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.