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Master of Scaremonies
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Without snakes, India's charmers play on
By Prithwish GangulyTue Dec 26, 8:30 AM ET

Out-of-work Indian snake charmers are playing their flutes at weddings and world festivals after pressure from animal rights groups led to their prized reptiles being impounded.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 prohibits hunting or keeping snakes but was widely flouted by turbanned charmers who crowd buses and attractions in tourist states like Rajasthan. But growing environmental awareness has forced authorities to crack down on those hunting and using snakes to make a living, including men who use music to make them dance for money.

"We now have accepted the fact that we cannot perform with snakes," said Hawa Singh Nath, a wiry, bearded 68-year-old charmer who lives in the suburbs of the capital, New Delhi. The charmers live in squalid settlements on the outskirts of cities, where generations have learned to master this ancient art. At the best of times, snake charming is not a profitable profession and the hunting ban has made it even more difficult.

"We are hardly earning half of what we used to earn before," Nath said. "Many are going to the cities and most our children do not want to take up our profession. We have no regrets that they won't play the flute. We need to do other jobs now to survive."

Nath performed his 300-year-old music at the Dubai film festival in 2005, while others have traveled to the U.K. and Middle East or put on special wedding or birthday party shows. "People still love us even when they know we have no snakes to show them," said Shishanath, a saffron-clad charmer. Other charmers have swapped roles and now work at animal centers and forestry offices, educating visitors about their beloved reptiles, which appear in Hindu texts and are widely worshipped. Lord Shiva, a major deity, is often depicted with a snake around his neck. Most charmers use cobras, one of India's endangered reptiles.

The earliest Indian snake charmers were healers who learned the art of treating snakebites and were called on to remove snakes from homes. The practice blossomed in the 20th century as it was promoted as a practice to draw tourists. "We have been living with snakes for generations. They have provided us with food. They are everything to us. We think them to be our protectors," said another Delhi charmer, Banwari.

What is the world coming to? :D
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