| Tere Naam in performance. Picture by Jhalak
Rajnagar, May 28: Imagine Shah Rukh Khan prancing to Kajra re under a banyan tree, barefoot and draped in a black fur coat.
Sorry, this is no don’s son’s birthday. It is also not the Bollywood Badshah we are talking about.
Our Shah Rukh is a sloth bear, performing under the leafy banyan tree near Bolpur town because his owner, Sheikh Salman, has chosen the place.
Salman, 32, spreads a square piece of cloth and starts playing the dugdugi (a rattle).
Shah Rukh, tied to the end of a rope, walks round the periphery of the cloth, sometimes trying to stand up on his hinds in rhythm with the rattle.
People begin to gather in ones and twos ' first the children and then the elders. About 30 people gather in 15 minutes.
Then Salman begins to hum in a hoarse voice kajra re kajra re' As the pitch rises, Shah Rukh begins the act made famous by Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan.
There are about 60 like Salman at Bhalukpara in Birbhum’s Rajnagar, close to Jharkhand and about 284 km from Calcutta, who still hold bear shows.
The shows, each of which fetches Rs 50-60, are illegal. The bears can’t be kept captive.
But playing hide and seek with the forest department has become par for the course.
Divisional forest officer Kalyan Ghosh admitted that no captive bear had been seized recently. “It is very difficult to catch them red-handed. The other day we went to Ahmedpur on a tip-off that such a show was on, but there was none when we reached the place,” he said.
Ghosh also admitted that the likes of Salman “roam around the district to hold shows”.
It is difficult to motivate these people to leave their profession as the government has yet to arrange a rehabilitation package for them. “We are trying to build up awareness about the Wild Life Protection Act and motivate them to take up some other work,” Ghosh added.
At Bhalukpara, 55-year-old Mohammad Sattar said if the forest department takes away the animals, they will be forced to commit suicide. “We purchase them as cubs from tribals roaming the forests of nearby Jharkhand and raise them like our children.”
The animals would not be any better if they are set free in the wild all of a sudden. “They are not used to life in the jungles and will die if they have to fend for themselves. They only understand our language,” said the owner of Tere Naam (christened after a Salman Khan starrer), as the bear nudged Sattar fondly with his moist muzzle.
Rescued sloth bears are mostly sent to the Calcutta zoo. If the animals have to be released in the wild, they have to be taken to north Bengal as forests in the south are not dense enough to house them, a local forest official said.
There haven’t been any raids in Birbhum in recent memory, but the fear of one dogs the bhalukwallahs. “We don’t know how to earn a living in any other way,” said the young Salman.