The Motorcycle Diaries

As the sun goes down and neon lights come on, in melas across country, a small community of men and women take their lives into their hands. As the death of one of them in Odisha makes it to the Internet, and leads to arrests, The Indian Express goes looking for a Maut ka Kuan

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | Updated: June 4, 2017 9:26 am
maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death Sagar Hussain doing his routine, which includes a ‘naagin (snake)’ stunt that makes the audience gasp. Oinam Anand

Wednesday, 9 pm

In the next 15 minutes, say Raja ‘Badnaam’ Aayub, Guddu Gulfam and Sagar Hussain, they could “die”. But tonight, once more, they are willing to gamble with their lives; it’s a chance, they say, they have been taking for 20 years. “Iss khel ke liye jigra chahiye… Waise marr to insaan kahin bhi sakta hai (You need guts to perform these stunts… As it is, a man can die anywhere),” smiles 40-year-old Gulfam.

The ‘Maruti Circus’ gallery at Meerut’s Nauchandi Mela grounds is teeming with people, and as ‘chalis rupaye ka ticket (Rs 40 for a ticket)’ announcements compete for attention with Mohammad Rafi-Lata Mangeshkar songs, the three men get into gear for one of their last shows in the city.

Aayub dons a button-down white shirt and distressed jeans. His hair and beard are neatly gelled; the knee-cap and hand supporters, meant for safety, are given a miss. Hussain opts for a ‘Work Hard Dream Big’ T-shirt and a bandana instead of the ‘mandatory’ helmet. Gulfam has on just a checked shirt; no shields, no guards.

One by one they get onto their neon-lit, creaky, second-hand Yamaha bikes and a Bullet, crank up the engine, get into a near-vertical wooden structure, and begin.

Aayub, Gulfam and Hussain are artistes of the Well of Death. Or, as it is known across the neon-lit, generator-fuelled melas that light up many a bleak night in India’s small towns, ‘Maut ka Kuan’. For Rs 600 a day, for the next four hours, they will mock gravity and defy death.

Only, it often doesn’t end well. In May this year, biker Jitu Singh was killed during a show in Jeypore in Odisha’s Koraput district. Singh, who belonged to Madhya Pradesh, wasn’t wearing any protective gear and was crushed by a car racing along with him in the silodrome. Officials reacted only after the video of the incident popped up on social media. The organiser of the show and the car driver were arrested, and it was later found that the driving licences of the performers had expired.

In 2011, the Delhi High Court banned Maut ka Kuan shows in the Capital, while hearing a petition filed by mela organiser Dalbir Malik. “There are chances of the vehicles falling inside the well resulting in explosion which is dangerous to the life of spectators as well as the rider. The Motor Cycle/Car (engines) used in such performances are modified which make a lot of noise pollution,” the court observed.

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death Raja Aayub, who got iron rod implants in both his legs after an accident during a show, collects tips, mostly Rs 10 notes, while riding at full speed. Oinam Anand

Still, since they became a part of melas in India over 50-60 years ago (as per most estimates), there is a rare fete that doesn’t feature a Maut ka Kuan, including those government-run. The sport is witnessing a resurgence of sorts because of the Internet; a Maut ka Kuan search on YouTube throws up nearly 30,000 results.

UP sees about 60 government melas a year, handled by either the zilla panchayat, the municipal corporation or the district administration. Contractors are selected through tender or auction to set up stalls and shows such as Maut ka Kuan, or to provide services such as parking and cleaning.

“This year the Nauchandi Mela was organised by the zilla panchayat and the contractors were selected through an auction in March. The total budget was Rs 1.34 crore and we earned Rs 25 lakh from the fair,” says Shishu Pal Sharma, the additional chief executive officer of Meerut zilla panchayat.

During the mela, the district entertainment tax department also collects daily taxes amounting to 25 per cent of the contractors’ earnings through its manoranjan adhikaris (entertainment officers).

Officials acknowledge the dangers inherent in Maut ka Kuan, but admit there is no official record of the number of accidents or deaths during it.

Tonight too, there is little sign of the government on the Nauchandi grounds, as men, women and small children clamber on to the shaky metal platform of the Maut ka Kuan to watch the best show in town.

One of the first to arrive, with his wife who has dressed up for the occasion and his son, a 35-year-old says he has been coming to the mela for a decade. “I have been bringing my 5-year-old for the past two years.”

Entering the silodrome, Aayub, 42, admits he saw the video of Jitu Singh’s crash. “I knew him. We were chelas (students) of the same guru. I had performed with him in Maharashtra and West Bengal.”

