While growing up in the northern Indian city of Kanpur, photojournalist Arun Sharma was oblivion to the fact that the community of snake charmers resided in multiple villages around 100 km away from him. He discovered the nath, a semi-nomadic tribe in 2016 after a chance meeting with a local journalist in Kanpur. “I found it quite compelling,” Sharma told VICE World News. The same evening, he landed at Jogi Dera village.
To his surprise, no one in the village admitted to having any snakes at all. He sensed that due to various wildlife laws and regulations, people in the village were not willing to reveal details of their profession. Following day, Sharma met the village head and said that he wanted to document the community in an unbiased manner. Next, he found himself face-to-face with a variety of snakes. “I saw that almost every family had at least two snakes on them,” he said.
Shyamu Nath and Dalip Nath playing with a snake. Photo by Arun Sharma.
Sharma has been exploring the challenges and aspirations of snake charmers in Jogi Dera through photographs since then.
Some of the most venomous snakes, coiled in round cane baskets, dancing to the tune of a snake charmer’s flute was once a fixture at Indian fairs and festivals. Many snake charmers also toured cities where they would halt to perform before the crowd at multiple street corners.
But one of India’s representative folk art is losing its sway as authorities have enforced animal protection laws. The Wildlife Protection Act (1972) bars people from using wild animals commercially or turning them into pets, including bans on performances with live snakes.
Add the fact that increasingly more Indians are losing interest in street performances and folk arts in an age of OTT platforms and video games.
The government has put micro-chips in snakes to control the number of snakes in captivity and gave licenses to snake charmers. Nonprofits have tried to rehabilitate snake charmers by training them in identifying different species of snakes and taking care of snakes in captivity.
Dinesh Nath, 8, old poses with a snake. Dinesh's grandfather continues to perform at private gatherings. Photo by Arun Sharma.
Despite these restrictions, snakes continue to have religious significance for many Hindus and snake charmers pay visits to politicians and industrialists on nag panchami, a religious festival dedicated to snake god.
Not surprisingly, Sharma found that the majority of youth in the village were not interested in pursuing their family profession, and had migrated to cities, looking for alternative career options. “I found elderly men, women and children. No one in the 20s or 30s was there in the village,” he said.
Sharma said he was fascinated to see how children in the community connected with snakes. “It was hard to believe that these were real reptiles. At the same time, I knew that they would make for much stronger subjects than grown-up men.”
Scenes like this one are common among the community of snake charmers in India. Photo by Arun Sharma.
A minor in Jogi Dera village demonstrates how to neutralise the effect of snake bite by applying herbs. Photo by Arun Sharma.
A baby sleeping next to a two-headed snake. Photo by Arun Sharma.