The itinerant street performers of India –from animal acts to acrobats- may be the earthiest folk artists on earth
Collecting data about our contributors is no easy task. These are mobile people, and I am always after our editors for news of them.
But how can I end without mentioning Mary Ellen Mark? The only report I ever obtained on her work in progress came from our Picture Editor, Alice Rose George:
"Mary Ellen Mark had two troublesome events while working on her Indian street performers article: (1) being bitten by a monkey; (2) being stepped on by a fortunetelling Brahman bull.
"But she survived both attacks. Her favorite animal was Moti the bear, and if she ever had an animal, it would be him."
Editor in Chief
In India, Mary Ellen Mark sits with a snake charmer and his cobra (the snake's poison sac has been removed).
In New Delhi, Bombay and other Indian cities, a crowd will gather at the sound of a drum to see itinerant street artists perform. For a few rupees, a man wrestles a bear. Monkey trainers put their pets through their paces. A Brahman bull tells fortunes. A whole family of acrobats do their tricks. And, of course, the snake charmers charm their snakes and their audiences. The American photographer Mary Ellen Mark records in words and pictures the lives -professional and private- of these proud and high-spirited folk artists.
Nasir Khan keeps his bear, Stupidmaster, tied up outside his tent home. Their rivals, Rehmat and Moti, are the wrestlers on the previous page.
Two Trained Bears
Nasir Khan's bear is called Stupidmaster. Rehmat's bear is Moti. I found them in New Delhi. Stupidmaster is kept tied up with a rope from the ring in his nose to a stake in front of his master's tent. All day he sleeps curled up in a little hole he has dug for himself. The rope isn't quite long enough for him to stand up. I think sleep is his way of escaping imprisonment.
Moti is much better off. In Hindi, moti means "pearl." "There is only one bear like this in a hundred," Rehmat told me. Moti is very affectionate. He loves to be petted. Sometimes I would sit on the stone wall where he was tied and start to scratch his back. He would immediately roll over so I could get to his stomach. If I stopped scratching, Moti would gently touch my arm with his paw, telling me to continue.
Rehmat and Moti travel around the city by motor ricksha. It is always difficult for Rehmat to persuade a driver to take them and then to get Moti into the ricksha. Once he finds a place to work, Rehmat beats a small drum to gather a crowd. He talks to the bear in Hindi rhyme. "Do your jungle walk. What do you do when the enemy comes? Do you eat him?" Moti parades around the circle obeying the commands and nodding in answer to the questions. At one point Rehmat has Moti rush at the crowd, then at the last moment he pulls him back with the rope through the ring in the bear's nose. The people scream and scatter but quickly return. By now Rehmat has removed his shirt and tied his dhoti up. "Get ready for wrestling! Get ready!" he shouts.
Rehmat is about 55 years old, but his body is strong and solid. The wrestling match lasts about five minutes. Moti behaves like a huge, playful puppy. Rehmat always gives up when Moti pins him and starts chewing on his feet.
Rehmat told me that bear trainers get the animals as very young cubs. They come from the jungles of Orissa in eastern India. The tribal people there steal them from their mothers and sell them to the trainers. At first the cubs have to be fed milk from a baby's bottle. When they are a year old, a hole is put through their nose and a ring inserted. A bear's nose is very sensitive, and the trainer uses the ring to control his bear. Also, all the bear's teeth are pulled after its first year. I asked what the bears eat. "Two kilos a day of chapati," Rehmat said. Their life-span is about 30 years. "How long do they perform?" I asked Rehmat. He looked at me as if I were crazy: "They work until they die."
Nasir Khan's son, who lives in the settlement where Rehmat and Moti live, saw me there and told his father that I had been spending time with another bear. Nasir Khan was jealous. When I came back to him and Stupidmaster, he put a bench down facing the sleeping Stupidmaster and invited me to sit and have tea. All during tea he shouted orders at his wife: "Cleanup after him. Give him some food. Perhaps he is thirsty. Give him some water!" To me he put a single, sad question: "Did you take pictures of Moti and Rehmat in a motor ricksha?"
