel from town to town and have flexible skills and the ability to speak several languages. Snake charmers, traveling puppeteers, street acrobats, and traveling blacksmiths fall into the category of peripatetics, who are sometimes called Gypsies. Sometimes sadhus are considered peripatetics. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Peripatetics are ethnically diverse and found throughout India. There are believed to be between 5 million and 10 million of them. The groups are generally grouped by trade. Most are Hindus, although some are Muslims and Sikhs, and they have a somewhat vague status in the caste system. Peripatetics of a given trade are generally of the same caste but sometimes the rules are somewhat ambiguous as to whom they perform or work for. Some work for only people of the same caste. Others work for castes outside their own caste. They generally speak the language of their home village or camp as their first language but also speak the languages of the places they travel in. The also are familiar with the customs and economies of the places they work and try their best to fit in.
The existence of peripatetics is attributed the abundance of weekly markets, fairs and pilgrimages in India that bring large groups of people together and create markets that peripatetics can exploit. Peripatetic groups were described in the Vedas (written between 1000 and 700 B.C.). The “Rig Veda” describes traveling dancers, snake charmers, flute players, fortune tellers and beggars. Ancient Tamil literature also describes traveling entertainers and also describes nomadic wanderers who acted as intermediaries for royals. In the British colonial period these people were often described as Gypsies.
Life of Indian Peripatetics
Some peripatetics travel only part of the year and spend time at their “home villages.” Others are on the road throughout the year and have no real home village. While they are on the road they sleep in their bullock carts or in cloth or reed tents. Some take shelter at temples. They have traditionally been the busiest around the harvest season when they hoped to get grain as payment for their goods. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Peripatetics are good at sussing out the needs of the communities they service. Many practice several trades and have trades they can resort to if necessary. One group may specialize in household utensils and farm tools while another may specialize in hunting, trapping and fishing tools. Performers often have several specialities and can practice a trade if necessary. A man with a dancing bear, for example, may also be a passable singer and storyteller and have skills as a fortuneteller or a blacksmith. Some women work as prostitutes. Their flexibility and low overhead often allows them to out-compete non-nomads. If they have trouble making a living in one trade they switch to another. If all else fails they beg.
Often entire families travel together and all the members are involved in the trade. If they aren’t they usually lend support by doing things like domestic chores, setting up tents and fetching water. Often extended families travel and camp together. There are a wide range of marriage customs although unions are generally within a general trade group. Some groups have a council of elders that plays a role in social control and resolving disputes.
Street and Village Circus Acrobats
Describing a young woman acrobat, Veenu Sandal wrote in in Smithsonian magazine: "Life had been good to her; she could walk on a tightrope and whirl on her belly atop a ten-foot pole, while her husband drummed below. I was dangerous work without a safety net, but she loved it. Three of four times a day, Hira Bair thrilled crowds at a street corner or in a park, collecting 40 or 50 rupees (three or four dollars) for one show. But then, suddenly her husband died, leaving her to care for and train two tiny tots, Sangita and Sunita.” [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]
Young acrobats begin their training by learning how to balance a tumbler of water on their forehead. Young acrobats balance poles and plates on their forehead and contort themselves to form letters in the Hindu alphabet (one boy for example might do a backward arch on the ground while a second boy laying on his stomach touches his feet to his head). In a traditional form of Indian gymnastics groups of individual lick themselves while doing handstands and yoga positions,
Traveling circuses recruit children from impoverished families at a young age with the blessing of their parents. One small girl named Pinky was contracted by her destitute mother at the age of three to become a "plastic lady," or contortionist. When the girl was ten her exercise regimen consisted of standing on one foot and bringing her other foot behind her back and placing underneath her chin. In another exercise she touches her feet 200 times to the ground while doing a handstand. A portion of the money made from her performances is sent back to her family every month. A circus trainer and his wife instruct Pinky and the other children on washing, dressing, praying and performing. [National Geographic, On Television, December 1993].
Circus strongmen have tractors run over their chest or pull tractors with their teeth. Some musclemen lay on beds of glass and let trucks drive over them. Sandal wrote: "Four times a day Dev Chand leaps through a 15-inch ring of knives, held five feet above the ground. He was hurt just once: when unable to earn an adequate amount for the day, he opted to give a fifth show on a roadside even though he was tired. As he jumped the knives ripped through his body and bystanders rushed him to the hospital."
