The Dance Of The Kalbeliyas

The Dance Of The Kalbeliyas
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The Kalbeliya dance comes from a community in Rajasthan of the same name. Once snake handlers, they evoke their former occupation in a dance form that has received the UNESCO intangible heritage tag

OT Staff
September 23 , 2022
02 Min Read

The Kalbeliya (or Kalbelia or Karberia) is a dance form that belongs to the Kalbeliya tribe in Rajasthan. Inscribed in 2010 on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the dance involves women in black skirts in swirling, graceful movements that replicate the movements of a serpent. The Kalbeliyas were snake handlers once, and this connection is reflected in various ways in the dance-via the costumes, the way the women move, and in the alternative, popular name given to the dance form-the "sapera dance." Many dancers use the word sapera as a surname of sorts. For instance, Gulabo Sapera, a famous Kalbeliya artist from Ajmer who has received the Padma Shri and taken her art across the globe. Once a marginalised community, the Kalbeliyas have made an impact through the epic performances they have held throughout India and the world.

Women in black, swirling skirts perform the dance at a festival in Rajasthan

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The dance is mostly performed by women while the men play instruments like the pakhwaja, dholak, jhanjhar, sarangi, and harmonium. But it is the khanjari and pungi (a wooden wind instrument) that are the most central to the dance. These are made by the Kalbeliyas with natural materials like dried vegetable gourds and leather hide.

Men play traditional instruments as women dance and sing

In a changing and fast-digitising world, the Kalbeliyas have had to adapt as well. For instance, during the pandemic, the arts platform Kalbeliya World came up (in May 2020). Kalbeliya World, which is run by three women, Aakansha Maheshwari (USA), Chritsina Gomez (USA), and Ayla Joncheere (Belgium), connects traditional kalbeliya dancers from Rajasthan with students and fellow artistes from all over the world. 

Kalbelia dancers in ornate costumes trimmed with beads and sequins at the annual Surajkund Fair near Delhi

This is also a form of oral tradition, as the songs and dances are passed down through generations. They do not have any written text or manual. The Kalbeliyas also improvise the songs and write words on the spot while performing. As UNESCO says, it serves as a symbol of their identity at a time when their traditional way of life and place in rural society are waning. They show the efforts made by their community to revive their cultural heritage and modify it to fit shifting socioeconomic conditions.

Kalbeliya artist Gulabo Sapera, who has received the Padma Shri, has taken the dance form across the world


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