India's Snake Charmers Fade, Blaming Eco-Laws, TV

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Now, however, "the younger generation no more considers it lucrative enough to make it a source of living," said Suresh Sharma, a herpetologist from Punjab. "I have seen a colony of snake charmers opting for rag-picking, collection of iron waste, polythene, and so on because it gives them a better remuneration."

Part of the problem, he explained, is that in an age of reality television, people are more skeptical of a practice that was once regarded as mystical and in some cases even divinely influenced.

"Before the advent of Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel, people could be hoodwinked by all sorts of concocted stories. Now it is hard to do," said Sharma. "People have started learning so much about snakes that it is not possible to fool people. They have started learning that there is no need to panic when you see a snake, that snakes are not as bad as they have been depicted by snake charmers."

As a result, snake charmers have lost respect, he said. "People knew that if there was a snake at home, then it was the snake charmer who was God sent to save our life. Now people treat them on par with beggars."

Headed Toward Extinction?

A snake charmer usually rouses a snake by playing a long flute-like instrument in front of it. The snake appears to dance in response to the music. But according to herpetologists, snakes are unable to hear sounds in the same frequency band as humans. So, scientists say, what is perceived as a choreographed dance to the music is actually the snake reacting to the movement of the instrument.

S. K. Saraswat, a zoologist and director of the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi, believes another factor that's contributing to the decline of snake charmers is that children today are too preoccupied by other interests to view snake charming with wonder.

Recalling his own childhood, Saraswat said he used to have so much leisure time that watching a snake charmer's performance was irresistible anytime the sound of a flute was heard. But children now are so burdened with schoolwork that finding time to watch a performance is rare, he said.

Ram Nath, an aging snake charmer with a flowing white beard, said that a decade ago in his ancestral village of Rajpura, 50 kilometers west of Delhi, the heads of all the 200 or so families who lived there practiced a single occupation: snake charming. In recent years, however, only about ten percent continue the business, and earning a living has become almost impossible.

A similar lament is expressed by Durga Nath, the father of three children. He supplements his income from snake charming by selling traditional medicines, but still makes only about a dollar a day.

Saraswat predicts that given the rapid attrition in the number of snake charmers, the specialized community of Rajpura could eventually disappear. "Snake charmers are becoming a rare sight even in villages," he said.

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