January 2012
#Performance , 1171 Views
Death’s Well

Byline: Avanish Tiwary
Photographs: Vikas Maurya

5000+ planks of wood, 300+ spectators, 90º from the ground at 80 km/h, and no helmets.

Shagir, 24, from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, says he has no intention of giving up the dangerous profession any time soon.  It’s a Sunday evening in Gurgaon’s Bihari Colony. The din from the vegetable market nearby is all but drowned out by loud-speaker announcements drawing hordes of people towards a fairground, where beyond the huddle at the ticket booth, past the Ferris wheel, the Break Dance, the Topple Tower and other rides, a huge, closed-in structure is attracting its share of the crowd.

From outside, the thing is shaped like an urban water well, the raised kind that appear periodically from between city buildings, but without the stilts, and made of wood: a squat cylinder built with thousands of planks, with the bottom section tapering into the ground beneath.

It is the Maut ka Kuan, the Well of Death, where daredevils ride motorised vehicles around the inside circumference of the walls with such speed they become parallel to the ground.

After buying a ten rupee ticket, I take the makeshift metal staircase to the top of the well and join the 200 plus spectators on the platforms that stretch around its upper edges. A circular metal railing about five feet high keeps the spectators from falling in.

To great cheers from the crowd, three performers appear through a removable wooden panel in the lower wall. They stand in the middle of the circular, earthen space, lit by a 200 watt tungsten bulb attached to the top of a rusty metal pole, and wave to the audience as if they were theatre actors taking a preemptive bow.

Chhotu, as the performers call him, is a 12-year-old resident of Bihari Colony. He worked for the stunt performers while the Well of Death was at the fairgrounds.

They mount their motorbikes, all tattered Yamahas with chipped paint, multiple dents, and no mudguards or kickstands. They rev the engines, slip quickly out of first gear, and reach the well’s top edge in no time, whizzing by at speeds of 70 to 80 km/hr, just under the feet of the first row of spectators. Some children reach for their mothers’ hands, others hide behind their fathers’ legs. I hear a man who appears to be in his early 20s proclaim, “He is riding as if the bikes have magnets in them.”

The crowd is getting thicker and so is the air, smoky with the scent of burnt petrol. Riders zip around the well with new energy as a new layer of spectators settle in behind those already present. One man at the front bends over the metal railing and holds out a ten-rupee note. Immediately a rider passes, grabs it, and holds the note in his teeth while circling the well. Then I spot another man standing against the railing, holding out not money, but three fingers. Taking the cue from the gesture, the three riders hold hands while circling the well in a synchronized loop for the show’s finale. On the man’s face is a small smile of satisfaction, maybe pride. The man is Mumtaz Ali, 32, the event’s organiser and scion of a daredevil family empire.

“We grew up seeing our father and uncles perform in a Well of Death with thousands of people watching and cheering, some squinting, and others with eyes wide open as if to match their hanging jaws,” says Ali. “They were heroes then, and we always aspired to become like them.”

Ali’s family hails from Kathputli Colony in West Delhi, a neighbourhood historically known as an entertainers’ enclave. “In this [neighbourhood] of more than 2 500 people, almost everyone is an artist and performs at least two to three art forms,” says 45-year-old resident Raju Bhatt, a puppeteer.

There has been talk in recent years about the Delhi Development Authority, under a 2009 slum rehabilitation scheme, relocating the colony filled with puppeteers, magicians, musicians and acrobats to a Faridabad housing complex, and transit camps have been built, but Ali says, “We have not got any notice from the DDA to vacate our houses. They keep saying the government will give a better house to us, but it never happens.”

Ali says his great-grandfather arrived in Kathputli from Uttar Pradesh with only a small tent to shelter his family. Today, the colony is mainly a cluster of tiny mud houses separated by narrow lanes, making the Ali family’s three-storey home starkly distinguishable from its surroundings. The carnival life, and the Well of Death, have been good to them.

