KALBELIA – Dazzling Dance of Desert Nomads

by Vinod Joshi
Kalbelia Dance

The high energy Kalbelia (also Kalbeliya) dance is one of the most recognized icons of Rajasthan’s folk culture. No ensemble on Rajasthan’s musical or music festivals & concerts is complete without the Kalbelia dance.

The Nomadic Community

Kalbeliya is a nomadic community of snake-charmers, native to Rajasthan. They are listed as one of the scheduled tribes. Till around 1950, they led completely nomadic lives. They used to travel around, typically in groups of 5-7 families, camp outside a village and earn a living out of entertaining people. A caravan comprised men, women and children, as also donkeys, dogs and hens. Donkeys carried children, elderly and the household material. Dogs were trained to hunt for food in the wild and to protect their families.

Now into permanent residence, the community still actively practices music and dance, thanks to the recognition earned by the Kalbelia dance internationally. Interestingly, dancing was never the main occupation or source of livelihood. For centuries, Kalbelia men have survived on alms by catching snakes from the wild and entertaining people with snake-charming tricks.

A Kalbelia Man playing the Pungi, aerophonic
A Kalbelia Man playing the Pungi, the traditional aerophonic musical instrument

Kalbelia Music and Dance

Pungi (the traditional aerophonic musical instrument) and Iktara (literally, a single-string instrument) are the traditional musical instruments of the community. Much recently, for stage performances, the accompanists have started using dhols and nagadas, traditional drums, borrowed from other communities.

Kalbelia women are proficient singers and dancers. Their dance movements, in parts, imitate a snake moving to the pungi, but is essentially dominated by high energy swirls. Over the last few decades, their captivating dance has taken the centre-stage, especially among tourists. Men have been pushed to the fringe reducing them to being mere accompanists.

Strikingly colorful Kalbelia attire and jewellery
Kalbelia women make their own clothes and jewellery

These women are also expert in hand-crafting artifacts, jewellery and embellishing their traditional attire with multi-coloured beads.

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