Dancing Bears: Background information when reading A State of Freedom

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A State of Freedom

by Neel Mukherjee

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee X
A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 304 pages
    Feb 2019, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

Dancing Bears

This article relates to A State of Freedom

Print Review

The third section of Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom follows Lakshman, a young father taking care of two families in the slums of India. When one day Lakshman stumbles upon a stray bear cub wandering about the streets, he sees the animal as his golden ticket to earning a fortune by starting a dancing bear routine.

Dancing bears were a popular animal attraction throughout Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages up until the nineteenth century. The act was also commonplace in various countries of the Indian subcontinent for centuries, and until fairly recently plenty of bear handlers made a living solely from this act.

The process of training a dancing bear usually began while the animal was still a cub. These cubs were typically stolen from nearby forests with poachers killing the mother bear to be able to safely get the cubs. In order to train a bear to perform, bear handlers—known in India as qalandars—took precautions to safeguard themselves from being mauled to death as the bear grew stronger. Several men would hold the animal down in order to rip out its claws and use an iron bar to break off its still developing canine teeth. Additional acts of cruelty and training lead to the bear rising up onto its hind legs and standing human-like. As the training continued, the handlers would also force the bear to stand on hot coals in order to "teach" the animal how to hop from one foot to another as though it is dancing. The bear would also commonly be whipped into submission.

In India, rescued bears are usually taken to sanctuaries such as the Wildlife SOS in Agra. Established in 1995, this was the first sanctuary of its kind in the country to specifically cater to confiscated bears and give them a place to receive specialist veterinary care and recuperate (the facility also welcomes other wild rescue animals). Since then hundreds of other bears have been rescued, with more facilities opened in Bannerghatta (in Bengaluru), and Bhopal. Within the facilities, these rescued dancing bears are given plenty of help and opportunity to live as free as possible within specially forested enclosures. Unfortunately, while these animals do become healthier and happier as time passes, they can never reach a stage where they can be returned to the wild.

Just as importantly, the qalandars are also offered a rehabilitation package, which gives these individuals the opportunity to learn new trades such as carpet weaving and training on welding machines.

Thanks to a growing awareness and increased promotion of animal rights, and also probably due to a greater influx of new technology to keep people entertained, the dancing bear act became less popular in the twentieth century. The practice was made illegal in India in 1972. That said, they remained popular tourist attractions, especially within India, until the 2000s, with even some sightings in Europe. In December 2009, history was made as several Indian governmental ministries with the assistance of many international wildlife associations, finally took the last dancing bear off the streets of India. This brought a centuries-old tradition that inflicted terrible cruelty on thousands of bears to an end.

For more about dancing bears in India, click on the video below. Warning: The video is not for sensitive readers.

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Dean Muscat

This "beyond the book article" relates to A State of Freedom. It originally ran in February 2018 and has been updated for the February 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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