“Throughout my childhood,” says Ali, “the only thing I heard people talking about in my family was the Well of Death. It also, in a way, binds our family together and this is the reason ours is a joint family where four generations of people live together.”

At least indirectly, the Well of Death entered Mumtaz Ali’s family via fairground in Coney Island, New York, where the structure was first revealed to the fair-going public in 1900. The idea has since spread to fairs and carnivals around the world, and when Ali’s grandfather saw one in Pakistan during a trip with friends in the 1960s, he was filled with excitement at the thought of doing something similar in India.

Following in the family tradition, Ali started doing shows at age 14, riding the Well of Death with his two brothers. He quit performing when he got married at 18, and since then he’s been occupied with the managerial side of things. He claims he’s never fallen or been injured during his days riding the Well of Death, but he is all too aware of the risks involved. After seeing so many other casualties– like his childhood neighbour, 27-year-old Raj Khan, who fractured both his legs, had them re-set with iron rods and took over a year to fully recover – Ali decided his sons will not be following him on that part of his life path. He does, however, want them to learn the business side of things in order to keep the family legacy going.“There is no shortage of performers in India,” says Ali. “There are plenty like us in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. So whenever there is a show we hire them instead of letting our sons perform.”

Ali’s nephew, Kamal Khan, 28, has reduced the frequency of his performances and only rides the Well of Death when he wants to. “Although there is no age bar in this artform, we generally withdraw ourselves from performing after getting married,” says Khan, who performed full-time from the age of 15 until taking his nuptial vows at 21.

But not all riders have the privilege of early retirement, or even to be selective about when they perform. Mohammed Shagir, known as Pappu among his friends, is one who doesn’t have Ali or Kamal’s luxury of choice. When the work is available – sometimes with two or three months of waiting between fairs – Shagir is hired by Ali on a contract basis, earning anywhere between Rs 10 000 to 20 000 per show.

Once they get out on the road, living conditions can go from basic to dismal. At the Bihari Colony fair, a small area adjacent to the outer side of the well houses the stunt riders as well as other fairground staff. Almost every day, after the show, the ten or 12 of them all get drunk and pass out, oblivious to where they are sleeping. And all the better: they sleep on two cramped, foldable wooden beds that they push together beneath a makeshift tarpaulin tent.

One rider, Sameer, who was earlier a car mechanic, tells me “there were times when I had to sleep inside the well as there was no place and it looked more spacious.” Before I witness him speeding around the Well of Death with the two other riders, Shagir, already a 12-year veteran in the Well of Death at age 24, begins his pre-show preparations in the same area he and the other riders sleep. It can’t be called a backstage area, because the spectators have a full view as they approach the well. Nonetheless, Shagir holds a mirror in one hand and combs his hair back with the other. He then rests the mirror on a pile of suitcases and dabs some fairness cream onto his face.

I’m reminded of what a Kathputli resident who grew up next to the Ali home, Eerfan Khan, said about watching Mumtaz Ali and his brother, Ishag, perform during his childhood: “I started travelling with them to shows and observed the crowd. After each performance, Ishag and Mumtaz used to be thronged by their female spectators for autographs and sometimes they even asked for their phone numbers.”

For these daredevils, there is no real hierarchy, and no sense of one-upmanship. The only gauge by which they judge each other is how many women ask for their autographs or phone numbers. “I feel special when a young woman asks me to sign an autograph,” says Raj Khan, since recovered from his year-plus convalescence. “If I were a little taller, I would have had many girlfriends.”

Farman Ali, 26, began his stunt in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, at the age of 16.

As to how many of these phone numbers from female admirers lead to sex, all the riders I meet are too shy to discuss whether there is ever any later pay-off. Hair slicked and face-tone tempered, Shagir continues his pre-performance rituals by touching Mumtaz Ali’s feet, part of Shagir’s belief that before you start any important work, the elder’s blessing is imperative. He also has a kind of totem – a backpack.

