Kalbelia dance is a traditional folk dance of Rajasthan. It is well known by other names such as the ‘Sapera Dance’ or the ‘Snake Charmer Dance’. Kalbelia is closely associated with the Kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan. The Kalbelia tribe is a nomadic tribe that follows Hinduism and prefer to live in places just outside of villages, in makeshift camps called Deras. One of the most well- known aspects of the Kalbelia tribe is their expertise as snake charmers and snake catchers. For years, they have been living and following the same routine, traditions and lifestyle and have learnt to earn their living through means of occupation such as curing snake bites, making people’s houses free of snakes etc. The connection to snakes can be seen in the Kalbelia dance as the costume and dance resembles the movements made by serpents. Interestingly, it is only performed by women while the men play the instruments and provide the music. The popularity of this dance is so much worldwide that it is now in UNESCO’s representative list of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ from the year 2010.
There are several traditional Indian instruments that are used during the performance of Kalbelia. These include the pakhawaj, dholak, jhanjhar, sarangi as well as the harmonium. However, the most characteristic instrument played during Kalbelia is the Pungi. The pungi, or been, is a wooden wind instrument that is played with no pauses. The been is synonymous with snake charming in India and fits in perfectly with the heritage of the Kalbelia tribe. During the performance, the women sway, twirl and gyrate to the music and use acrobatic dance steps which showcase the dancers’ flexibility. As the performance goes on, the tempo of the Kalbelia dance increases and so does the pace of the dance steps. The performance is usually carried out in pairs, with at least two pairs swapping stage-presence seamlessly. 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.
The Kalbelia dancers wear traditional dresses of their tribe when performing. The women wear an Angrakha on their upper body while their head is covered with an Odhani. They also wear a long skirt with a wide circumference on their lower body, known as Lehenga or Ghagra. The entire dress is essentially black in colour with red decorative laces. It also employs a silver thread that is sewed in an assortment of patterns on the black dress, making the dress resemble a black snake with white spots or stripes. It also features a lot of colourful patterns and designs along with mirror work that help the dancer attract the attention of the audience.
Kalbelia dancers prefer to wear traditional jewelry during their performances. They wear beads around their neck and head in the form of elaborate necklaces and Maang tikka. They also wear bangles and armlets. These can either be worn till the elbow or all the way up the arm. If the sleeve of the Angrakha is full length, bangles need not be worn by the Kalbelia performers.
The Kalbelia tribe was forced to stop their traditional profession of snake handling ever since the enactment of the Wildlife Act of 1972. As a result, performance art became a major source of income for the once nomadic tribe. The beauty and skill of the Kalbelia dancers have received recognition not just in India, but world over. However, this dance is slowly losing its prominence as performance opportunities are quite sporadic. Most of the tribe have moved on to working in the fields or grazing cattle as a way to earn income. Additionally, there is no organized training system, schools, manuscripts or text that help teach Kalbelia songs and dance.
Over the last decade or so, governmental agencies have been making a concerted effort towards preserving this dance form by offering performance opportunities in fairs and festivals of national repute. These fairs tend to attract visitors from across the globe, giving Kalbelia performers better exposure.