Why India’s Snake Charming Jobs Are Disappearing

Small artisans often can’t compete with globalisation.

The snake charmer. The yarn threader. The broom maker. Traditional jobs in India can be as varied and distinctive as the country’s bright colours and rich flavours. That occupational diversity is on display in “Marginal Trades,” photographer Supranav Dash’s portrait series showcasing people at work, primarily in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Nemai Kumar Dutta is a homoeopathic doctor or a homoeopathy-daktar babu. He earns about 2,500 rupees ($39) a week. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

Binde Ghosh earns about 350 rupees ($5) a week as a ghunte-walli, or a maker of cow-dung cake for fuel. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

The jobs Dash portrays—making sweets, for example, or cow-dung cakes for fuel—are vanishing, and with them goes a social hierarchy that’s held for centuries. For many people in India, the caste system has long determined one’s occupation. But now that public discrimination based on caste has been banned, Dash sees more young people ignoring caste-based limitations, including restrictions on what livelihoods they can pursue. “They just don’t seem to care,” says Dash, who grew up in Kolkata.

Moin Ashraf and Shamshul Haque are silk-yarn–thread makers, or resham-sut ki lad. Together the father and son earn about 4,200 rupees ($66) a week. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

This small-scale banana farmer, also known as a kola-khet er malik, earns about 3,480 rupees ($55) a week. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

Many of the workers whose trades are waning—especially artisans—are at the mercy of economic as well as cultural forces. “The major threat to crafts and traditional jobs is technology,” says Indian economist Shyam Sundar. Cups once made by hand can be mass-produced from plastic. Individual goldsmiths can’t compete with newly built factories.

Sajan Sapera earns about 750 rupees ($12) a week as a travelling snake charmer, or sapera, from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

Rakesh Biswas, Prakash Roychowdhury, and Shyamal Bala are confectioners, or moyra. Roychowdhury, chief confectioner, earns about 2,220 rupees ($35) a week. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

“What you hear a lot from artists and crafters is that they know their kids will not continue their work,” says Sundar. “They say, ‘My craft will end with me.’ ”

These four men are entertainment motorbike riders, also known as maut-ka-kuan ke bikers. They each earn about 2,700 rupees ($42) a week. - PHOTOGRAPH BY SUPRANAV DASH

 

Lead image: Rajeshwar Halder is a cotton-candy seller, also known as a burirchul wallah, in West Bengal. He earns about $15 a week. Photograph by Supranav Dash

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