Raju Paswan Shares his Experience with the Jogi Nath Snake Charmers

Paswan, Raju, Community Coordinator, Sarprakshak Project. He has been working closely with the snake charmers.

The Sarprakshak Training Program was organized in Pune and Ahmedabad by Craft Revival Trust in association with Jeevika. The aim of the workshop was to train the snake charmers as snake educators. The snake charmers were taken to the Zoo in Ahmedabad, exposed to lecture-demonstrations at the Pune Snake Park. They interacted with forest officers to educate them about wildlife laws. This was crucial as there is a ban on the snake charmers occupation as per the Wildlife Protection Act. The focus of the Sarprakshak project is to use the traditional knowledge of the snake charmers for conservation. Over 30 lectures were organized by the country’s leading snake experts and 21 snake charmers traveled from Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi to attend the workshop.

The piece below is by Raju Paswan, Community Coordinator, Sarprakshak Project. He has been working closely with the snake charmers and shares some of his experiences here.

Prior to this workshop, whenever the name of the Jogi Nath snake charmers was mentioned the popular image of men with snakes draped around their necks, arms and in cane baskets in their bags would arise in my minds eye. My vision would blur with the image of thousands of snakes. Upon encountering and working with the snake charmers I came to realize that there was nothing to fear from them, that they were men just like me, earning a living, keeping alive their traditional livelihood. During the workshop my association with the snake charmers grew to a level where they showed their acceptance of me by referring to me as ‘Raju Nath’, awarding me the status of an honorary member of their community, a sign of their friendship and respect.

21 snake charmers (sapehras) between the ages of 25 and 60 participated in the workshop. They were actively involved in the various sessions, carefully listening to the information being provided them and actively responding with their own views and opinions. The sapehras were a well of information about their community and entertained us with oral narratives which are part of their culture.

Though the snake charmers are commonly known for their acts with the snake, I was mesmerized by the skill of the sapehras with the been (bamboo flute used by the snake charmers) whose rhythm and beat had everyone swaying to the tune. They are also skilled in treating snake bites and have an immense knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs and plants. The organizers learnt that the charmers were initially reluctant to come to the workshop and they feared legal action might be taken against them (Note: snakes are declared endangered species and under the Wildlife Protection Act, anyone caught with a snake can be prosecuted). But they were put at ease as the workshop addressed these issues and alleviated their fears. It was explained that the workshop was to help them to adapt their skills for a more viable employment opportunity while protecting their traditional knowledge.

During the workshop the sapehras were asked to work in groups to make suggestions and responses to the topics in discussion. I found myself facilitating the groups’ productivity, understanding group dynamics and encouraging all members to participate.

Rather then passively listening to the lectures the snake charmers were active in suggesting what they may do alternative to catching snakes. One day Roshan Nath (participant) suggested that as keeping and showing snakes is illegal and that the snake charmers are untrained for other work the perhaps the government can provide them with the task of protecting snakes. The sapehras repeatedly mentioned their love and respect for snakes and that their sense of community and identity stems from their work.

Beyond my role as coordinator of the workshops I also became their friend, mentor and audience. After the days workshops would be over they would come to me and want to talk about what had been discussed, air their views and ask for clarifications. Though their chatter was constant I was constantly amused and entertained. I found that our endeavor to initiate a dialogue and mutual learning was achieved.

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