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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

"Vagrants" and "Vagabonds"


Detail: “A Malabar Shewing tricks with Serpents”
Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E42

As exoticized images of India spread across the globe during the colonial period, Indian holy men increasingly were viewed with disgust. Europeans were especially drawn to ascetics and showmen—such as snake charmers, who could claim both affiliations—in public spaces where they performed fantastic feats or begged for alms. In fact, the number of ascetics performing spectacular austerities for money may have increased in this period. Ascetics not only had become less important for Hindus, who were increasingly turning to bhakti (devotion to a personal god), but they also were identified as criminals and beggars—rather than religious figures—within East India Company territories by British laws. A form of social control, this movement was happening simultaneously against "vagrants" in Britain.

In this dynamic engraving of “A Malabar Shewing tricks with Serpents,” a man from the Malabar Coast swings a writhing serpent above his head while, as the author Johannes Nieuhof described in 1732, charming other snakes to "set themselves upright upon their tails, twist themselves in the most surprising manner, … to the no small terrour of the spectators." Entranced by the performance, Nieuhof was also wary of such "Vagabonds." A century later, the same image reappeared as “Dancing Serpents” at a quarter of the size with hand coloring and no less vitality. Yet the author John Platts dismissively addressed the practice as ubiquitous: "In India there is nothing so common as dancing serpents … From this trick … it is most probable has arisen most of the boasted pretensions which some have made to the charming of serpents."

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