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Open Features: The Biter Bitten

C J Thomas tells of a ritualistic dance of death involving a cobra and a mongoose.

A circle of bush created a natural walled barrier for the tamped platform of sacred earth - a unique theatre providing no shade from the burning heat. It was the pride and joy of the villagers in Charra Bihar. The sun was low in the sky and a glistening row of eager-faced, bright-eyed villagers squatted on the ground, clad in saris and paddy soiled pantaloons. Male heads were gleaming black and shining with oil, and the women, adorned with bangles and gracefully draped saris waited patiently, keeping an indulgent eye upon the clutch of naked infants who scuffled about in the tamped earth close to the entrance.

The stage was set. At the closed end of the platform a turbaned figure, swathed in an off-white cloth, and resting on his haunches, slowly fingered a bamboo pipe. He looked down at a cone-capped basket resting between his legs, and a sinister smile slowly creased his bronzed face. Raising the pipe to his lips he blew a shrill tremulous note. The performance was about to begin.

The audience fell silent, tense emotion reflected on every face; even the children were still. Fear was overpowering, there was a smell of urine in the dust.

A haunting melody, rising and falling in a funereal embrace, floated into the warm, acrid air as the flautist gently blew into the pipe. Then, with a startling crescendo and a wave of his hand he plucked off the conical helmet of the basket. A hiss came from throats made dry with fear; a serpentine reaction to what they knew was to come.

The hunched figure bent slowly forward, still piping softly, and with a movement almost too quick to see, tipped over the basket. There was an involuntary stir among the villagers, a slight recoil, as a spitting spade-headed cobra, his eyes gleaming, shot out of the basket and reared a sinuous body erect on the sacred earth.

Small children sought refuge with adults, and there was a tangible atmosphere of fear in the evening mist mixed with the evocative odours of India. The turbaned performer played a rising chord on the pipe, and from the voluminous folds of his robe produced a small brown bundle of fur and released it on to the earth.

Then, to a mesmeric fluting the biting ballet started, the natural beauty of the performance enhancing what was in fact a dance of death. The speed of the orbiting, biting snake, the spitting patterned flange-like head. The hypnotic movement was copied by the opponent, while under all the music reflected the action.

The snake rose erect from its coiled base with lightning speed, matched by the mongoose, and without conscious intent all the movements were physically followed by the villagers. Avoiding the fangs of the cobra, the mongoose manoeuvred to the back ot the head of the snake and then switched its body out of the reach of the lethal bite. The dance went on, each mirroring the movement of the other.

Suddenly the pipe screamed, anticipating the final act. The mongoose caught the back of the head of the snake and the villagers breathed a collective sigh of relief as the cobra was quickly dispatched.


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