The Kanjar are an ancient widely, dispersed group of artisans and entertainers spread through South and Southeast Asia. They are known as dancers, singers, musicians, carnival ride operators and prostitutes. Many make their living selling small terra-cotta toys they make door to door in settled communities. They are somewhat similar to the Qalanders and have traditionally been most numerous in the Punjab and the Indus River Valley in northern India and Pakistan. They used to travel a regular circuit between Rawalpindi, Lahore and Delhi but this route was disrupted by the partition of India and Pakistan.
As is true with the Qalanders, there are several tens of thousands Kanjar but it is difficult to get an accurate count of their numbers because of their nomadic ways. They share a number of characteristics with the Roma (Gypsies)—a similar language and similar nomadic habits—and can speak many languages. They are mostly illiterate and have a very long history like the Qalanders. The discovery of ancient terra cotta figures in Harappa like the ones that Kanjar make today suggest that Kanjar-like people may have been around at least since the time of the Indus civilization (3000 to 1500 B.C.).
The basic social unit is the traveling group, which is made of several families. All materials and animal resources are owned by the group and no specific differentiation is made between children and adults. Children pitch in and help with all the chores and activities that adults do. Especially attractive girls are trained to be entertainers. They Kanjar have their own legal system like the Qalanders and similar ideas about religion and death. An incapacitating illness is greatly feared because it slows the mobility of the group.
Kanjar have traditionally announced their arrival in a village or town with their women walking the streets shouting, “Come and take the toys.” Village children acted as if the ice cream man was in town and begged their parents for money or something to trade for a toy. At night the village people showed up in a field where the Kanjar set up a makeshift Ferris wheel or some other carnival ride and went on the ride and enjoyed singing and dancing performances. Young Kanjar women often sold sexual favors and older ones were sought for advice and tips on sex for soon-to-be-wed girls. In some places the Kanjar also engaged in begging and hosted cockfights and dog fights. Like the Qalanders they prefered cash but often engaged in trades and bartered for goods and services.
The Kanjar traveled from place to place in carts pulled by mules or donkeys and set up camps with distinctive tents made from woven reeds or grass. Their tents were quite different from the cloth tents of the Qalanders and other nomadic artisans and entertainers. Women were the chief breadwinners. The majority of the group’s income came from their songs, dancing, prostitution and the hawking of toys. They also tended to take on most of the dealings with outsiders and made many decisions within the group. They were highly valued as wives and daughters. Many marriages were regarded as an exchange of females, often between generation or clans.
The Kanjar knew where supplies of clay were along their route and periodically stopped and made clay figurines of birds, buffalo, elephants, camels and other animals as well as household goods such as plates and pots by molding them with their hands, sun-drying them and then firing them over fires made of grass, straw and dung. Surface firing meant the goods were fragile and broke easily, which meant there was a constant demand for them. Over the years their traditional way of life suffered with the introduction plastic toys and goods.
Street Performer Camp in Delhi
Shadipur Depot in Delhi is an empty lot of land that has been taken over by India's folk artists. A forth of the 3,500 families that live in tents, mud-and-thatch huts and village-style houses—among large rats and water buffalo paddies—are entertainers. They include fire breathers, singers, musicians who play traditional instruments, drummers, dancers, men who stage fights between mongooses and cobras, puppeteers, magicians, dancing bear, balladeers, jugglers, folk dancers, street musicians, impersonators, snake charmers, acrobats, sword swallowers, trained monkeys and dogs, and women that can fry an egg on their while balancing on a teeter board. [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]
Describing the scene at Shadipur Depot in the 1980s, journalist Veenu Sandal wrote: "Outside a ragged tent beside a bridge in New Delhi, a man was floating in the air, about seven feet above the ground. In the shade under a mango tree, a rat was learning arithmetic while a Himalayan black bear danced and clapped happily. A pretty young girl picked up coins with her eyes." In the 1960s about dozen performing families lived in Shadipur Depot. By 1975, 150 were living there. Many of he performers were traveling performers from Rajasthan whose way of life was dying out.
