Rubel Sheikh and Anil Khan are driving...but they are nowhere near the ground. They are approximately 20 feet up on an almost perpendicular 80 degree incline. The big crowd at the mela in Agartala is cheering them on. Rubel and Anil reach out of the car windows and wave.
They are performing at a maut-ka-kuan (well-of-death) act – multiple stunts using a car and bikes driven vertically up the ‘wall’ or sides of the stage.
The performances are broken up into 10 minute-long shows, and continue for hours. The arena is a well-like structure made with wooden panels and takes a few days to set up in melas (fairs). Most of the riders are also involved in setting up, the mechanics of the stage being critical to the show and their safety.
Ominously titled as ‘ maut-ka-kuan’, it is one of many attractions at this mela for Durga Puja in October 2023 in Agartala, Tripura. Other attractions include a ferris wheel, merry-go-round, toy-trains.
“We can drive any car on the wall, but prefer the Maruti 800 because the windows are big and it’s easy to get out [during performances],” says stuntman Rubel. He says they also use four Yamaha RX-135 bikes: “We use old bikes but keep them well maintained.”
From Malda, West Bengal, he heads the group and owns the vehicles. Rubel says he has used these same motorcycles for more than 10 years now but, “they get serviced regularly.”
The events draw young boys from rural areas. Describing how he got into this event, Mohammed Jagga Ansari from Jharkhand’s Godda district says, “I used to like it when such fairs came to my town in my childhood,” and so he joined a circus as a young boy, initially helping out with small tasks. “Slowly, I started to learn how to ride,” says the 29-year-old performer, adding, “I like that I get to travel to so many places because of this work.”
Pankaj Kumar, who is from Warisaliganj, a village in Bihar’s Nawada district and also started young: “I left school after Class 10 and started learning to ride.”
Ansari and Pankaj, the other performers and those who construct the area and
stage are from across India and move with the group to different
. They usually stay in tents close
to the fair where they are performing. Some like Rubel and Ansari travel with
their families, while Pankaj goes back home when there is no work.
Work for the maut-ka-kuan begins with setting up the well-like structure. “It takes somewhere between 3-6 days to set it up but this time we didn’t have much time so we had to complete it in three days,” Rubel says, adding that they do it slower if they have the time.
Finally it’s show time and at around 7 p.m. the crowd in Agartala starts lining up to buy tickets – priced at Rs. 70, and free for children. Each performance lasts for 10 minutes with at least four people performing stunts on two cars and two motorcycles. They perform at least 30 times in one night with 15-20 minutes of break in between.
At this mela in Agartala the show became so popular that they extended their performances from five days to an additional two.
“Our daily wage ranges from Rs. 600-700, but what people give us during the show is our primary source of income,” says Ansari. In a good month with many performances, they could earn up to Rs. 25,000.
Rubel points out that the show can’t be held throughout the year: “It is difficult to do this show during the rainy season.” When this work cannot be done, Rubel goes back to his village and farms.
Pankaj brushes off the dangers of this risky performance: “I am not afraid of the risks. There is nothing to be afraid of, if you are not afraid.” The group recollects that there have been no deadly accidents in the time they have worked.
“I love the happiness in the crowd when we perform,”