Snake charmers

Snake charmers are street performers who “hypnotise” and coax their snakes to “dance” and sway to the music they play on their flutes.1 Snake charming is a traditional Indian folk art. In Singapore, this art is mainly performed by Indians although some Malays and Chinese have also picked up the skill.Snake charmers in Singapore are a close-knit fraternity with ancestral roots that trace back to Poona (also spelt Pune), a town near Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in India.3 In the pre-war days, snake charmers were commonly found along Cantonment Road, Tanjong Pagar, Elizabeth Walk, other open grounds and hotel grounds.4 By the 1970s, snake charming was considered a dying trade.

History
The early snake charmers in Singapore were migrants from India. Most of them came from Poona, India.6 They provided popular street entertainment during the 1950s to 1970s, and regularly performed at tourist spots at Mount Faber, the House of Jade, as well as cultural shows at the Paradise Restaurant at Pasir Panjang and the Singapore Cultural Theatre.7 Some also performed at private functions such as birthday parties.8 Although considered poisonous and dangerous by many, snakes are worshipped in Hinduism. Any attempt to hurt or kill a snake is considered sacrilegious.9 In Singapore, pythons and mambas (also known as mango snakes) are preferred among snake charmers. In the past, cobras were also featured until a biting incident brought an end to their performances.10 Snake charming is usually a family trade where the charmer receives training from an early age.11 Local snake charmers are a close-knit fraternity, many of whom are family relatives. They often work in teams at tourists spots and go snake hunting together.12 

Job scope

Snake charmers obtain their snakes by hunting for them in the wild or purchasing them from snake dealers in Chinatown or abroad from Malaysia or India.13 To capture a snake, the snake charmer has to first venture into the wild to search for one. The jungles and swamps of Peninsula Malaysia, Southeast Asia and India are popular hunting grounds. After spotting a suitable snake, he uses snake hooks and sticks to catch it. Once caught, he removes the snake’s fangs,14 places it into a basket or gunny sack and brings it home to be tamed.15 The python is considered a particularly dangerous species because it constricts its victim, breaks its bones and subsequently swallows the victim, animal or human, whole. The black cobra either bites its victim to kill it or blinds them by spitting its venom into their eyes. Hence, the venom ducts of poisonous snakes are removed before they are used in performances.16  With the right techniques, it can take between two weeks and six months to train a snake. The human touch conveyed through gentle stroking is one of the key ways owners use to instill trust and create a bond with the snake. During training, the snakes’ mouths are tied shut to prevent an attack. The captured snakes are usually given a diet of beef, chicken, eggs and water. They are also kept clean through regular baths.17

Before a show, the snakes are brushed and spot-cleaned.18 The snake charmer then settles down at a spot where there is good pedestrian traffic. He then opens the lid of his basket containing the snake and starts playing his naskar. A naskar is similar to a flute, made of bamboo stem and coconut shell. The snake in the basket would then start “dancing”, attracting a crowd. The truth is that snakes actually lack the ability to hear and thus do not hear the music. Instead they respond to the vibrations and movements of the naskar. The snakes also follow the swaying movements of the snake charmer as he plays the naskar. Over time, snake charmers perfect their skill to make it seem as though the snake is dancing in response to the tune produced by the naskar.19  Sleight-of-hand tricks are sometimes added to the performance to make it more exciting. The show usually lasts for about half an hour. At the end of the show, the crowd of mostly tourists drop money into a basket. To supplement their income, performances are sometimes accompanied by the sale of fashion accessories; souvenirs; ointments for snake bites, burns and bruises; and photo-taking sessions.20 In the pre-war days, a snake charmer could earn S$2 or S$3 a day which was then considered a fortune.21 By the late 1980s, the income of snake charmers reduced significantly in comparison with the cost of living, with daily takings ranging from $6 to $18.22 

Development

Snake charmers have captivated the public for many years. In the 1980s, Haw Par Villa was a popular performance venue for snake charmers until the park’s redevelopment. The charmers then moved to Mount Faber.23 Since then, the snake charming business has had to evolve in order to stay viable. For instance, some charmers provide photo-taking opportunities for tourists at Sentosa.24