To go to work, Moti takes a motor ricksha, right.
I next saw Nasir Khan at a meeting of the Cooperative Society of Neglected and Forgotten Artists, a sort of trade union of New Delhi street performers. There are 150 members-puppeteers, singers, magicians, acrobats, jugglers, musicians, craftsmen, animal trainers-all of them squatters in several slum colonies. The meeting was held in the office of Rajiv Sethi, a 31-year-old designer who is a champion of the rights of these folk artists. Sethi founded the society in 1977. He acts as the artists' agent for special performances at hotels and embassies. He also tries to protect them from police harassment and to improve their housing conditions, since most of them are still considered illegal squatters in their miserable camps. Sethi wants to build a permanent artists' village to house the members of the cooperative, complete with theaters, a folk-arts museum and facilities for handicrafts. He also hopes to bring a group of craftsmen and performers to Europe and America next year. His dreams are big, but the present problems of the cooperative are very real. Professional jealousies, intercaste rivalries and, according to Sethi, "everything ugly that poverty brings with it" plague the group. "Yet these people have given me so much more than I could ever give them," he added. "They have also given me an ulcer."
Rajiv Sethi had been away in America and Europe for two months, and the purpose of the meeting, called for eleven A.M., was both to welcome him back and to discuss current business. It was one o'clock before the performers began mounting the steps and entering the small office. Men and women and even some children came, all dressed in their best clothes. When Nasir Khan and Stupidmaster arrived, everyone stepped aside to make a space for them. The bear immediately lay down and fell asleep.
Several people placed garlands of flowers around Sethi's neck.
Sethi opened the meeting by shouting, "Zindabad!" which is an Urdu word meaning "victory." Everyone repeated it in loud, energetic unison. At first everything was calm and friendly. Then a puppeteer got up and complained that the secretary of the society only gave work to his family and friends. This was followed by pointing of fingers and shouting between the secretary and his supporters and the other members. Sethi repeatedly rang a bell for order. Then a magician accused a puppeteer of taking a contract for work without informing the society and thus avoiding payment of the usual 10 percent. There were prolonged arguments. Nasir Khan shouted, "If you all don't shut up, I'm going to tummy bear on you!" Sethi tried his bell again and shouted, "Please, calm down, I want to tell you all about my trip." Slowly the din subsided. Sethi described the people he saw and his efforts to arrange an exhibition abroad in 1981. "Twenty-five craftsmen and performers from India will be invited to America," he said. "There will be exhibitions and a fairground where craftsmen will demonstrate their work and entertainers will perform for the American public."
A puppeteer raised his hand. "Rajiv, who will decide which twenty-five performers will go to America?" he asked. There was a brief pause, and then the fighting, finger-pointing, accusations and shouting began again in earnest. Sethi rang his bell and muttered something about a selection committee, but no one listened. He began to shout "Zindabad!" over and over again, repeating the word until the fighting subsided and others began shouting it with him.
By then it was three P.M., and Sethi adjourned the meeting. Puppeteers, magicians, singers, acrobats, animal trainers and a single bear slowly filed out of the office, down the stairs and back to their daily rounds.
Moti the bear lives with his master in a tent campground on the outskirts of New Delhi. When he needs a bath, Moti is walked down to a nearby lake.
A Man and Two Monkeys
Waris trains monkeys. He has two of them, a male and a female. Waris is 34 years old, small and bony, with a gentle face. He is a Muslim originally from Lucknow. He and his wife have four children.
At seven A.M. one morning I met Waris in the squatters' colony where he and his family live in a ragged tent. His monkeys were tied to a post on one side of the tent, and his pet fighting cock on the other. Waris was dressing his monkeys with the help of one of his daughters. When one monkey pulled the little girl's hair, she started to cry, but Waris was firm with her. "She must learn not to be afraid," he said. She promptly dried her tears and continued to dress the animals -the female in a pink skirt, the male in pants and a turban.
