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Instruments and music of the Indian snake charmers: journey across a dying tradition

musical traditions and instruments of Indian snake charmers
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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Snake charming music: a dying tradition

Humans have always been fascinated by the twisted idea of measuring their strength by challenging other creatures.

There are cultures where groups of individuals, sometimes entire families, have been raised with one clear goal: learning how to make a living out of this deadly challenge.

I’m referring to those small but quite widespread communities of Indian snake charmers whose music is currently facing a high risk of extinction, for a variety of reasons that will be covered later on in this blog post.

The mysterious art of snake charming has been fascinating Indian people and foreign tourists for centuries, with its unique combination of music, danger and, as we will see later, alleged violence.

 

The way of life of Indian Snake Charmers

In today’s India snake charmers are villagers that make a living working as street performers, wandering musicians which try to entertain and amaze people with their flute (pungi) and a couple of dancing cobras.

The hypnotic songs and sharp tunes played by snake charmers have been transmitted from father to son for centuries.

Their life, income and families fully depend on snakes to the point that this dangerous and scary animal is treated by some of them as it was a sort of God, a sacred being worthy of admiration and protection.

 

snake charming playing pungi for two cobras
Public domain

 

They are known and respected for a series of activities that go beyond the musical performance:

catching snakes at people’s houses and healing those individuals that have been bitten by a poisonous snake.

Dealing with snakes is their family business and even though the income is low, snake charmers say that it is enough to support their dear ones.

But how do they catch the snakes?

Does snake charming music has any role in this process?

The sound of the pungi is used as a sort of lure to make the cobras come out of their refuges.

Specific tunes are played by snake charmers to get the cobras excited; “nagin” is one of these.

According to their beliefs, cobras are in a “good mood” when they hear these melodies and get more inclined to abandon their hiding places.

All the snake charmers interviewed in the documentaries I’ve watched ensure that they do not want to harm the snakes and set them free after a few months.

However, animal rights activists do not share their opinion at all.

 

Wild animal rights and the ban issued by the Indian government

Unfortunately for the tribes of snake charmers, the Indian government has labeled their profession as illegal, because it causes unquestionable harm to snakes and is performed using a series of procedures that are clearly contrary to the rights of wild animals.

In fact, in order to handle the snakes more safely, some snake charmers are used to mutilate the animals by removing the venom glands.

The ban dates back to the 70’s but the Indian government has begun to enforce it since 2003.

Many snake charmers that have been found playing their pungi to make their snakes dance were arrested and the same fate was suffered by those which deliberately refused to abandon their traditional profession.

Despite this climate of terror and repression, snake charming is still alive in some areas of India and represents the only way for these performers to provide for their families.

It is widely believed among the communities of snake charmers that people would not be interested in listening to their music without one or more cobras dancing out of their baskets.

Snake charming music seems to be so intrinsically connected to this animal species that its performers cannot even imagine it as a distinct entity, worthy of being performed and appreciated as a musical composition inherently valuable.

 

Musical instruments and snake charming

What kind of flute do snake charmers use?

The instrument used by snake charmers is called pungi in North India, or been, while the people of South India seem to prefer the word magudi.

A Pungi is a polyphonic wind instrument, consisting of two reed pipes and a bottle gourd that has the function of storing the air blown into it by the musician:

 

 

One of the pipes generates a drone sound, that is, the basic tonic, an uninterrupted sonic background on which the snake charmer plays the main melody, produced by the other pipe.

The person who specializes in playing the pungi must be able to master a particular technique, known as circular breathing.

This technique allows the instrumentalist to play a song without any interruption of the air flow.

A typical street performance of a snake charmer does not include the accompaniment of percussion instruments.

The musician entertains his audience by relying on the hypnotic sound of his pungi alone.

Sometimes other musicians can join the show, supporting the melodies of the pungi with simple, repetitive but highly addictive and powerful rhythmic patterns.

On such occasions, the most commonly used instrument is the bhapang, a single stringed folk percussion instrument:

 

 

A “good” snake charmer is the one who knows how to alternate music with other activities such as handling the snake or even talking to it.

His goal is to surprise the audience, especially the young children assembled around:

 

 

Dancing snakes: myth or reality?

At this point I think it is fair to ask:

Do cobras dance? Do they really like music?

Can they actually hear the music played by the snake charmers?

Well, scientists have proved that snakes cannot hear the sounds produced by a pungi but they can move rhythmically in accordance with the movements of the musical instrument.

Snakes are not endowed with external ears, which means that they cannot hear sounds as humans do.

However, they are capable of feeling vibrations and may hear a certain subset of low-frequencies.

When the pungi is silent, the snakes keep dancing because they follow the movements of the player’s knee or hand, as clearly shown by the video below:

 

 

What may appear to us as “dance” is nothing but an instinctive reaction of fear, triggered by the snake charmer’s movements.

The snake is scared to death and its sway has the function of defending the animal from the potential attack of the snake charmer’s flute, which is considered as a predator.

You should always bear in mind that the snakes used by the Indian street performers have been trapped, taken away from their natural habitats and forced to live within small baskets or wooden boxes.

Contrary to what snake charmers say, Indian animal rights activists claim that the cobras involved in these musical street performances don’t enjoy music at all and their famous dance is just an evident sign of tension and discomfort.

 

Punnagavarali: the south Indian raga associated with snake charming

There is one raga (scale) in the classical music of South India which is closely connected with the world of snakes.

