Gifted raconteurs I’ve met aplenty, but few as gifted as Aslam, the young Kalandar from Chorbhatti, Chhattisgarh. When he started telling me the story of his childhood, a sizeable crowd of people who had probably heard them a hundred times earlier, gathered. They laughed when he cracked a joke, clapped appreciatively when he mimicked someone. As for me, his intended audience, as soon as I suspended my disbelief, I found myself drawn into the world of bear dancing seen through the eyes of a child who grew up amongst it all.
“What I remember from my childhood is that my father, a well-known Kalandar, treated his bear just like he treated us,” said Aslam. “When the bear came to us, he was too small to eat. So, father used to feed him milk from a baby bottle. Even when he was older, if he refused a meal, my father would try and entice him with all his favourite foods.” The bear cub would be tied next to the family at night, so that he won’t have to sleep alone. As Aslam’s family spent most of its time on the road, camping wherever they were allowed to with their bear all over Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar, the boundaries between man and beast blurred further. “The bear was our livelihood, and we knew, that without us, he won’t survive either. So, we both took care of one another,” said he.
As a child, Aslam was well known for his own performances with his bear. Watching him leap and bound, mimic and act out incidents from his past, I could see he hadn’t lost his touch. “I’d stand facing the bear, my palms against his paws in the classic wrestling position. The crowd would ooh and aah thinking how dangerous it all was!” he said, showing me the staged holds and moves he used to perform. It wasn’t dangerous at all, for the bear was like a trained pet. Aslam and his brothers would watch starry-eyed as their father and trained their bears to do amazing feats. “Our bear could also imitate the stagger of a drunken man, the sway of a beautiful girl and a solemnity of a bridegroom with equal ease,” he said proudly.
Life on the road was exciting but fraught with difficulties. It meant that Aslam and his elder brothers couldn’t ever go to school. They acquired two more bears. Now the growing family moved together, camping in a central spot from where Aslam, his brother and father could take their bears to separate villages. “Although we were often reviled as criminals by villagers and the police, the living was good. We’d get paid in cash and kind. I’d eat two eggs a day and meat on every meal,” he said.
But their bear-dancing days were numbered. Seven years ago, when Aslam and his father were approached by activists from Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA), they were among the first to give up the sources of their livelihoods — their bears. WTI and WSPA offered them alternative employment avenues and Aslam, the one-time bear wrestler, managed to buy an auto. “Now that we’re settled in Chorbhatti, my children and younger siblings can go to school. We have farms and a fixed income. This is a much more respectable life to bring up our children in,” he said. But the glint in his eyes and the smiling appreciation from his audience when he spoke of his bear-dancing feats, told me that these Kalandars’ bear-dancing days were history — but history does have a way of repeating itself.