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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.


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