Waris perched both animals on his bicycle and took off for the president's estate, where many tourist buses stop. He was greeted by a gardener working there; then he sat down, took out his little drum, rapped on it and began to perform. Suddenly a policeman appeared. "You are not allowed to do this," he said. "You will have to go." Waris produced a crumpled piece of paper with an official-looking stamp on it. "To whom it may concern," it said. "This man is a monkey trainer. His work is how he earns his daily bread. Please let him continue to work. He is harmless." "This doesn't mean a thing," said the policeman. "Get out."
In another settlement camp near New Delhi, one of the daughters of Waris the monkey trainer plays with the animals that provide the family's living and exist almost as members of the family.
It started to rain, so Waris took cover under the arches of a nearby government building. The monkeys shivered and hugged each other.
When the shower was over, Waris locked up his bike and started out again. He stopped at a bus station and began to play his drum, but again a policeman came and shooed him away. He walked on three more blocks and found a clearing on the sidewalk. Again he beat on his little drum, and an audience gathered. The monkeys danced and bowed as everyone laughed. At one point the male monkey jumped on Waris and started to hit him. The crowd really loved that. "What do you want?" shouted Waris. "Do you want to get married?" The monkey nodded. Then the two monkeys marched around the circle with the male pulling the female in a cart, a parody of an Indian wedding parade. Just then the policeman returned and told Waris to leave. This time the crowd protested, and Waris was allowed to finish. The monkeys jumped through hoops and did another dance. When the show was over, they collected money. They put the coins in their mouths and tugged at the pants of the men until they received more coins. Then Waris packed up. "Don't come back here," shouted the policeman. "Next time I'll arrest you."
It had started to rain again. Waris headed down the street, hanging his head, the monkeys trailing behind him. He found his bicycle and put the monkeys on it, one sitting on the handlebars, the other on the rear fender. As we parted he looked up at me and asked, "How can a man make a living?"
Waris and his extended family make their home in a tent.
His transportation is a bicycle, and his workplace changes from day to day, depending on where the crowd is.
Another trainer offers a slighter act than Waris's.
Father and Son, Their Bull and Their Dog
Ratan Lal lives in a small cement house on a hill in a poor suburb west of New Delhi. His beloved Brahman bull is named Bholenath. "Look," Ratan Lal said to me when I visited him there, "Bholenath has a third eye." He pointed to an ugly growth on the bull's head. I looked at the bull, and he glared back. "He is very temperamental," Ratan Lal told me, "but very, very holy."
Ratan Lal's father, called Baba by everyone, had taught his son and many others how to train bulls and dogs. Baba is a great performer and steals the show from his son whenever he can. He asks his dog questions, and the dog answers. "What happens when the soul leaves the body?" The dog plays dead. "Who has the ten-rupee note?" The dog trots over to a man who produces one. "He's a bit senile," Ratan Lal would say of his father.
Ratan Lal treasures his bull, Bholenath -or "innocent one." Ratan Lal's turbaned father, known as Baba, is an expert in dog training, the secrets of which Baba does not easily reveal.
Ratan Lal would dress his bull with a red cloth around the horns and an embroidered cloth over his back. He would then wander the streets, muttering religious words as he went. Sometimes he would gather a crowd, sometimes just knock on a person's door and offer to predict the future or answer questions. The same questions came up again and again: "Who will be rich?" "Who will go to America?" "Who will have six sons?" Ratan Lal would shout the questions to the bull, and the bull would turn in circles and then point to the lucky person.
He always told everyone the fortunes they wanted to hear.
A Family of Acrobats
Shankar is 23 years old, short, thin and very handsome. He is married and has two children. As the eldest son of the family, he is responsible for the support of seven young brothers and sisters, as well as his parents, who live in a village in Poona, 120 miles south of Bombay. Shankar lives in a Bombay suburb. He returns to Poona every year during the monsoon.
For 10 years Shankar's "home" has been a section of open sidewalk on a dead-end street. Other acrobats and their families live there, many of them related to him. Each family has marked out its territory with rows of small stones. Sometimes as many as eight members of a family sleep in a space about seven feet by ten feet. Each family's area is orderly and clean, but the street is littered.
On a beach near Bombay, Shankar, above right, supervises a high-wire walk by one of the women of his large family.
