The Charming Gypsies of Rajasthan
by Divya Venkat
posted May 30, 2012
A few bushes stud the vast and barren Rajasthani desert landscape. Upon a closer inspection, a group of individuals comes in to view. Among the bushes hides an encampment: more precisely, a few metal bed frames supporting tattered blankets to provide shade from the sweltering heat. Men and women wearing brightly colored clothing and many pieces of glittering jewelry as they mull around in this apparently bleak landscape. These are the Rajasthani gypsies, also known as the Kalbelia. In the background, the haunting melodies of a snake charmer fill the air. The Kalbelia’s main occupation is snake charming, a popular image of exotic India for Westerners.
Their dance form, also called Kalbelia, has been influenced by their nomadic lifestyle, their devotion to the mystique, and their passion for entertainment.
The Kalbelia are a nomadic group that live in the state of Rajasthan in western India. According to The Encyclopedia of Dalits,there are approximately 729 individuals that label themselves as Kalbelia and are a part of this community. The primary occupations of the members of this group include singing, dancing and entertaining including the presentation of snakes and cobras. (UNESCO Youtube)
This group is nomadic and thus do not have permanent encampments (Singh 474). The cause of this nomadic lifestyle can be attributed to their ostracization from society and their low social status (Singh 474). This group is, therefore, pushed to the outskirts of cities from where they still have access to the large population, which forms their client base for their entertainment business. They are able to earn a living while remaining a distinct group outside of society and city. Their encampments are called deras and are located on the edges of major cities and areas such as the Pali district of Rajasthan. (UNESCO Youtube)
Said to have been the original settlers of Delhi and migrated to the Mewar region, the Kalbelia are ethnically Rajasthani and speak one of the dialects called Mewari (Singh 474).
The Kalbelia are unique in that they strictly follow an oral tradition of passing on their culture to the future generations verbally. The songs and dances are taught to the next generation through observation and it is a significant part of every day life.
These songs and dances are a dominant part of their culture and capture the essence of their way of life (UNESCO). Rajashtani folk dances including Kalbelia are special because they use indigenous instruments that are made from different plants in the region (Shrikumar). These characteristics of the Kalbelia culture and dance form have led to its categorization as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO (UNESCO). This classification has allowed Kalbelia to preserve their unique culture and dance and has paved way for its dissemination into Indian society. The popularization of this culture in India and abroad has led to a positive and popular Western perspective.
The different dances of the Kalbelia are rooted in the same tradition of story telling about folk heroes, love, relationships and land, but with slightly different steps and forms. The dances are also performed on different occasions and with different frequency.
The Matkee Dance
Matkee is the dance that is performed routinely and is used for daily recreation. During this dance, several women stand together in a circle and face inward. They step slightly and move from side to side to the beat of music. Their bodies are straight but they look down as they perform. While moving, the dancers make intricate hand and arm gestures, articulating their wrists in circles and bringing their arms across their body above their ribs. Their upper torso moves to the rhythm of the music by raising and lowering the rib cage which accentuates the gestures made by the hand.
The hips are particularly accentuated in this piece contributing to lower body movement as the feet make small steps.
Toward the end of the song, the dancers spin in circles so that the costume particularly the flared out skirt is accentuated and the dancers looks as though they are floating. The music of this dance is unique in that two instruments generate it: the poongi, which is a wind instrument and the chang, which is a percussion instrument (drum) (UNESCO Youtube).
The Loor Dance
While the Matkee is rooted in every day life, a second form of this dance is specifically performed during the festival of colors, Holi, is Loor. The Loor dance form incorporates both singing and dancing into one performance. A group of women stand in a semi-circle and sing facetious songs. These songs often make jokes about different aspects of life, including marriage. The women performing sing with no background instrumentation. The rhythm (beat) of this music is maintained by the clapping of the women. Occasionally, one of the women will spin slowly while clapping to add variation to the piece. The songs of the Kalbelia are themed after daily occurrences and especially rites of passage. As previously mentioned, these songs are part of an oral tradition and therefore are regularly and intensely practiced by all members of the community. These songs are constantly improved upon to enhance their cultural traditions. Some songs and dances, however, have changed very little over many generations preserving the core values and practices of this group (UNESCO Youtube).