Author

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja



References
1. Raffles Institution Interact Club (Singapore), Dying Occupations of Singapore (Singapore: Raffles Interact Club, 1978), 16‒17. (Call no. RSING 331.70095957 RAF)
2. Raffles Institution Interact Club (Singapore), Dying Occupations of Singapore, 16; “Snakes with ‘No Ear’ for Music…,” New Nation, 15 May 1973, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “A Life Style That’s on the Way Out,” Straits Times, 7 February 1978, 21; “The Sound of Music and Rajab’s Two Happy Wrigglers,” Straits Times, 25 May 1980, 8; “Snake Charmers Share the Same History,” Straits Times, 31 July 1984, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Lo-Ang Siew Ghim and Chua Chee Huan, eds., Vanishing Trades of Singapore (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992), 77–78. (Call no. RSING 338.642095957 VAN)
5. Raffles Institution Interact Club (Singapore), Dying Occupations of Singapore, 17; “Life Style That’s on the Way Out.”
6. “Life Style That’s on the Way Out”; “Sound of Music and Rajab’s Two Happy Wrigglers”; “Snake Charmers Share the Same History.”
7. “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” Goodwood Journal, 4th Qtr (1980): 17 (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); “Life Style That’s on the Way Out.”
8. Dennis Kong, “Syed’s Best Friends and ‘Bed Fellows’ are Deadly Snakes,” Singapore Free Press, 5 October 1960, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76.
10 “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 17; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 77; “Sound of Music and Rajab’s Two Happy Wrigglers.”
11. “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 17; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 75–76; “Snake Charmers Share the Same History.”
12. “Snake Charmers Share the Same History.”
13. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76; “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 19; “Life Style That’s on the Way Out”; “Sound of Music and Rajab’s Two Happy Wrigglers”; “Snake Charmers Share the Same History.”
14. “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 17; Kong, “Syed’s Best Friends and ‘Bed Fellows’ are Deadly Snakes”; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76.
15. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76; “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 19; “Life Style That’s on the Way Out”; Alan Yang, “King of the Snake Charmer,” Singapore Free Press, 9 September 1959, 8; Kong, “Syed’s Best Friends and ‘Bed Fellows’ are Deadly Snakes.”
16. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76; Kong, “Syed’s Best Friends and ‘Bed Fellows’ are Deadly Snakes.”
17. “Snake Charmers Share the Same History”; Low Mei Mei, “Snake Men Miss Their Old Haunt at Haw Par Villa,” Straits Times, 21 November 1986, 22 (From NewspaperSG); Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 77; “Sound of Music and Rajab’s Two Happy Wrigglers”; “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer.”
18. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76.
19. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 76; Raffles Institution Interact Club (Singapore), Dying Occupations of Singapore, 16–17; “Life Style That’s on the Way Out”; “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 19.
20. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 78; Raffles Institution Interact Club (Singapore), Dying Occupations of Singapore, 16–17; “Fading Charm of the Snake Charmer,” 18; Cheah Boon Kheng, “Snake Charmer’s Life a Hard One, Says Mohamed,”Straits Times, 23 June 1957, 9; Kong, “Syed’s Best Friends and ‘Bed Fellows’ are Deadly Snakes”; “Snakes with ‘No Ear’ for Music…”; “Life Style That’s on the Way Out.”
21. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 77.
22. Doreen Siow and K. F. Tang, “Snake-Charmers Unlikely to Stay On at Haw Par Villa,” Straits Times, 1 June 1987, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Low, “Snake Men Miss Their Old Haunt at Haw Par Villa”; Siow and Tang, “Snake-Charmers Unlikely to Stay On at Haw Par Villa”; Kong Sook Chin, “Python Place Comes to Mount Faber,” Straits Times, 5 April 1987, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
24. An Indian Snake Charmer, 1970s, photograph, National Museum of Singapore Collections, National Heritage Board; “To Make Merrier Is More Difficult,” Straits Times, 9 August 1998, 10. (From NewspaperSG)



The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Subject
Vanishing trade
Snake charmers--Singapore