I sat with Shankar in his sidewalk home as his baby son rocked in a rope cradle supported by two sticks and his wife bathed their four-year-old daughter in the street. All of the family's ropes, poles, hoops and other acrobatic gear were neatly stacked in piles, along with cooking utensils and sleeping mats. The family has decorated the stone wall that backs their living space with photographs of Indian movie stars clipped from magazines.
When Shankar and his relatives, about 10 people in all, went out to work, they walked in single file-the men in front, carrying the acrobatic gear, and the women and children behind, holding baskets filled with instruments on their heads. When they found a good place, they put up their ropes and poles and attracted a crowd with drums and shouts. One of Shankar's sisters walked a tightrope with an umbrella. Another balanced on a drum. His small daughter, who cried at first because she did not want to perform, danced wildly to the beating drums. Shankar shouted to the crowd: "What you eat in the morning comes out at night! What you eat at night comes out in the morning!" The rest of the troupe shouted "Yes!" in unison. He went on, "So don't be stingy with your money! Nothing is meant to be kept!" The troupe again echoed, "Yes! Yes!"
His uncle works carefully with his own tiny granddaughter tied to the end of a long pole. She is the youngest member of the family troupe.
Shankar's sister lay on the ground and placed a huge rock on her stomach. He stood beside her and lifted a mallet to break the rock. "No, no!" she shouted, "I'm doing this for my stomach!" They repeated this exchange several times until some money was collected from the crowd. Then Shankar broke the stone. For the grand finale, Shankar's uncle, who had disappeared under the trees to smoke a pipe of opium to prepare himself, tied his eight-month-old granddaughter to one end of a 15-foot-long pole. Then he carefully lifted the pole and balanced it on his chin. The drums beat softly; the crowd was still, the child unperturbed. The money plate was passed around by the children, and they collected about 15 rupees ($2). The troupe rested awhile before setting out to do two more shows that day.
Shankar makes an average of 50 rupees ($6.50) a day. He needs 25 rupees a day just to survive. That leaves him with almost nothing to save or send to his parents. He can sometimes get work as an extra in Bombay films, but not very often.
Though his life is hard, Shankar says he could never leave his profession. He tells the story of his forefathers. "Once upon a time, everyone went to see the god Krishna to find out what trade to follow. Our ancestors came to him very late. 'What shall we do, Krishna?' they asked. Krishna thought for a long while, and then he did a somersault-and that's how being acrobats became our destiny."
The Snake Charmers
In the streets behind the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, where tourists congregate, many street performers try their luck. That is where I met Gulabnath and his young nephew Roshannath, both of them tall and handsome men with strong faces. They were wearing bright red turbans. Their snakes were cobras and long, terrifying rat snakes, which they made dance and play with great ease to the music of a small drum and a bin, a flutelike instrument made from a gourd. Gulabnath and Roshannath were from Iteda, a small village about 40 kilometers from Delhi, they said. Most of the year they travel to the big cities of India, and they return to their village only during the monsoon.
They were staying with about 20 other snake charmers, all friends and relatives from Iteda and all men -uncles, brothers and cousins ranging in age from 15 to about 55- in the courtyard of a compound for hospital workers. I met them there early one morning. When I arrived, they were still sleeping, bundled in blankets on wooden cots or on mats on the ground, their snake baskets neatly tied in cloth beside them. When they woke in the morning, they first drank hot tea and smoked water pipes filled with strong tobacco. Some of them smoked hashish. Then they tied up their turbans-long, long streams of colorful cloth-and each man unwrapped his basket and examined the snakes curled up inside.
Gulabnath's cousin started to show off for me. He pulled several long, thin rat snakes from his basket, all tangled together like a bunch of thick orange spaghetti, and spread them on the ground. Then he twisted them around his arms, and choosing one, he released it. Rat snakes are extremely fast. Suddenly the snake was gone-it was disappearing into a stone wall. Just in time, the man grabbed its tail and pulled it back. Unfortunately, he was not fast enough; the snake twisted around and bit his leg. I was terrified, but he reassured me that the rat snake was not poisonous. From a bottle he kept in his bag he took what looked like a small brown stone and placed it on his leg; magically, it stuck to the wound. He told me that this was a remedy derived from a certain frog found in the jungle.
