Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Kalbeliya- The Dance of the Snake Charmers


Kalbelia Dance

The Kalbelia dance is associated with the Kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan. The people of this tribe are also called snake charmers. Their ancestors enthralled the members of Royalty by performing an array of tricks with snakes, an exercise which later transformed into public shows at local fairs and bazaars. The people of this Rajasthani tribe live a nomadic life and travel like a caravan from place to place. The main occupation of this tribe had been capturing snakes and dealing in their venom and practicing alternative medicine because of their local knowledge of flora and fauna. However, after the enforcement of the Government Wildlife Act, 1972, the people of Kalbelia tribe were forced to stop their traditional profession of snake handling. Their main profession is now dancing and singing which has earned them name as well as fame. It is now their main source of income.

The dance of these snake charmers has evolved over time and is intricately linked to their lifestyle and history. A great number of people of this tribe can be found in the Pali district along with Ajmer, Chittorgarh and Udaipur district of Rajasthan. It is said that earlier the tribal men from the Kalbelia community used to carry snakes from one house to another in their cane baskets and the women of this tribe would accompany them and would dance and sing to earn their livelihood.

The Kalbelia dance is generally performed for any joyous celebration and is considered to be an integral part of the Kalbelia community. The Kalbelia dance is performed by women while the men play the instruments. The main instrument played during this dance is called ‘Pungi’. The Pungi is a traditional wooden wind instrument that is played with no pauses. It is used to charm the snakes and thus is an important part of the dance and the heritage of the tribe. A number of other traditional musical instruments played during this dance performance are ‘sarangi’, ‘jhanjhar’, ‘dholak’, harmonium, ‘pakhawaja’, ‘khanjari’, ‘dufli’ etc.

During the performance, the Kalbelia people often sing songs inspired by stories from folklore of Rajasthan and their music is passed through the generations as a form of inheritance. This means that there is no organized training system or school, written text and manuscripts to teach and learn Kalbelia songs and dance.

The Kalbelia women are skilled dancers and the swirling moves these dancers make while dancing resemble the movements of snakes. The serpentine style of their dancing is sensuous and graceful. They gracefully spin around themselves putting their entire body weight on their ankles. The dancers sway, twist and gyrate to the music and glimpses of acrobatics are also evident in their performances which show the flexibility and agility of the dancers. The dance steps of the dancers are also accompanied by a few stunts like dancing on a nail bed, dancing on broken glass pieces, balancing steel or earthen pots in numbers 3,5,6,7 or 10 and balancing on ‘thali’ (plate). These dance steps are similar to Bhavai (another Rajasthani Folk Dance).

As the performance goes on, the tempo of the Kalbelia dance increases and so does the pace of the dance steps. This dance performance is usually carried out in pairs with at least two pairs swapping stage presence. This allows one half of the group to catch their breath while at the same time not letting the pace of the dance slow down. This change happens so swiftly that one cannot easily make out this shift of pairs. The breath-taking and dangerous moves of the Kalbelia dancers leave the spectators amazed. The best part of the performance is the continuous circles a dancer takes while whirling very fast either on her toe or on her knee.

Dancers wear the traditional dress of the Kalbelia tribe which are usually made by themselves. The widely flared long skirt called ‘Ghagra’ or ‘Lehenga’ compliment well with ‘Angrakha’ (top) and the ‘Odhni’ on the head. The entire dress is essentially black in colour with red decorative laces. The embroidery on the black dress done with a silver thread in various patterns resembles a black snake with white spots or stripes. The dress also features a lot of colourful designs and patterns along with mirror work which makes it more attractive and draws spectators’ attention.

The dancers wear traditional Rajasthani silver jewellery like ‘maang teeka’, ‘jhumka’ (earings), and necklace. They also wear bangles and armlets till elbow or all the way up the arm (depending upon the arm length of their tops) for accessories. The dancers enhance their facial features with makeup, tattoos and colourful ‘bindis’.