“I have never had an accident since I started carrying my bag,” he says, “which is always empty.” Before Shagir began incorporating his good-luck charm into his performance, he’d had three major accidents. His most excruciating experience was when he lost his balance during a show in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and fell 30 feet with his bike. “Both my arms were dislocated and a stone went straight into my right eye,” he remembers. “After that I could not do shows for six months, which is the longest break I have taken since I started doing this.”

Serious injuries become more likely as the performers push the limits of their bodies and their machines in order to keep the audience entertained. In this regard, more than a ladies’ man, a sex symbol, or even a stuntman, Shagir considers himself an artist.

“If we just ride the bike along the wall, the public gets bored after a point and starts demanding more,” he says. “So we do all kind of stunts. We sit, lie and stand on the bike, keep our legs sideways, hold the other performer’s hand, take gifts and money from the audience while circling around the well. During the show we always make sure that we make eye contact with the audience and always keep a smiling face. As artists we need to interact with the audience, even if it’s just through our eyes.”

In the average well, constructed with more than 5 000 wooden planks installed by anywhere between 20 to 30 people and costing up to Rs 2 lakh, the riders also communicate with each other through various visual cues. A wink means the other rider should slow down and let the other go ahead; moving a palm like a snake once they’ve taken a few warm-up laps indicates that it’s time to start with the stunts.

They learn these methods during their training over a period of four to six months in places like Ballabgarh, Azamgarh or Sharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where they are taught by trainers like Mumtaz Ali, Hajji Meherwan, Aslam Ji, and other old stunt hands how to master the art of riding bikes, as well as cars, inside the well.

Despite the dangerous nature of their work, however, none of the riders I speak with are covered by medical insurance. When I ask Ali about this, he mumbles something to the effect that some of the performers who work with him long-term are insured, but it’s clearly a subject he’d rather avoid.

Still, insured against injury or not, there is no lack of willing performers. Many riders say the real concern about their safety comes from their parents, who nag them to do something else with their lives.

“I never went to school as there was always a pressure from home to earn,” says Shagir. “The easiest and the only thing which interested me was this and I intend to keep doing this, however dangerous it may be.”

Shagir is hesitant about visiting his family home in Bareilly. He never tells his parents, both in their mid- 50s, if he has a bike accident and gets injured. He simply prolongs his rare visits until his wounds are healed. He fears that once he’s there, his parents won’t allow him to leave again, and this fear is not baseless.

“Once my mother saw a small stitch on my leg and panicked,” he says. “She tied my hands and legs and locked me in my room for two days. She let me out only after the date of the show was over.”

The performers’ parents aren’t the only ones with concerns about safety. The Delhi High Court banned the Well of Death from being set up in the capital in October last year.

“The Delhi crowd was good and came in huge numbers,” says Ali, outside his Well of Death in Bihari Colony, Gurgaon, as close as he’s going to get to performing in Delhi for the foreseeable future, “but after this ban our cost has increased, making a dent in our profit.”

He scoffs at the assertion that these performances can be fatal and more precautions are needed, such as performers being required to wear helmets. “Accidents happen every day on Delhi roads and trains collide every now and then. Will the government ban trains and riding vehicles on the road?”

Ali, Shagir & co. may be considered reckless, but they echo the sentiments of many others in the trade when they say they can’t picture themselves doing anything else. Ali is also frustrated at losing profitable performance venues in Delhi due to the government order, to the point where he says he’s now contemplating installing kiddie rides like mini- Ferris wheels outside shopping malls in Delhi, which would be an ignominious end to his family’s legacy.

Shagir’s neighbours, he says, are also always coaxing his parents to persuade him into another line of work. “They are a pain,” he chuckles, “but the kids wait for me to come, and whenever I visit my house, they are the first ones to hug me.”

I think I can detect a bit of pride through his easy laughter. “For their kids,” he says, “I am a superstar.