Gulabnath, left, puts out his snakes for a young crowd on a street in Bombay.
By now it was eight A.M., time for the snake charmers to go to work. They left together, their baskets and instruments tied in bundles that they carried on poles over their shoulders. When they reached the street outside the compound, they split into groups of three or four and headed for different areas of Bombay.
Gulabnath and Roshannath left with two cousins. When they reached a busy street nearby, they put their baskets down and Gulabnath took out his bin and started to play, accompanied by the other men on another bin and two small drums. The music was wonderful, like some exotic Indian modern jazz. As they played they danced, and a crowd collected. Then they slowly began to display their snakes.
They placed the cobras one by one on the sidewalk-and wiggled a fist in front of each to make it assume the familiar defensive pose. Then they placed their pet porcupine on top of a straw basket. The last to be taken out were the energetic rat snakes. The favorite trick was to release them and let them streak toward the onlookers, who would leap back in terror. Always at the last minute the men would grab the snakes and pull them back.
At one point while I was kneeling and taking pictures of the scene, I glanced behind me and saw four cobras, arched and staring at me, about two inches from my feet. But these men were obviously such expert snake handlers that I wasn't afraid in the least. And the Indians in the audience, surely familiar with snake charmers by now, were not at all blasé; they were clearly delighted by the show.
Back in his village of Iteda, Gulabnath's 72-year-old brother, the elder of the community, sits with his youngest child, a six-year-old girl, and a favorite defanged cobra.
Gulabnath and Roshannath collected the money from the crowd, wrapped up their snakes and sat in the shade to smoke some hashish. We talked for a while. Gulabnath told me he was 42 years old. Roshannath was 18. They belong to a tribe called the Jogis, all of whose names end in nath. The Jogis have their own laws and customs. For example, some of them do not cremate the dead; they bury corpses or throw them into the sea. And as with most rural Indians, the women are kept at home and are not allowed to "display themselves." A man may not be photographed with his wife.
Gulabnath told me that they catch their snakes in the jungle near the village. The poison sac of a cobra is removed as soon as the snake is caught. The cobra, he said, is not normally an aggressive snake; it will bite only if it is extremely agitated. He also said, "If a man is bitten by a cobra and nothing is done, he will soon die." If a snake charmer is bitten by a cobra whose poison sac has not been removed, he immediately ties a very tight tourniquet near the bite and then cuts and bleeds the wound. Afterward he drinks a herbal potion that makes him dizzy and also induces vomiting. Roshannath said, "The doctors' medicines are no good -only ours cure. When a man in a neighboring village is bitten, he comes to the Jogis." They insisted that they never kill or sell their snakes for skins. "When a snake dies," says Roshannath, "he flies straight to heaven."
Three weeks later, I met Gulabnath and Roshannath again at the train station in New Delhi, on the way to visit their village with them. When we boarded, the conductor asked Gulabnath what was in his baskets. He told him snakes- "I don't like to lie," said Gulabnath- and the two were put off. They managed to sneak back into another car and hide the baskets. Then they told me some sad news. After seven years of traveling with them, the porcupine was dead. "He died from overeating mutton," said Gulabnath. "We took him down to the beach and threw him into the sea."
From the station nearest their village, we took a taxi. Along the way Gulabnath stopped to buy "fruit" for his son. It turned out to be a bottle of cheap whiskey. The road ended several kilometers from the village, so we left the taxi there and walked. Gulabnath and Roshannath carried their baskets over their shoulders. The path passed through flat fields of sugarcane and yellow flowers. "Over beside that date tree I caught three cobras," Gulabnath said. We came into Iteda as the sun was setting. The dogs barked ferociously. Gulabnath and Roshannath struck them with long sticks they were carrying. Suddenly, hundreds of birds flew over our heads, chirping wildly. "They are welcoming you," said Gulabnath.
