At sunset on a chilly winter day, under an aged banyan tree in the Gandhi King Plaza at the India International Centre (IIC), the haunting sound of the been once again resounded last week. There were in an orchestra eight snake-charmers four with the been and four others playing the percussion tumba . They played folk euphonies from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal that were melodies on water, earth, trees, nature, and wind. A large crowd gathered and swayed, only to be interrupted by the act of an amazing larger than life Bahurupiya (impersonator) Shamshad Khan as a djinn. He was the sutradhar (anchor). The actor who splendidly strung the show with sharp satirical commentary and multiple character roles to highlight the theme “Music for Climate Action”.
The stars conspired to create a beautiful evening where the talent on display matched the stunning beauty of the fading sunlight that filtered through the dense canopy of the tree under which the artists performed.
The performance was the finale of the two-month skill-building programme by the Delhi-based NGO Centre for New Perspectives (CNP). Said its director Shailaja Kathuria, “Our project ‘Tama Show’ is working with marginalised, traditional folk performers to connect them with existing markets. The larger objective is addressing preventing traditional skill displacement and conservation of intangible heritage.”
Well-known flautist, Rajat Prasanna, who worked with the been performers said, “The snake-charmers have their traditional songs. My approach to skill upgrading was multi-pronged. Music for climate action immediately was about making them conscious of their power as snake-charmers. They are organically naturalists. And I am hoping to connect their talent to fill a present demand – music for environmental awareness. They have an ear for music but are not formally trained like classical musicians. It was important to widen their repertoire, teach them systems to play together in different tonal scales, and to keep them in the folk music frame.”
Affinity with nature
Such is their affinity with nature that even a small movement in the air, says Sapera Jagdeesh, “the pattas (leaves) in our been move and she becomes disturbed and out of tune.” The oldest of the group, Sapera Shisha Nath just before the concert interacted with a CNP volunteer to display the manner he grew a special gourd, collected wax from the beehive in the forest, along with the bamboo to craft the been . Says Narayan and Sheru Nath, “All our skills revolve around snakes. As craftsmen, we make our instrument, we are musicians, we have deep knowledge of herbs to cure snakebite and are taught to identify snakes. But with the snakes gone, we now sometimes play in government shows like the Surajkund Mela, or marriages.”
Experimental percussionist Makrand Sanon worked with the tumba percussionist player. “Like the been , the tumba , called a talking drum, is also made of gourd. The idea was to upgrade tumba players by teaching them several warm-up exercises and simple rhythmic variations. Gradually, I taught them the art of accompanying the been with those variations. It was challenging.” He was assisted by percussionist Rahul Sharma.
Conservation of skills
The project was funded by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, the venue for training given by the Alliance Francaise and the performance organised by the India International Centre. The most important part of the project was the launch of two self-help groups – Sadabahar Snake-Charmers Orchestra managed by Snake-charmer Mahipal Chauhan and the Bahurupiya Bahu Kala Mandali managed by Bahurupiya Shamshad Khan.
To ensure the conservation of all the knowledge skills of snake-charmers CNP is proceeding to create a programme for the children of the snake-charmers. For the moment the Snake-charmer orchestra will perform with composers and their gurus – Rajat Prasanna and Makrand Sanon.
The group hopes to widen the relevance of the Orchestra by facilitating collaboration with international musicians for Music for Climate Action. Economist Dr. Rajat Kathuria, Chief Executive of Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations says, “Climate change, air pollution, inequality, monopolies to name a few are both a cause and outcome of markets working badly or not at all. So when you see targeted efforts to address one of the glaring market failures of our times i.e. the lack of sustainable and productive livelihood opportunities for marginalised communities, you feel optimism is warranted.”