On a hot and sultry evening in May, accompanied by a friend, I visited the Nauchandi fair in Meerut—a month-long annual fair with music programmes, poetry recitations, performance arts, and stalls for food and handicraft.
Held inside a roughly ten-acre ground, the carnival often sees massive crowds. But one particular area was exceptionally thronged, with people lining up in rows to get inside a tall cylindrical structure of colourful wooden planks, precariously held together by aging iron rods. Tickets were being sold from a makeshift loft attached to the structure: Rs 40 for a half-hour show. Two people sat on the loft—one of them handed out tickets in exchange for cash, while the other carried a portable microphone-speaker. “Aao aur dekho maut ka manzar!” (Come and see the scene of death!) he roared into the microphone in a nasal voice. “Jaan ki bazi lagayenge maut ke kuen ke kalakar apke manoranjan ke liye” (The well of death artists will put their lives on the line for your entertainment).
Maut ka kuan, or the well of death, is a popular offering at most carnivals in small-town India. It involves motorcyclists and car drivers riding along the vertical wooden walls of the cylinder, while performing an array of dangerous, often life-threatening stunts. Most performers are motor-mechanics from small cities, who undergo years of training before they can perform stunts with a maut ka kuan troupe. While some see it as a way to make a quick buck, many performers I spoke to said they had gained a lot more from this rather unusual profession.
I bought tickets and climbed a shaky staircase to reach a viewing gallery. The place was jam-packed, and people were jostling for space and for a view. The railing on the gallery was only knee-high. Below the railing were wooden planks that fell approximately 12 metres at 180 degrees.
A man of wiry build started the show on a silver Royal Enfield Bullet Electra. In no time, he was going around in circular motion at the top edge of the well, wearing no protection. Jaws dropped, the crowd roared and cheered. He waved to the audience with a casual arrogance, as he increased his speed.
Even as the Royal Enfield went in circles, the kuan began to echo with another sound. Down below, three performers were revving up the engines of their silencer-less Yamaha RX 100 motorcycles in unison. They climbed up the kuan one-by-one and within seconds joined their leader on the top edge, taking rounds one behind the other. The kuan started to shake violently. A bolt, which connected the iron sheet that I stood on, was moving in and out of its socket. A child somewhere started crying. My friend gasped for breath as she turned her head away from the kuan. She held on to the wobbly structure with both hands, and screamed a round of expletives at me for bringing her to this place which was literally, she said, a maut ka kuan.
The artists displayed little by way of concern. Having settled into their orbit, they were now entertaining the audience with tricks. Some members of the audience held out currency notes between their fingers, and the artists sprang up from their seats and grabbed the notes as they sped past. When a currency note eluded the grasp of a performer on a Yamaha, he even tried to ride downwards as it fell, to try and catch it. He did not succeed, but the attempt itself was remarkable.
The men on bikes were displaying tricks that would be audacious even on the ground. They let go of their bikes’ handles, stood up on their foot pedals, put both their feet up onto the speedometers and laid down on their backs, put both their feet on one side of their bikes with arms casually folded. Then, they lined up next to each other and rode with arms around each other’s shoulders.
The bikers gradually descended by reducing their speed and moving in a downward spiral, before touching down. Soon, part two of the performance was underway, featuring four battered and bruised Maruti 800s. The crowd roared and cheered as the performers hung out of the cars, steering with their feet, waving at the crowd.
After the performance, I spoke to Mohammad Salim, who has been performing in the maut ka kuan for 17 years. “Here, we feel respected,” he told me. “Important people like police officers, who would otherwise not spare a moment for us, come to meet us. Here we are important.”
Now 34 years old, Salim grew up in Meerut and watched a performance at the Nauchandi fair when he was 14 years old. He immediately knew that he wanted to be a part of a maut ka kuan troupe. He started hanging around the performers, and was assigned the tasks of selling tickets, putting together the structure, and cleaning and repairing the vehicles. Over the course of the next three years, the performers trained him to do stunts.
The laws of physics make the stunts possible. A combination of centripetal, centrifugal and frictional forces acts on bodies in circular motion, making the vehicles stick to the walls instead of falling off, provided they maintain a minimum velocity. The vehicles are modified to lock the accelerators and throttles, so that the speed will not decrease even if the rider, or driver, lets go of the throttle or accelerator.
The Yamaha RX 100s and Maruti 800s are perfect for the maut ka kuan, Salim told me, as they are lightweight. “No other car or bike is successful in the kuan,” he said. “Unless the rider is incredibly talented, like Ustaad.”
By “Ustaad,” he meant Shakir Hussain, who had ridden the Royal Enfield in the kuan. All the troupe members call Hussain “Ustaad,” for they were all trained by him. I talked to Hussain just a few minutes before his next performance. He was inside the kuan, replacing some broken wooden planks. He told me there was no special talent needed to ride a Royal Enfield instead of a Yamaha. “You just need to be a little stronger to be able to balance the heavier Bullet,” he said, hammering nails into the wood with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Hussain began performing in 1989, when he was 20 years old. “I got a kick out of taking risks,” he told me. “I used to do stunts on the road and realised that I have a talent for it. Maut ka kuan was a way to monetise that talent.” When he started, he would earn Rs 15,000 a month from such shows. Now, he makes about Rs 40,000, with an additional Rs 10,000 or Rs 15,000 in tips. He, like all other troupe members, is the sole breadwinner for a large family, and gets to perform at five or six fairs a year.
Hussain has had his share of accidents. While performing in Assam in 2008, his bike’s tyre got punctured and he fell, fracturing his right leg. A six-inch metal plate had to be put in, and Hussain was bedridden for 18 months. But he got back inside the kuan as soon as he recovered. “I had to do it. I have no other talent. I do it for the money now,” he told me as he mounted the Royal Enfield and wrapped a red bandana around his head.
He whistled loudly with both his hands in his mouth. The lights inside the kuan were switched on, and all the troupe members entered the kuan, sat on their bikes and waited for Hussain’s signal.
As Hussain sat atop his bike, his right foot tapped the lightly watered mud beneath him, and his right wrist rotated the bike’s throttle. With his eyes set on the revolutions-per-minute meter, he revved up the engine with short pumps at first. In the meantime, people had started gathering in the viewing gallery. He looked up. As the crowd got bigger, the movement of his wrist got more pronounced. The revs of the engine got longer, and the characteristic Royal Enfield thump got louder.