One of the most famous Kalbelia dancer is Gulabi Sapera, also known as Gulabo. She is known as the creator of this Rajasthan’s most celebrated dance form. She is the first individual from her community to receive the ‘Padam Shri’ award (the fourth highest civilian award in India) in the year 2016 for her distinguished contribution to this field. She is now the President of All India Kalbelia Community. Today, she is treated as the institution and ambassador of the folk heritage of Rajasthan. When she was once asked about the need to get a copyright for her dance, she replied, “I believe in keeping it free because I don’t own it. It was given to me by God to spread it. Sapera dance has no calculated steps, like Kathak, etc. It is wild and free. It has a beginning but no end. It just goes on and on.’’

Gulabi Sapera

Government organizations in India and NGOs are working hard to popularize this folk dance, due to which this dance has now gained international recognition and is an integral part of the heritage of Rajasthan. The dancers are given chances to perform in different national or international festivals and events. In 2010, the Kalbelia dance and songs were recognised by UNESCO and included in its list of intangible cultural practices from around the world.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Charkula- A Dance with a Hill of Fire

Uttar Pradesh is the most populous and fourth largest state of India which lies in the northern central part of the country having a human population of more than 200 million. It is a state with a rich and diverse cultural heritage and is home to a very old tradition of dance and music. Kathak, a classical dance form, grew and flourished in Uttar Pradesh. Apart from Kathak, this state is the home of many other folk dances such as Khyal, Raslila, Nautanki etc.

But one of the most spectacular but lesser-known folk dances of Uttar Pradesh is the ‘Charkula Dance’. In this dance, performers are veiled women who balance a large multi-tiered circular wooden pyramid on their heads and dance on the rhythm of Rasiya which are songs dedicated to Hindu God Lord Krishna and his female consort Radha. Rasiya songs describe the love of the divine couple Radha and Lord Krishna and are sung accompanying the rhythm of huge drums locally known as Bumb. The Charkula dance is mainly associated with the Braj region (Mathura) of Uttar Pradesh and is popular among the Brahmin community of the villages in this area. Braj region is full of legendary stories of Lord Krishna (Hindu God) as he was born and grew up there.

Many legends are connected with the origin of Charkula dance. According to one legend, the dance is specially performed on the third day after Holi (Indian festival of colors). It is believed that on that day Radha was born. According to legend, Radha’s grandmother ran out of the house with a charkula on her head to announce the birth of Radha. Since then, Charkula has developed as a popular dance form of Braj bhoomi (land) and is performed during various festivals. This dance therefore became a symbol of happiness as well as joyful rapture.

Another legend related to the birth of this dance is based on the story of Hindu God Lord Krishna’s ‘Govardhan leela’ (miracle). Lord Krishna lifted Govardhan Parvat (mountain) and held it on his finger to save the villagers from the wrath of the rain God Indra. In the process of dancing, female dancers start raising Charkuka over their head in order to symbolize the hill. The Charkula is a tapered wooden column with 4 to 5 circular tiers. A specific number of earthen lamps (their number vary from 51 to 108) are lit on the rim of the circles. These also signify the lifting of the Govardhan hill by Krishna which is re-enacted by the milk-maids of Mathura (Braj region).

The Charkula dance is performed by women wearing ankle length long skirts with a long and colourful embroidered blouse. Due to heavy load of the charkula, the steps of the dancers are quite limited but as they balance the wooden pyramid on their head, they manage to synchronize with the beats of the drums and the tune of the song with graceful moves like gliding, bending and whirling. The musical instruments that accompany the Charkula performance are mainly flute, drums, harmonium, manjira, thali and khartal. The number of performers ranges from five to fifty and at the climax male singers and dancers also join the performance. It is a spectacular dance having both body and musical rhythm and synchronised performance. 

This ancient Indian folk dance form reflects the life style and beliefs of the people associated with it. In the contemporary times educational institutions are promoting this dance form in their cultural events. Due to its gaining popularity, Charkula dance has become the popular dance of Uttar Pradesh, next only to Kathak.