Shapidur depot began to take its present form in 1976 when 35 artist agreed to participate in an organization called the "Cooperative of Forgotten and Neglected Artists," a cooperative of nomadic performers in India as established here. After being threatened by bulldozers and developers they were officially granted cooperative status and given identity cards which protected them from police and poorhouse workers. "We danced, feasted and rejoiced that day," one resident said. "residents around thought everyone had gone mad." As of 2010 the entertainer community was still there but was threatened by developers,
Some of the performers from Shadipur Depot performed at the folklife festival in Washington D.C. They shook hands with the U.S. president at the White House but after that they returned to their slum in Delhi. Planners had hoped to turn Shadipur Depot in a model colony for artists, complete with a museum, auditoriums, hotels, tourist facilities and even a snake farm for snake charmers but the plans never got off the drawing boards. Safety from bulldozers has meant that squatters who are not performers have moved in. They now outnumber the performers by a a large margin.
Hardships at a Street Performer Camp
The hardships at Shadipur Depot include poor sanitation, mud, garbage, and tents that blow away in high winds. The mud, cow-dung and thatch huts are more substantial. On occasion the artists have been rounded up under the Bombay Prevention of Beggary act of 1959 which defines beggary as "soliciting or receiving alms in public places, under any pretense such as singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale." [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]
Describing a raid by police and thugs, a puppeteer told Smithsonian magazine: "We were sitting huddled inside our tents [during a heavy monsoon rain] when truckloads of baton-wielding policemen and laborers screeched to a halt on the roadside." The policemen ordered them leave while the laborers began tearing down their tents. Everybody gathered what they could.
"We didn't have the money to hire taxis or auto rickshaws. We had never boarded a bus. Some of us ran to arrange for tongas [horse-drawn carriages] and cycle rickshaws. Because it was raining and the roads were slippery, the driver demanded double the normal fares, but we just piled into them. Every patch of vacant land in Delhi was waterlogged that day. There was nowhere to go. We just went round and round." [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]
Snake charmers, who play a bamboo-and-gourd flute as a snake stands up inside a basket, use cobras in their act. One snake charmer told journalist National Geographic, "The snakes like the music I play and do a dance for me.” But actually it is a myth that cobras are somehow charmed by flute music. It is the movement of the flute not the music that hypnotizes the cobra. When faced with a moving object, cobras naturally sit up and open their hoods and follow the movements. Cobras have no external ears and are essentially deaf to sound coming through the air, though they are sensitive to sound vibrations transmitted through the ground.
Snake charmers are generally very poor. They travel from place to place with their snakes in baskets and only a few other possessions, sometimes tied onto donkeys. Many of them feed off of wild animals their dog help them to catch. An average charmer may has three five-foot-long cobras that live for a about a year in captivity. The snakes are feed milk poured down their mouths with a spoon made from a sheep's leg bone, and given pieces of goat meat which are pushed down their throat with a blunt stick.
Snakes charmers often let their children play with their cobras. It is a matter of debate as to whether the snakes have been defanged or not. Of the hundreds of snakes examined by Miller and his assistants not one had its fangs intact. One snake charmer told journalist National Geographic, “When I catch a snake — -we always catch our own snakes — -I cut out the two little poison boxes it carries in its head."
Catching Cobras for Snake Charmers
Some cobras are caught by snake charmers themselves. Others are caught by farmers and sold to the snake charmers. The Baverias are a caste that use dogs to catch snakes for snake charmers. In any case the snake charmer trade take its toll on cobras. Some are killed during the capture process and generally those that are caught don’t live long in captivity.
Of the snakes examined by Miller most were suffering from starvation, because cobras are a sensitive snake and refuse to take food except under ideal conditions. They usually die within a couple of months of being sold to the charmers, either from starvation or abscess that develop wear their fangs had been ripped out.
The Wildlife Prevent Act of 1972 banned the catching of snakes. The ban was aimed at preventing the killing of snakes for their skin but also affected snake charmers. In the 1970s in Madras one tannery alone was processing 500 cobra skins a day.
