You know you’re in the presence of magic when the brightly coloured tents pop up, and a man juggles six plates in the air covered in paint from head to toe. When the very idea of reality warps as people just like us perform tricks and stunts that we hadn’t thought were possible. Then you hear the sound of an engine rev from the top of a deep cylindrical pit and you’re jolted back to the present as audiences cheer for one solo performer on their motorbike as they defy gravity at breakneck speed, no safety gear in tow, as they ride round and round their ‘racetrack’ completely parallel to the ground beneath them. It’s at that moment you realize daredevilry is just a synonym for magic, when it comes to the legendary Maut Ke Kuan.
Practically extinct as a form of entertainment nowadays, the ‘Well Of Death’ is a distant memory for many Indian mela-goers. Something of a carnival sideshow where exceedingly brave men risked their lives for the sake of a few hundred cheers. And while we’ve long since considered these men to be worthy of a few bytes, it hasn’t often been considered that some women have taken to performing this unlikely feat over the years too. Among them, the very first of the lot, Munira Abdul Sattar Madni, who took to two wheels and a cylindrical enclosure for the first time in 1971, at the tender age of seven. We caught up with the stuntwoman of sorts to chronicle the story of her life and got far more than we bargained for.
Like father, like daughter
“It was in Govandi. My foot didn’t even reach then!” Munira exclaims as she describes her first riding experience. It all started back when Munira’s father was much younger and ran a garage in Mumbai, she tells us. An African man contacted him for help with the construction of a well of death. He obliged, and when it was all fixed up, he picked up a bike and tried his luck riding across the adventurous cylinder. He was hooked, and it changed the course of his own life, and that of his family’s forever.
His love for the sport took him to Nairobi, Kampala and other parts of Africa where he watched daring riders race across the wells, and he knew he had to continue the trend in India. Over the years he constructed Maut Ka Kuans across the country in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and more still for events and melas. When his daughter Munira was just seven years old, he encouraged her to try her hand at riding and a legend was born.
“Mujhe seekhne ka shauk tha,” Munira tells us. In the early days of her training, she would ride along a circle chalked out on the road for hours at a stretch, almost entire days, just to get used to spinning in circles without getting dizzy. Sips of juice kept her going through the day, and she straddled that motorcycle like she was made to ride. Munira casually tells us that she would often ride continuously for 24 hours without stopping, and as our eyes became large in awe, she laughed. “That’s nothing, Tarnetar was 44 hours!”
Practice makes perfect
In 1981, Munira participated in Gujarat at Surendranagar district’s enormous Tarnetar mela, and that well of death ride lasted for 44 hours non-stop. The stories of her legendary rides were too many to count, and they came spilling from her memory with reminiscence gleaming in her eyes. She recalls a motocross tournament in 1985 with 72 male participants and only two women. Munira stood second in that championship.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Mumbai was not so crowded, and there were open spaces for fairs to hold Maut Ka Kuan events. Mahim mela, Prabha Devi mela, celebrations for Ambedkar Jayanti, small events in goregaon…” she trails, recounting the various venues that saw her motor biking skills. Most of her rides in India featured the Royal Enfield 200cc or the Crusader 175cc, while Yamahas, Kawasakis, KTMs and Suzukis were the chosen steeds found abroad. Over the years, she travelled to Iran, Dubai, Kuwait and other parts of the Gulf for well of death events. In Saudi Arabia, women weren’t permitted to participate in these shows, but a special concession was made for her. Still, even after traveling far and wide with her motorcycle in tow, she admits, “I loved performing in India much more.”
Love in the time of motorcycles and Zeenat Aman
“With her long, beautiful hair, high boots, leather jacket and that star quality about her, she looked like Zeenat Aman,” smiles Munira’s husband Salim Sayed, who also rode a bike. In 1978, Salim ventured into the Mahim mela with a few of his friends and saw the celebrity Munira on her bike. “It was love at first sight,” he describes, adding that he was a huge Zeenat Aman fan. Their courtship grew from their common love for biking, and on dates they would ride off into the sunset together, quite literally. Both came from Sunni Muslim families, yet Salim’s parents didn’t approve the match at first, “My family had reservations that I got married to someone performing in melas,” he says. The first few months of their marriage was kept a secret from both families, but eventually their love was accepted.
Salim wasn’t the only one mesmerised by Munira’s star quality though. Since she was the only female rider of her time who performed individually (other female riders would ride double seat) fans from far and wide would come to watch her circle the well of death. “Log pagal ho jate the,” she laughs, describing how after the show would wind up, the crowd would gather around her and follow her all the way to the parking space until she left. “She was an extraordinary performer,” Salim says, “She would leave her arms in the air and go from the ground to 22 feet above in a fraction of a second.”
Most Maut Ka Kuans were constructed 22 feet high with a gallery atop the circle for excited viewers to pile in and watch the show. “Going up is easy. Coming back down is the difficult part,” they tell us. “Once you de-accelerate, you need extra guts and skills to land the bike safely.” The charm of the well is that it isn’t sturdy and keeps shaking as each bike zooms down its side. While injuries, even fatal ones, were a part of this dangerous sport, Munira’s movements were always confident and natural, almost completely devoid of fear.
In 1979, Ravi Tandon’s film Jhoonta Kahin Ka featured the biking savant in all her glory as a stunt double and unsurprisingly, over the years, her skill took her to several movie sets. She even had a camera shoot once, despite her father’s disapproval over the attire. A legendary name in India’s Calendar Art domain, she managed to catch J P Singhal’s eye, ultimately featureing in one of his calendars.
All in the family?
Sumaiya, one of Munira’s daughters, tells us about her own life growing up, traveling across the country with her mother’s melas every vacation as a result of her unusual talent. “I used to ride on the back of her bike while she performed, I loved it. I never wanted to leave!” she exclaims. There was no concrete female contender for Munira to pass the riding baton to through her career, and decades later, there still isn’t one. Though she never completed her formal education, despite her wish to do so, Munira is now the queen of her modest empire, selling herbal oils and other products in Bahrain, where she now lives. Her success is seen across the 11 different shops she owns there.
Growing up with 24 siblings, Munira’s life was an obstacle course of traditional road blocks and financial trials, but through it all she was never more herself as when she was riding her bike in a Maut Ka Kuan.
Scroll on for a glimpse into Munira Abdul Sattar Madni’s life as a Maut Ka Kuan rider juxtaposed to her life today.
Munira with her daughter Sumaiya, today. Image: Karan Khosla
[Note: Some of Munira's quotes have been translated from Hindi to English.]
Words: Rhea Almeida
Photographs: Karan Khosla