The Snake Dance
The snake dance was derived from the practice of men bringing snakes to the doors of people and entertaining them by making the snake dance to music and the money collected from people is a source of income (Singh). This dance incorporates subtle dance moves that are meant to represent the movements of a cobra as it slithers on the ground (UNESCO Youtube). One specific aspect of this dance is called the Chari Nritya or Ghoomer that involves rapid spinning on a tilted axis (Shrikumar). During this, the women spread out their arms on a diagonal plane and tilt their body so that it looks as though they are rotating around a slanted axis, similar to the earth spinning on its axis while traversing the sun (UNESCO Youtube). This move is seen as the most classic form of Kalberia dance and is repeated all cultural programs representing this society. In parts of this dance, the dancers sit on one leg near the ground and bounce gently. They then stretch out their arms and twist their body to each side while shaking their shoulders, representing the slithering motion of a cobra. The dancers wear tassels on their wrists, which accentuate the bouncing motion of their shoulders. These hand motions are repeated as the dancers rise and hop from one foot to the other, while continuing with the rhythmic twisting of the body. In this dance, the Kalberia have incorporated acrobatic stunts to further woo their crowds, which has helped to attract a larger audience of outsiders. In one such stunt, the dancer places her rings standing up on the ground. She then bends backwards completely and plants her feet and hands on the ground. She then blinks her eyes and picks up these rings using her eyelids (UNESCO Youtube). These tricks and particularly this style of dance has been acknowledged by the Indian government and thus made the Kalbelia more transparent to the masses. This has allowed for its premier and permeation into Indian society and cultural events (UNESCO Youtube).
Clothing Made for Dance
The clothing of the Kalbelia has been influenced by the motifs of their dances, their lifestyle and their environment. Traditionally, women wear long skirts that extend to their feet (UNESCO Youtube). This skirt, however, has excess material that allows the skirt to flare out when the wearer spins. Additionally, the top is short and extends to the top of the skirt. It is short sleeved to make it comfortable for the dancer in the hot climate of the desert. They also wear a long scarf often draped over their hair or around their neck. This serves as a shade against the beating sun but also helps to accentuate spins done while dancing. All pieces of their clothing are elaborately decorated with mirrors, shiny pieces of thread and beads (UNESCO). These dresses are typically brightly colored to contrast with the barren and visually uninteresting desert landscaping. This elaborate, ornate and colorful dressing also attracts attention of the crowds, which helps garnering more money from the crowds. During the cobra dance, however, these costumes are black with multicolored threads to accentuate the coloring of cobras. In addition to elaborate clothing, these women also wear silver jewelry. These women typically wear several bangles, large dangling earrings, thick silver necklaces, anklets with bells, toe rings and nose rings. In addition, they also wear head pieces that resemble a necklace draped around the crown of their head. This jewelry is usually elaborately designed and studded with multicolored stones. A unique part of their make-up lies in their hairstyle. Women’s hair is glued into place and is set in a specific way that does not shift during dance. The glue is made of the plant Meliotas. Glue sets the hair in a slightly flattened and stylized way (UNESCO Youtube). The women also wear eyeliner in the form of kohl and dots on their foreheads called bindis. The intricate and elaborate costumes and make-up of the dancers is part of the unique Kalbelia culture.
Music used for these dances is unique to Rajasthan. The major woodwind instrument used in this type of music is called the poongi. It is built using a dry gourd, reeds and beeswax (UNESCO Youtube). The sound it creates is characteristic of snake charming and is specifically used to enchant the snakes. This distinctive sound has been picked up by Western cultures and become a popular characteristic of snake charmers. The percussion instrument, chang, is a large round drum that is beat either with the performer’s hands or with small sticks of different shapes to generate different sounds. Lastly, cymbals are used throughout the performance to add a chime and keep the beat for the dancer. These instruments as well as the singing by the women help in definng unique aspects of the Kalbelia culture.
The Kalbelia of Rajashtan have contributed enormously to the cultural diversity of India. Their dances have allowed them to express their cultural values and nomadic lifestyle. The pleasant demeanor exhibited in all of their dance forms shows their enthusiasm, energy and involvement and belief in their culture. Their ability to adapt to new environments allows them to continue to contribute to the entertainment in their adopted regions, while providing them with means and income for survival. Even though their traditions, especially their dances and music, carry great value as a relic of culture, their low status in society has also forced them into niche of often unpleasant begging to make a living. However, through the aid of the Indian government, the colors and vibrancy of this culture have allowed the Kalbelia to be accepted into society, both within India and internationally. The Kalbelia have charmed their way into modern society, just as they have captured the attention of the snakes in their locale.
- Paswan, Sanjay. "Distribution of Scheduled Castes Population by Sex State/Districtwise ."Encyclopaedia of Dalits in India. 5. New Delhi: Mehra Offset Press, 2004. Print.
- Shrikumar, A. "Treat for the Senses." Hindu. 09 11 2011: n. page. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.<http://www.thehindu.com/arts/music/article2611835.ece>.
- Singh, K. S. "Kalbelia Daliwal." People of India: Rajasthan. 38. Mumbai: Ramdas G. Bhatkal for Popular Prakashan, 1998. Print.
- UNESCO. "Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan." Youtube. UNESCO, 2010. Web. 10
Apr 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGGmW5CQmdw>.
- UNESCO. "Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan." UNESCO Culture Sector. UNESCO, 2012. Web. 10 Apr 2012. <http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/RL/00340>.
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