In April 2002, Reuters reported: “A Bangladeshi snake charmer called in to find two serpents in a suburban home near Dhaka unearthed over 3,000 deadly cobras and hundreds of eggs. Police and local newspapers said snake charmer Dudu Miah captured over 3,500 young cobras at two houses in Narayanganj near Dhaka. The find, however, triggered panic among neighbours who fled their homes, police said. Newspapers said Miah was called in by Mantu Kasai after his wife found two large cobras on their property. Helped by his assistants, Miah dug beneath the floors of two houses and unearthed the slithering stockpile. Miah said he would look for more cobras elsewhere in the neighbourhood, but was undecided about what to do with his catch. Cobras, which are highly venomous and endemic to Bangladesh, often nest in houses — frequently ridding them of rats and other domestic pests. [Source: Reuters, April 30, Tue Apr 30, 2002]
Snake Charmer Protest
In November 2004, angry snake charmers in Orissa in India threatened to let loose 5,000 snakes in the state assembly building to protest harassment under law. One charmer said, “We look after them as if they our children. We catch poisonous snakes, which intrude into households, tend to them in our homes and earn our livelihood by performing public shows.”
The BBC reported: Snake charmers in the Indian state of Orissa have threatened to release snakes in the state assembly in protest at a crackdown on their activities. Several snake charmers have been arrested in recent weeks and now face being prosecuted under wildlife protection laws. Representatives of the snake charmers say nearly 20,000 people could lose their jobs as a result of the drive. [Source: Sandeep Sahu BBC, November 24, 2004]
Wildlife activists in Orissa have campaigned hard to stop snake charming. They say it causes cruelty to the snakes. But Chittaranjan Das, the head of Padmakesharpur - a village of snake charmers on the outskirts of the Orissa capital, Bhubaneswar - said they had been engaged in the profession for centuries and would have no other source of livelihood if forced to stop.He denied the allegations of wildlife officials and activists that the charmers torture snakes during captivity. "How can we harm them when our whole livelihood depends on them?" he asked.
Sporting snakes on their shoulders and necks, the snake charmers said wildlife officials had been arresting them, seizing their snakes and placing them in the local Nandankanan zoo. "If earning money out of snakes is a crime, are the zoo authorities not doing the same by exhibiting them to the public?" asked Sanatan Behera, another snake charmer who has had seven of his snakes seized recently.
LAK Singh of the State Wildlife Organisation said snake charmers needed to realise that times had changed and that they needed to start looking for an alternative source of livelihood. The snake charmers say the government must provide them with an alternate source of income if they wanted to stop them from their present trade. But wildlife activists do not buy the argument. "It is a life versus livelihood question - the life of snakes and the livelihood of snake charmers," says Biswajit Mohanty, Secretary of the Orissa Wildlife Society. "And the life of snakes has to win in any battle between the two. They can have a different source of livelihood. But a snake cannot have a second life once killed," he said.
India is full of performing animals. Bears are trained to reach out their paw and beg for a coin as well as dance. Camels can high step like NFL cornerbacks showing off after an easy interception touchdown. Monkeys play musical instruments. Trained cows draped in cowrie shells can pick a person out of crowd with the most expensive wristwatch. [Source: John Scofield, National Geographic, May 1963]
Performing monkeys are often taught to play human roles. Often the monkeys and their offspring are handed down from generation to generation and a family tree of the monkeys parallels that of their trainers. Bears are trained with rings in their noses. Maneka Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, closed down some village circuses on the ground they were cruel to animals and “freed” the animals. But it was difficult to figure out what to do with the animals once they were free.
The Qalanders are itinerant people who travel from village to villager with performing animals. Found throughout South Asia, particularly in northern India and Pakistan, they do rope climbing, magic tricks, puppetry, tightrope walking, music and tricks with trained animals. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]
There are several tens of thousands Qalanders. They share a number of characteristics with the Roma (Gypsies): a similar language and similar nomadic habits. The Qalanders are very good with languages. Many of them can speak five or more languages. They are mostly illiterate. Their nomadic lifestyle precludes attending schools.
The Qalanders have a very long history. Entertainers with bears and monkeys are mentioned in texts from the Vedic era (1000 to 700 B.C.) They are also mentioned in many old folk tales and histories.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated June 2015