Hussain, 45, is more stoic. “Ye magic show nahin, reality hai (This is not a magic show, it’s reality). Accidents and deaths are a part of the job,” he says, before guiding his bike onto the well’s wooden planks, flinging his hands in a ‘Superman’ pose, and grinning at the audience’s attention.

They won’t look away for the next 15 minutes.

Wednesday, 2 pm

Under the harsh afternoon sun, the Nauchandi Mela ground, spread over 4.5 sq km, lies lifeless. There is little activity in the over thousand stalls set up by tradesmen from across Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

At the Well of Death stall near Gate No. 4, Aayub, Gulfam, Hussain and fellow stunt artiste Raju (45) are waking up after an exhausting night. Dressed in worn-out pyjamas and T-shirts, the group spent the night on a cot under the audio platform, a water-cooler their only respite from the heat.

Raju’s guru Haji Meherbaan is one of the oldest veterans of the trade. Speaking on the phone from Saharanpur, the 70-something Meherbaan claims to have been the first to organise a Maut ka Kuan show in India, in the late 1960s. He had seen the stunt for the first time during a trip to Lahore, Pakistan, a few years earlier, he says.

“I got a few people from the village and dug a well. We lined it with bricks. We used cycles for the stunts, and fell quite often. But in no time we began taking the show to melas across the country,” he says.

“Most boys begin their training riding with their gurus while performing stunts. Only when they learn to balance their bodies and vehicles against the wall, the training is complete,” says Meherbaan, adding that an artiste must maintain a speed of 60 kmph in the silodrome, to avoid falling.

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death Stunt artiste Guddu Gulfam’s announcements compete for attention with Mohammad Rafi-Lata Mangeshkar songs. Oinam Anand

While there are no official numbers, Meherbaan says there are approximately 500 such performers across India — mostly hailing from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh — and around 20-25 Maut ka Kuan organisers. As the mela travels, they stay in touch over the phone.

However, Meherbaan is unhappy about the “little art” left in the field. “It is only about competition and doing dangerous stunts. Hum zyaada rachnatmak the (We were more creative).”

Of his 24 children, which his four wives have borne him, only one is a stunt artiste.

Shiv Narayan, 70, a veteran Well of Death artiste who has come to Meerut to see tonight’s performance, agrees with Meherbaan. “In my time we would connect a wooden plank to the well from outside. We would ride our bike on it and then land into the well, literally flying. These boys just keep adding more cars and bikes, which only makes things more dangerous,” says Narayan, who lost hearing in one ear in an accident during a show.

Still talking about his performance days, the veteran pulls out a stack of old black-and-white photos from his bag, pointing to him being awarded for a stunt in Moradabad. “I got the first prize,” he beams.

Raju says he “doesn’t know of a world beyond the Well of Death”. His wife Shameem is a stunt artiste too and he met her at a mela 25 years ago. Now all his three sons — ages 19, 18, and 16 — are Well of Death performers.

Aayub, who ran away from home to join a Maut ka Kuan, however, has kept his sons away from it. “I was around 13 when I saw my first show. I was enamoured and decided to join the industry. But my father got very angry, so I ran away from home,” says Aayub, who hails from UP’s Saharanpur and studied till Class 5.

“I trained with my guru for two years in Muzaffarnagar and by the age of 15 I was doing most of the stunts. Since I ran away from home, some boys gave me the middle name ‘Badnaam (infamous)’,” recalls Aayub.

Like Raju, he met his wife during a performance in Moradabad. “Achchi lagi, love marriage kar li (I liked her, we got married),” he says. He was 20 then.

Aayub has six children, the eldest of them 16. They stay with their mother in Saharanpur. “They are all studying,” he says.

Around 10 years ago, Aayub survived a major accident while in the well, at Phulpur in Allahabad. “I was collecting tips from the audience while taking rounds at high speed. Suddenly, my bike’s tyre burst… Half my face was smashed and both my legs broke. I have iron-rod implants in my legs and stitches all over my body. I took a break of six months, but that was it. I had to go back. I have no other skill. I don’t want my children to work in this field, so I have to.”

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death Petrol and oil being filled in a second-hand Yamaha RX 135 bike, a Maut ka Kuan staple. Oinam Anand

Listening to their talk from outside one of the three makeshift rooms set up for the performers and their families, Raju’s wife Shameem admits she resents being relegated to this domestic role, of a wife and mother. “Hearing the sound of these silencer-free bikes, I just want to rush into the well),” she smiles.

