A Serpent's Charm
A child learning the Bangla alphabet and being introduced to the first letter will usually come across the line “ajagar oi ashche tere”. On paper, this is how we first encounter snakes. In reality though, usually we first encounter snakes through a snake charmer.
Although in most Bangladeshi villages there is some local snake charmer, the main snake artistes, however, are the wandering snake charmers of Bangladesh, the Bedes. It turns out, there are three types of sub-professions within the Bedes. The groups are “Shapure”, “Sowdagar” and “Misisganni”. The group that is most heard of, of course are the Shapures. Some of these Shapures make their living by catching and selling snakes. Other Shapures train their snakes a range of tricks so that they can become entertainers. The Shapures put these trained snakes into little baskets, hoist the baskets on top of their heads, and wander from place to place looking for people interested in their show. When a Shapure spots a crowd that looks like it wants a show, he opens up his basket and starts performing. Besides making the snake perform, sometimes he will sell medicinal herbs. For a Shapure, the best place to perform is a lower-income household or neighborhood or a locality where there is still a good amount of superstition. Shapures quite consciously avoid performing at well educated or higher income neighborhoods. It seems that the part of the population without much of a formal income is the ideal audience for snake charmers.
There are a bunch of instruments that Shapures use in their performances, such as sticks, beenas or flutes and various plants and trees. Only snakes such as the cobra, which can open up their hoods are the stars of the show. It is this intimidating gesture that works so well.
To announce their arrival, when Shapures enter a village or neighborhood, they play their beenas. Sometimes they shout out, “ei shaper khela, kal naginir khela” as they move forward. Hearing the sound of the beena as well as their voices, all the children of the village and many of the adults forget whatever work they are involved in for the time being to run off to see the Shapure.
The Shapure allows some time for the crowds to get a little bigger. He plays his beenas and domrus to attract even more attention. Then he takes out a snake from one of his cases, puts one hand near the snakes head and another on its tail which he holds up above its head. Then he says, “Look now, this is the very snake that bit Lakhshminder on the marital bed… the very snake… even though he had escaped from that room that night, he has not been able to escape from me… here, look, my ustaad caught this from the Sundarbans and left it with me. Today you will see their games.” Then he throws the snake down on the ground and says, “here now, do your dances”. Then he taps on the ground with his fingers which creates vibrations on the ground, signaling the snake to start 'dancing'. So now the snake raises its head and stands face to face with the trainer. Immediately the shapure starts singing, “o bidhir ki hoilo re/ tomar ache shotek bhai/ amar mayer keu naire/ amar ma-ke ma bolibe ke/ behula ga tolo ga tolo-re.” In the meantime, he does different hand signals and gestures to enthrall the snake.
There are two reasons as to why the Shapure does these physical gestures. The first is to control the movements of the snake. The second is to captivate and entertain the audience. Among the various gestures they use are the closed fist, waving fingers in all sorts of ways, using knees to make the snake 'stand' for extended periods of time, and the use of elbows for protection for possible bites. It is noteworthy that most Shapures tie a red pieces of cloth around their elbows. When performing with particularly 'angry' snakes, the Shapures put forward their elbows on purpose, just to calm down the snakes.
In the second stage of these games is the part where the Shapures practice medicine. The sell herbs, barks and other remedies as a lot of people, particularly in rural areas readily believe that these things will cure them. The Shapures, of course, do a lot of talking before they sell the medicines and are usually very eloquent and persuasive for the intended audience. If people didn't have a faith in some sort of mystical power of the snake charmers, the snake charmers probably would not be able to make a living that way. Snakes are incorporated into the monologues about the medicines to make people listen. The shapure will say, “Snakes are grudge-bearing creatures. If you attack them, they will never forgive you. They will take revenge whenever they can. Here you are, thinking you have never attacked a snake. But you really have. You just don't know about it. The other day when you dove into the pond for a bath, you didn't even realize that you were splashing water on the snake. You were down the road and a snake was there waiting for its food. Its prey escaped hearing the sound of your feet. You have broken up the homes of snakes when you were cleaning up the bamboo forest, and you don't even know it. But that snake remembers you. It is following you, but you don't know it. It will bite you anytime. Here, in my hand, is the remedy for this. If you wear this herb on your person, that snake will never be able to take revenge on you.” After these captivating stories are told, the Shapure's remedies start to sell. Finally, in the third part of the show there's a little music and some more of the snake. Then he packs up and walks towards another locality, to find the venue for his next show. That's his life, his living.
Recently some snake charmers have been bringing in a touch of newness to their art. Instead of carrying just the snake, now many of them are carrying mongooses along with them. This is rather tricky, because the Shapure has to make sure that neither of the creatures get hurt since they are the biggest of enemies. The mongoose is usually kept on a leash.
Nowadays, snake charmers are far less prevalent in Bangladesh than they were before, and this is not surprising. Even though their numbers of dwindling, plenty of professional snake charmers can still be found around the Bangshi river in Savar, the Dhaleswari in Munshiganj and the Padma.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007