I’m alluding to the Punnagavarali raga, a sequence of notes particularly dear to snake charmers and their cobras.

Take a listen to the melodic possibilities offered by this raga through this wonderful performance by TM Krishna:

 

 

As far as we know, a lot of melodies played by these street performers are set in this raga or sound quite similar to it.

The association between the raga Punnagavarali and the realm of snakes emerges from the name itself that was assigned to it:

infact, the word “naga” means “snake” in sanskrit.

Many Hindus believe that if you sing or play a song set in the snake-charming tunes, such as the punnagavarali raga, at a particular time, that is, around the dusk or at late night, you have the power to gather the snakes that live near your house.

Let me give you another example of popular song built on this specific raga.

While I was doing my research, I’ve discovered a beautiful track by K. V. Mahadevan, called “Nadar mudi mel irukkum”, that talks about imploring a snake to take back its poison and help a child recover.

Take a look at this excerpt from the Tamil movie “Thiruvarutchelvar” (1967) in which you can hear a temple priest singing “Nadar mudi mel irukkum” to rescue a children bitten by a snake:

 

 

Snakes in Hinduism: the music of snake charmers in Naga Panchami

According to Hinduism, snakes are sacred and have been associated with the god Shiva, who is said to wear a cobra as an ornament.

 

On the fifth day in the month of Shravana (July/August), Hindu people celebrate the Naga Panchami, a special occasion during which devotees go to temples to pay homage to snake deities.

Through this ceremony they want to remember the victory of Lord Krishna on the dangerous snake Kaliya.

There is a another and more practical reason why people have started celebrating snakes on this specific period of the year though:

heavy rainfalls mark the month of Shravan and snakes are forced to come out of their hiding places to avoid being submerged by the great amount of water that infiltrates in their lairs.

Naga Panchami is generally marked by a series of ritual offerings (puja and homa) that temple priests dedicate to snake deities, physically represented by a statue or an image, to please them and keep them away from biting people.

Here is an example of the ritual ablution (abhisheka) of a statue representing a snake deity:

Sometimes you can also see Hindu people worshiping real snakes without the ritual mediation of temple priests.

These rituals take place even today in people’s houses or in an external courtyard and are managed by the local communities of snake charmers, which move from village to village, signaling their arrival with the sound of their flute.

Milk, sweets and flowers are offered to the snakes, while their owners, the snake charmers, play the pungi and get rewarded with money and food for their musical performance.

The celebrations of Naga Panchami involving real snakes have been harshly criticized by Indian animal rights activists as another occasion for creating unjustified suffering to the animals.

On the other hand, Naga Panchami demonstrates as the tribe of snake charmers keeps on playing a ceremonial role in contemporary rural India.

They are not viewed only as a group of talented flute players and engaging entertainers but as a sort of alternative ritual officiants, expert at dealing with snake affairs.

Even if officially their profession is banned in India, they are at the centre of prayers and milk blessings offered to cobras during the Nag Panchami festival and this proves how their musical and ritual services are far from having been eradicated from the social tissue of the more rural areas of India.

 

Documentaries about snake charming available on Youtube

Most of the data on which this blog post is based come from a series of documentaries currently available on Youtube.

The videos that you find listed below cover a period of time that goes from 1995 to 2016, which means that they were filmed before and after the enforcement of the ban issued by the Indian goverment against the practice of snake charming:

 

1. Nat Geo Wild (2012). Snake Charmers | Animal Underworld. (Accessed: 5 April 2021)

2. Journeyman Pictures (2018). Snake Charmers (1995): A report on the art of snake charming, which has existed in India for generations. (Accessed: 5 April 2021)

3. BBC News (2016). What happened to India’s snake charmers? (Accessed: 5 April 2021)

4. Nazzimuddin (1997). Snakes and snake charmers.  (Accessed: 5 April 2021)

5. Goldblum (2005). The Snake charmer. (Accessed: 5 April 2021)

 

Suggested readings

The controversial topic of snake charming has stimulated the interest of several journalists and ethnographers.

Their attention has gone almost exclusively on the political and ethical sides of the issue and not so much on the detailed analysis of the musical traditions developed by the snake charmers’ communities.

Here you can find the links to some of the articles I’ve read during my preliminary research on the art of snake charming:

 

1. The Irish Times. The Snake charmers of Yogi dera (2017)

2. Sahapedia. Saperas: snake charming community of India (2018)

3. Hindustantimes. Child’s Play: Jogi Dera’s young snake charmers

4. Qrius. Can snake charmers embrace new India? Change won’t be easy, say experts (2019)

5. The Guardian. Snake tricks lose their charm

 

Concluding remarks

Banning the use of wild animals for entertainment is paramaount in a country like India that is struggling to create a new cultural identity and rebrand itself as a more developed country.

At the same time, it is equally important to find an answer to the following question:

given that the ban has stripped the snake charmers of their only source of employment, who is going to provide them livelihood?

In 2017, WildfilmsIndia published on Youtube a short excerpt of a rare music performance where a large goup of musicians, belonging to the Jogi-Nath snake charmers community, gather together to showcase their talent and play without the involvement of any snake.

Here you can listen to their performance:

 

It is noteworthy to cite here what one snake charmer said before the show:

We do not play without a snake but if any Indian is interested in keeping this art alive then, of course, we will play.”

The musical traditions and instruments of the snake charmers are going to disappear if these musicians will not be provided with an alternative source of income that reflects the cultural value of their instrumental music.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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