Far from a male preserve, Well of Death has many women drivers; Shameem says there are around 20 in the circuit now. Fiddling with her dupatta, the 42-year-old talks about seeing her first Maut ka Kuan during a Mumbai trip for a wedding, as a 12-year-old. “My father had a tea-stall in Muzaffarnagar then. He got me a bike on rent. After learning to ride the bike, I moved to Rampur and trained under a guru.”

Marriage and children slowed her down, but the final blow came a few years ago when the engine of her bike failed during a show in Aligarh. “I fell and my head split into two. I got 18 stitches and didn’t leave the bed for months. It’s a miracle I am still alive. I tried making a comeback several times after that, but heights make me dizzy now.” Shameem admits her decision to quit though made her in-laws happy.

Once in a while, the 42-year-old smiles, she still takes a bike for a spin around the well. Her favourite stunt used to be standing on a bike and waving to the audience.

She can still hear the cheers.

Wednesday, 5 pm

The Meerut zilla panchayat shortlisted five organisers for the Nauchandi Mela after an auction. Abhishek Verma, 44, who has been in the business for 12 years, was selected for setting up the ‘joyrides’, a total of seven, including the Maut ka Kuan.

Each of Verma’s Well of Death teams has around 40 people, apart from labourers hired locally to erect the well. The material for the well is transported by trucks to the mela grounds, and it takes four-five days to assemble it. “All the material is detachable. First the barrel-shaped iron frame is set up, which is then lined with four-five rows of wooden planks. The first row touching the ground is at a 60-degree slant, and as one goes higher, it is nearly 90 degrees to the ground,” says Verma. The silodrome is 25-30 ft in diameter and 35 ft high.

Zahir Hasan, 20, is the ‘foreman’ for this mela’s Maut Ka Kuan. His job involves checking the bolts and nuts of the well, getting the wooden planks repaired in case any got broken during the previous night’s performance and handling labourers.

“I also ensure that the (cooks) prepare meals on time,” he says. “They serve dahi-jalebi, poori-sabzi… Biryani to Yogiji ne band karva di (UP CM Yogi Adityanath has stopped our biryani),” he smiles.

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death Children begin lining up at the mela’s only Maut ka Kuan stall after 7 pm. Oinam Anand

The organisers own the vehicles that are part of the shows, mostly bought in second-hand sales in UP and Bihar. Each kuan has at least four Yamaha RX 135 or RX 100 motorcycles, which are no longer available in the market, and four Maruti 800 cars. The owners say they look for “good pick-up” while buying the vehicles. Later, to make them viable for stunts, mechanics are hired from the city the mela is being held in.

Though the vehicle is not tinkered with much, their silencers are removed for maximum noise, and hence impact.

Wear and tear mean the engine and tyres have to be changed every three months. The cost for this for four bikes and four cars comes to Rs 1.5 lakh. The vehicles consume about10 litres of petrol in a night that can have up to four-five shows.

Verma says he must get seven-eight clearances for setting up the show, from municipal, fire, electricity, traffic and police officials, and had to pay the zilla panchayat Rs 40 lakh in advance for the rights, as well as a quarter of the daily earnings. “It is not really a profitable business. It takes about Rs 70 lakh for the entire set-up. We make anything between Rs 1-1.5 lakh a day, and most melas last for about a month.”

However, Maut ka Kuan would never go out of business, he says, sitting in an air-conditioned tent on the Nauchandi Mela ground. After all, only two things light up a fair, says the mela organiser — the giant wheel (Ferris Wheel) and the Maut ka Kuan. “The audience, especially children, come only for these two things.”

“There are about 400 wells in India. Most of the artistes know the schedule of the melas — like after Meerut we go to Moradabad, then Bijnor — and they call me, or the other maaliks, if they want to perform,” Verma says.

The artistes perform in around eight melas a year, mostly the ones organised by the government, travelling eight months in a year. Adds Aayub: “We have also performed in Nepal, Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya. It is because of this profession that we got to see these places.”

Raju says earlier competition between Maut ka Kuan shows at a mela added to the pressure. “Till three years ago even this mela had four-five Maut ka Kuan stalls. To beat competition, we would keep increasing the number of bikes and cars… Fortunately, that is not the case this year.”

The artistes are pleased at the attention brought on by YouTube and Facebook, but say it has had little impact on their lives. “We are still doing the same thing. Earlier we were paid Rs 1,800 a month and now we get daily wages of Rs 600,” says Gulfam.