We walked on through the village streets, past huge neem trees and mud huts with vines covering them. We passed through a courtyard where a tailor was working at his sewing machine, taking advantage of the last light of the day. Four water buffalo with birds perched on their backs stood nearby.
Finally we reached the compound of huts belonging to the snake charmers, off to one side of the village. There were about eight adjacent one-room huts, each with its own large courtyard surrounded by a mud wall, where the women cook and wash and tend to the children while the men sit in groups, talking and smoking their water pipes.
Nimnagh, center, and two friends work in New Delhi most of the time. Their main draw is a huge boa constrictor, which they display for a fee to anyone who will pay.
As we entered Gulabnath's courtyard a boy, his five-year-old son, ran up to hug him. Soon his wife and seven-year-old daughter and other relatives and friends were around him. The women touched his head in respect. The only men at home were Roshannath's 72-year-old father, who was the village elder, and his three brothers. Water pipes were brought in, and the five men sat in a circle alternately puffing and coughing. I sat with the women drinking sweet tea.
The next day a tiny veiled creature appeared in the compound. The other women gathered around her and peeked behind her veil. When I, too, lifted the veil, I saw the beautiful face of a 10-year-old child. This was Roshannath's wife. Her name was Daya, which in English means "pity." They had been married for a year, but the marriage would be consummated only when she reached puberty. Until then she would mostly stay with his family and be taken care of by his mother and the other women in the village. She seemed so fearful-not of snakes, which she has known her whole life, but of human beings. She was neither child nor adult. As a married woman, she could not play with children, so they threw stones at her and teased her. As the youngest married woman of the community, her chores were hard. She had to scrub clothes and do the heaviest household work. Her hands were chapped and rough.
No man is allowed to see Daya's face -especially not Roshannath. They never even speak to her. When I tried to talk to her, she lifted her veil and stared at me, but when someone approached, she quickly hid her face again for fear it might be a man. I offered to bring her a gift from Delhi. I asked her, "What would you like? Would you like a sari or some bangles?" She looked at me in silence, and I felt that no one had offered her a gift before. Then Gulabnath's wife whispered in her ear. Daya finally spoke up. "I'd like a bottle of whiskey," she said. "Bring me some whiskey."
The children learn early to accept snakes. Roshannath's brother introduces his baby to a cobra.
Roshannath sits with his 10-year-old wife, Daya, but cannot look upon her face. Their marriage will be consummated only when she is mature.
As a favor, Roshannath nervously allowed me to photograph him and Daya together. He sat on a bench, with her on the floor at his feet. He gave her orders and draped his cobras over her head.
All of the children grow up playing with snakes the way Western children play with toys. From an early age, the boys go with their fathers to hunt snakes, and by the time they are nine or ten, they hunt by themselves.
On my last day in the village, the men took me to hunt snakes. Gulabnath brought along his son; his daughter cried and cried because she was to be left behind. Each man carried a stick with a metal blade at one end. When they found a snake hole, they began to dig for the cobra. All the men were on their knees digging with the sticks and peeking into the hole. Then, miraculously, the cobra appeared. They clamped its head with the stick. Gulabnath held the snake's jaws tight as they put it into a cloth bag.
Suddenly I realized something was wrong-catching a cobra can't be that fast and simple. When I told Gulabnath that I realized what was going on, his face fell, and he said, "It often takes a whole day to catch a snake, especially now, in the cold weather. But I wanted to make you happy, so when you weren't looking, Roshannath put one of his cobras in the hole." Everyone laughed.
The time had come for me to go. My taxi was waiting in the next village. Gulabnath and his son walked there with me. We shook hands. "In three years my daughter is getting married," he said. "You must come for the wedding and take pictures." As the taxi pulled away, I looked back: a long dusty road with date trees in a field of yellow flowers. Gulabnath and his son stood waving, two noble silhouettes at home in an extraordinary landscape. It is one of the pictures in my mind that makes me long for India when I am thousands of miles away.
Mary Ellen Mark, the Magnum photographer, has visited India 11 times in the past 10 years. Falkland Road, her photographic study of prostitutes in Bombay, will be published next year.