During the recent high-voltage drama about who would form the government in the Indian state of Karnataka, politicians were seen hurling choice invectives at each other. Horse-trading accusations are there during every multiple-seat election, but one other animal entered the equation this time around: the snake. When one politician referred to his opponents as snakes, he really lowered the bar of decency in public life, triggering feelings of revulsion among hapless citizens who had voted for these very people just a few days earlier. All this made some of us wonder which was the better condition to be in, Ophidiophobia—the fear of snakes, or Politicophobia, a hatred for politicians.
Both politicians and serpents have been revered and feared, as well as hated and loved for centuries. Of them, perhaps the snake is older; it has been around thousands of years and finds multiple references in holy books. In the Bible, Corinthians 11:3 had this to say:
“I am afraid however, that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may be led astray from your simple and pure devotion to Christ”.
Much before the Bible too, early references endorse a reverence for snakes in Egypt. That reverence was often mixed with fear, because of snake bites resulting in deaths. Thus emerged a class of people who knew how to extract venom from snakes and render them non-poisonous. Some even became street performers, taming reptiles to entertain people.
In India, Lord Shiva’s snake, Vasuki, is known as the king of snakes. Lord Vishnu’s association with sheshnag is famous too. These animals are still worshipped and feared here, as they have been in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia. To our West, Italy and Greece have had cultures holding snakes on a lofty platform, as has been the case in many parts of North Africa. But the idea of charming the snakes is Indian. The modus operandi of this process to charm involves swaying the snake repeatedly to hypnotize the creature. This is a visual process because snakes cannot hear, never mind recent studies that suggest snakes may in fact hear through vibrations which transmit to their jawbone. If that can be shown conclusively, the enduring belief that snakes are deaf will have to be abandoned. But one wonders if they have done studies to see if snakes can be charmed without any music at all, for instance if the performer is a pantomime artist. If that works, the phrase “actions speak louder than words” will find endorsement.
Enter the Bottle Gourd
The instrument used for the job is called been, which is a generic name, the specific one being pungi. You blow into a pipe that enters a sound chamber made from a vegetable called bottle gourd, known to us by many other names like lauki, doodhi, kaddu and ghiya. The speciality of the bottle gourd is, when it is harvested young, it can be cooked like a vegetable, and when it is allowed to mature, it dries and hardens so we can make vessels with it, as also resonators for musical instruments. Two pipes stem out of this gourd, one for the melody and one for the drone. In a sense, the pungi works like bagpipes, with a melody and drone sound combined, as also a continuous flow of air. But it is harder to play, since unlike the bagpipes, its chamber cannot be pressed to push the air out to make music.
But, while pungi is what snake charmers play to hypnotize a snake, it hasn’t been used too much in the recording studio. Instead of pungi, composer Kalyanji, the man most associated with the snake charmer’s been, decided to play an early French synthesizer called clavioline to simulate the pungi’s sounds, initially in Naag Panchmi (1953). The key song here was the Asha Bhosle-rendered “O naag kaheen ja basiyo re”.
Impressed with its sounds, composer Hemant Kumar invited Kalyanji to play the clavioline in many songs in Nagin (1954). While Nagin remains the acme of the demonstration of the snake charmer’s music in Hindi cinema, it must be borne in mind that Hemant Kumar’s assistant Ravi, who would himself become a major composer in the coming years, always claimed that it was his own harmonium along with Kalyanji’s clavioline that jointly produced the been sounds in the film’s songs and background passages. We don’t know how to verify this now, but it is true that sometimes the clavioline was played alone, at other times ensemble with say the clarinet or flute, to create the been effect. That is why discerning music lovers find differences in tone when they hear such songs across different films in one sitting. Nowadays the sounds can be generated by sophisticated synthesizers.
Meanwhile, videos of snake charmers are around, and some of them can deliver high-fidelity performances, so why was the pungi dumped at all? In many interviews, the brothers Kalyanji and Anandji have said that they found the pungi unable to offer high fluidity in playing notes and the crescendos that the situation warranted in Nagin.
There are dozens of film songs where the been sounds were heard. In empathy with our reptile friends however, here are a few of those that even featured the instrument visually:
- Man dole mera tan dole (Nagin, 1954)
- Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya (Phagun, 1958)
- Tere dil ka makaan saiyaan bada aalishaan (Do Ustad, 1959)
- Tera jaadu na chalega o sapere (Guest House, 1959)
- Door desh se koi sapera aaya (Kavi Kalidas, 1959)
- Dil lootne waale jaadugar ab maine tujhe pehchaana hai (Madari, 1959)
- Gori naagan banke na chala karo (Naache Naagan Baaje Been, 1960)
- Main hoon gori naagin (Naache Naagan Baaje Been, 1960)
- Tu hi tu hai main dekha karoon (Sunehri Nagin, 1963)
- Been na bajaana ye jaadu na chalaana (Sunehri Nagin, 1963)
- Tujhe chaand kahoon ya phool kahoon (Sunehri Nagin, 1963)
- He Abdulla naagin waala aa gaya (Ishaara, 1964)
- Door kaheen door humen le chalo sanam (Ek Sapera Ek Lutera, 1965)
- Kaahe ko been bajaaye sapere (Saheli, 1965)
- Sapera been baja been baja (Bhai Bhai, 1970)
- Ja re ja o harjaayi (Kalicharan, 1976)
- Been baja mere mast sapere (Naag Champa, 1976)
- Main teri dushman, dushman tu mera (Nagina, 1986)
Songs apart, there have also been dedicated snake dances in cinema, for instance in Dastaan (1950) and Guide (1965). The one below is from Dastaan.
But all that is history. It’s not a good time to be a snake charmer nowadays. Animal rights activists have been demonstrating how these people stitch up the mouth of snakes, allowing only the tongue to come out and guaranteeing their imminent death by starvation. The government has taken notice, and snake charming is now illegal. That has made snake charmers miserable.
One day in December 2004, the scattered clan came together in a rare orchestration of strength. They announced they would let 5000 cobras loose into the corridors of the Odisha Legislative Assembly if their demands were not met. They claimed they were entertainers and upholders of India’s rich culture, and denied cruelty towards their reptiles. They showed up and brandished a sampling of their reptiles. But it wasn’t their day, as there were too many cops protecting the premises. One wonders what would have happened if they hadn’t announced their intentions in advance.
One also wonders how many of them knew about the strange association that an ancient politician had with snakes. That would be Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, who loved snakes, especially the Royal Python. She even committed suicide by letting a venomous snake bite her.
Featured image on top: from He Abdulla, featuring Joy and Vyjayanthimala
Originally published in DNA Jaipur on page 13 on 27 May 2018 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2018-05-27