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Al Jazeera – World: Rajasthan’s snake dancers


For generations, the Kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan in northwest India moved constantly from one place to another – the men catching snakes and trading venom, the women begging for charity.

But in 1972, the Indian government introduced the Wildlife Act, forbidding snake possession and hunting, forcing a fundamental tribal re-think.

With a key part of their way of life – their centuries-old practice of snake charming – effectively banned, the Kalbelia had to find new ways of making a living. Some became subsistence farmers, while others have reinvented themselves as public performers.

Festivals and culture are an important part of local life in Rajasthan – and of its vital tourist industry.

Kalbelian dance, with its distinctive twirling movements that resemble those of the snake, is both source of income and acclaim, within and outside India.

“This song and dance, this art, it is our tradition,” says one Kalbelia man. “During the royalty era, we were invited to palaces; kings and emperors called on us to perform for their guests.”

The Kalbelia have brought considerable prestige to Rajasthan. They have now become famous – regionally, nationally and internationally – and in 2010 gained a place on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list.

Dance is a key part of Kalbelian cultural identity and has also had a marked social impact on the lives of women and girls.

“I was born into a community that preferred not to have girl children … Any extra girl child was killed soon after birth.” says Gulabo, a Kalbelia dancer who was buried alive the day she was born, until her mother saved her.

“Now that our girls learn Kalbelian dance, parents are happier with a female child because girls can dance and that’s a very good thing for us,” she says.

Gulabo now teaches Kalbelian dance and has a reputation as an international performer.

Kalbelian songs and dances are part of an oral tradition, handed down from one generation to another. There are no real organised training systems, schools, manuscripts or texts to help teach the art. Many songs are taken from stories based on folklore and mythology – and singers also have a reputation for improvising during performances.

“We don’t practice or attend music lessons,” says Mohini Devi, singer in a Kalbelia dance band. “Songs are made spontaneously, while sitting at home.”

In this film, we meet Rajasthan’s Kalbelian dancers and musicians and hear the striking story of a community adapting from a nomadic way of life to meet the challenges of 21st Century India.

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