Blog, Blog and News

Women Performers, their Writhing Reptiles and that Wrought Indian Connection – Debanjali Biswas

Please note that this article contains content that may be sensitive to readers with herpetophobia 

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the British public was reportedly enthralled by a snake charmer’s performances. She was“richly attired in picturesque Hindoo costume, toyed with huge snakes, serpents, and boa-constrictors in a manner which held lookers-on spellbound”.[1] Billed as Nala Damajanti – The Hindoo Princess, she performed across fairground shows and carnivals, circus, revue and varieties at little-known as well as prestigious venues such as the Noah’s Ark, the Theatre Royal, and the Palace Theatre in London, Tudor’s Circus in Cambridge,  Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach and Winter Gardens, and more.[2] Nala Damajanti (1861 -?) generated unbridled incredulity by performing with reptiles. She probably trained in menagerie entertainment with the American circus proprietor Adam J. Forepaugh (1831 – 1890), who billed her as an “Indian Snake Charmer” in the advertisements.[3] Her career as a “Hindoo Serpent Charmer” commenced while working with the American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). In the following years,  she drew widespread attraction in the fairground and circus shows, and in the European varieties circuit.[4] In 1885, her performance with pythons at the Madison Square Gardens created a spectacle viewed by thousands.[5] Soon after, she performed at the famed Folies Bergère in Paris. She was one of the many women in this industry who worked exclusively with dangerous reptiles. She was widely known by her stage persona Nala Damajanti, and she identified as an Indian, a Hindoo woman.

Programme for Noah’s Ark, Blackpool Winter Gardens, June 1894; Showtown Collections [used with permission].
“The unequalled sensation of Europe and America” and “Empress of all Hindoo snake-charmers” was said to have arrived from Pondicherry, a settlement governed by the French in India.[6] While simultaneously running advertisements for her shows in which she performed under the pseudonym, as early as 1887, newspaper reports identified her as French. She became involved in a case of misidentification and fraud during which all her valuable property, including eight boa constrictors were confiscated by a bailiff.[7] Fearing loss of her livelihood, she disclosed her real name and nationality. Known as Emilie Poupon, she was once the partner of John Palmer, a ‘ceiling walker’ from whom she learnt the art of snake-charming.[8] When her case was brought to court, she also mentioned her work as a governess with a French family in St. Petersburg, and with Barnum’s circus in America. Through the disclosure, it became apparent that she was neither Hindoo (of Hindu faith), nor from India. But fabulation of an Indian origin as a charade for her professional career continued even after she stormed into the entertainment arenas in Britain.

Nala and Damayanti in exile in the forest. Chromolithograph. Wellcome Collection: 26209i [Public Domain].
The name Nala Damajanti is derived from Hindu mythological tales. They belong to two separate individuals Nala – the king of Nishadhas, and Damayanti, the princess of Vidarbha, later Nala’s queen consort. In the third of the 18 chapters called the Vana Parvaor the Aranyaka – the Book of the Forest in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, star-crossed lovers Nala and Damayanti appear in a segment called Nalopakhyana. Karkotaka, a sagacious serpent plays a role in the transformation of Nala, and through many trials and travail, Nala finds his way back to Damayanti. The myth’s extensive popularity does not however elucidate why a snake-charmer used it as a stage name.[9] Her star text, or the metanarrative that can be stitched beyond her professional performances through ephemeral materials such as newspaper articles, biographies, posters, does not reveal the origin of her stage name, yet.

The implications of selecting such a name in the fairground entertainment and circus industry were manifold, which Poupon and the proprietors may have known when she constructed her new persona when she began working in North America. At the time, display of animals and humans in circus and ethnological congresses reinforced racial and visual norms which corresponded with the expansion of American, British and European empires. Representations of India were constantly played out where performers were hired to perform “traditional” culture such as snake-charming and sword-swallowing for education, entertainment, and consumption.[10] Snake-charmers of Indian subcontinent playing their pipes to rouse a serpent or wearing them across their bodies had fascinated the European eye for ages. While describing Ida Jeffreys, a snake charmer for Barnum & Bailey’s circus who was advertised as a ‘‘Hindoo’’ with supernatural powers, circus historian Janet Davis makes two important points. She notes that racial disguise was a tease when the Euroamerican woman’s “real” identity was “openly masked as she slipped into the meager garb of the fictitious Other”, and, in circus almost all snake charmers were women.[11] “Women of colour (or white women depicting women of colour) were usually portrayed to be human freaks or sexually-charged veiled mysteries”.[12] This melding of essentialised, Orientalist visual representations of race, gender and empire with live performance, reinforced the gaze shaped by imperial powers, but it also complicated the gaze by duping the public, teasing them, making them believe that they travelled from faraway India.