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death “Two things light up a mela — the giant wheel (Ferris Wheel) and the Maut ka Kuan. The audience, especially children, come only for these two things,” says organiser Abhishek Verma. Oinam Anand

Verma admits the danger in the sport. “While one hears of deaths once every few years, accidents are common through the year. These are mostly bike-related. In my entire career I have only seen one car accident, in 2007 in Moradabad… Bike and car accidents happen on the road as well, can you ban them there?” he says.

Complaining against the Delhi HC order banning Well of Death in the Capital on these grounds, he adds, “We have lost a lot of money since. Revenues earned in the Capital were much higher.”

Meerut zilla panchayat official Sharma says they take all the precautions from their side. “We ensure that PWD officials check the set-up everyday and that the organisers also furnish a certificate from a government ITI to establish that the well is sturdy. But yes, even then there are risks.”

Wednesday, 7 pm

As the sun sinks lower, the Nauchandi Mela begins to come alive. The air is now a concoction of the warm, sweet smell of halwa-paratha (a local delicacy) and burnt diesel, emanating from the generators powering the stalls. From the mela’s audio room, an aarti rings out to mark the start of proceedings, followed by patriotic songs such as Manoj Kumar’s Mere desh ki dharti.

Soon, the Ferris Wheel, the ‘Columbus Boat’, the Bumper Cars, the ‘Electric Boat’, the ‘Dragon Ride’, are in motion.

At the Maut Ka Kuan or Maruti Circus stall — as it is called in this mela — it is all business now. Raju sets up the audio equipment and fixes the lighting, Gulfam and a few other artistes fill petrol and oil in the vehicles from a plastic can, while Hasan checks them for punctures. A few labourers wipe the vehicles with a wet cloth.

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death The artistes with veteran stunt man Shiv Narayan (middle) inside the well. Oinam Anand

His audio and light duties done, Raju parks himself on a chair on an elevated platform and begins the first round of announcements. He is not performing tonight. “Hone lagi taiyaariyan… Aaj shaam ka pehla Maruti Circus khel… Booking counter khul gaya hai (The preparations are done. The first Maruti Circus show is about to begin, booking counter is open),” he calls out.

A few local teenagers, who have been hired by the organiser, sell Rs 40 tickets outside the stall. The business seems slow this evening. The ‘Globe Show’ next door — where two men ride bikes inside a globe-like structure — is drawing more people.

To lure more spectators, one of the artistes brings his neon-lit bike out and revs up the engine. The sputtering sound draws attention to the stall, and in the next hour, the queue gets longer. Mothers with children — some by their side, others in their arms — teenagers and scores of senior citizens climb on to the winding metal stairs and place themselves above the kuan. There are no seats, everyone leans on the railing, some peer into the well.

A little after 9 pm, the stars of tonight’s show — Aayub, Gulfam, Hussain — and five others make their entry into the Well of Death, all smiles and waves.

As they zip around the well, not many cheer. Some just gasp, others watch through their phone video cameras; a child lets out a squeal as the iron structure trembles from the pounding from the automobiles.

After the namaaz pose, Superman pose, waving pose, and thinking pose, that he does along with Aayub, Hussain presents his famous ‘naagin (snake)’ stunt. As he sways his bike, many children shut their eyes. At one point, Aayub and Hassan come parallel to each other and hold hands.

That is when the tips begin to come out, mostly Rs 10 notes. The two stretch their arms out and grab the notes, holding them between their teeth for the rest of the show.

maut ka kuan, maut ka kuan circus, well of death Women are as much a part of this world, and Shameem, whose head once split into two after an accident, still wishes she could go back. Oinam Anand

Seven minutes in, the Maruti 800s make their way up the planks. Gulfam is one of the drivers. As the risk quotient rises, so does the applause. Gulfam leans out of the car window, manoeuvering the steering with his knee, setting the crowd up for his defining stunt — it has him sitting on the car bonnet and reaching behind to manage the steering.

Soon, another car joins the show, and then another, and the bikes come back too. They all hold hands, criss-cross each others’ paths, before aligning in a horizontal line. It was during a similar stunt in Odisha that Jitu Singh’s bike hit a Maruti car, leading to his death.

This 15-minute show though wraps up without a hitch. The next show begins in half an hour, and the queues outside have got longer. Four more shows follow.

When it is over, well past midnight, a panting Gulfam seeks some quiet to call up his wife and 5-year-old son. “My family doesn’t travel with me,” he says, lighting up a cigarette. “Every night, I call them to let them know I am safe.”

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