For most of her traceable professional life, Poupon only ever performed with non-venomous serpents – pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors. Her lithe body carried almost 350 pounds of weight at a time. She claimed it is easier to perform with reptiles in cool weather, when they were subdued after being fed, and when they feared her. She even demonstrated holding a large snake by her teeth behind its head as a way of showing superiority.[13] With trepidation and also awe, it should be noted that large-bodied reptiles such as constrictors though not poisonous, possess tremendous power to crush bones, asphyxiate, or injure otherwise. They could also be unpredictable, especially in front of crowds, which makes Poupon’s skills in keeping them tamed, calm, playful and alert while they perform – a tremendous feat. During her performances in London, the correspondent for The Sketch notes the:

“weird and almost supernatural power which Nala Damajanti appears to have over the huge pythons and boa-constrictors with which she so unconcernedly toys, the picturesque costume in which she carries through the performance together with the strange droning sort of chorus which is sung by the orchestra in accompaniment to the music combined to heighten an effect which is distinctly novel and welcome in these days…”. [14]

The interviewer draws a parallel with animal performers like her with the words “…in India, the land of reptiles, the snake charmer is treated with as much reverence as the priest”.[15] The words informed Nala Damajanti’s audience about her competence with reptiles and charm on stage, but did not clarify how many in India held prejudices or feared peoples who kept company of snakes. Moreover, falling back into the star text that was cultivated for her, the same interview reiterates her origin from the French settlement of Pondicherry in the south of India where her father was a wild beast hunter and a menagerist. She also shared the reason why she performed with large reptiles and not green snakes or cobras – she found “little attention was paid by audiences to such small reptiles, however venomous they might be”.[16]

This blogpost is a snippet of a larger historical examination of women performing with ophidians and saurians across multiple sites in Britain. Poupon may have traversed racial identity to become Nala Damajanti, the charmeuse Hindou, but she was not the only one doing that; neither should she be the only one to be lauded for show(wo)manship with dangerous reptiles. While trawling archives, it becomes evident that snake-charming performances in accoutrements and identities from the non-Western world was a time-tested novelty in the fairground and circus circuits. By examining diverse forms of popular culture in nineteenth-twentieth centuries, with a specific focus on women performers and their reptile acts, the project further speculates representations of race, gender, and empire and human-animal relations.

Top image credit: Route Book of P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and the Great London Circus 1885, Milner Library Special Collections [Public Domain].

Dr. Debanjali Biswas received a Early Career Fellowship from the Women’s History Network, 2023-2024, for the project Fallen Through Seams: Traveling Women Performers and Dangerous Animals Acts in Britain (1895-1945). She works interdisciplinarily with social anthropology and theatre, performance, and dance studies.

[1] Morning Post, 27 December 1893, p.2; London Evening Standard, December 27, 1893, p.8.

[2] A snake charmer with similar skills but with the name Nala Damajante is recorded as a ‘Hindoo Snake Charmer” with P.T. Barnum between 1881-1885, and as Nata Damajaute appears with boas at the Circo Teatro de Price, Madrid in 1886.

[3] See Route Book of the Great Forepaugh Show, Circus, Hippodrome and Menagerie Season 1883, p.7, https://digital.library.illinoisstate.edu/digital/collection/p15990coll5/id/1222

[4] See Route Book of P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and the Great London Circus Since the Consolidation Seasons of 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, & 1885, p.6 https://digital.library.illinoisstate.edu/digital/collection/p15990coll5/id/2574

[5] Anon. ‘A woman who charms big snakes: Nala Damajante and her pet pythons – how she tames them’, New York Daily Tribune, March 30, 1885, p.5.

[6] Route Book of P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and the Great London Circus Since the Consolidation Seasons of 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, & 1885.

[7] South Wales Echo – Friday 18 March 1887, p.2

[8] ibid.

[9] See Gopalakrishnan, S. (2018) The Nala-Damayanti Narrative: Reflections in Myth, Poetry and Performance at https://www.sahapedia.org/the-nala-damayanti-narrative-reflections-myth-poetry-and-performance [Accessed on May 15, 2024]; Milman, H, H. (1835) Nala and Damayanti, and other Poems, translated from the Sanscrit. Oxford: D.A. Talboys.

[10] Davis 1993, p.121.

[11] Davis 2002, p.123-124.

[12] Davis 1993, p.127.

[13] New York Daily Tribune, March 30, 1885, p.5

[14] J. M. P. ‘Snakes: A Chat with Nala Damajanti at the Palace Theatre’ The Sketch, April 4, 1894, p.538.

[15]  ibid.

[16] ibid.

References:

Davis, Janet. M. (2002). The Circus Age: Culture & Society under the American big top. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Davis, Janet. M. (1993) Spectacles of South Asia at the American circus, 1890–1940, Visual Anthropology, 6:2, 121-138, DOI: 10.1080/08949468.1993.9966611

Tait, P. (2011). Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.