Migrations and Cultural Encounters: Rajasthan

January 29, 2019

Welcome to the first post of “Migrations & Cultural Encounters: Nomads, Caravans, and Dancing along the Silk Road”. This blog series is being released in conjunction with my

Radha (Bani Thani), Kishangarh, ca. 1750, National Museum New Delhi

dance instruction series at College of Marin Community Education highlighting different cultural dance traditions each week. I am delighted to be your travel guide as we embark on a 7-week journey through far-away desert landscapes and ancient history. There we will explore the living art traditions and cultural history of the people that inhabit the regions of Central Asia and beyond through music and dance.

First stop on our journey is Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings, in Northwestern India. The state of Rajasthan boasts a rich cultural heritage and evokes in the minds of many the quintessential romanticized India: snake charmers, princely men with earrings and long mustaches, desert camels, and jeweled dancing women. Formally comprised of a number of independent kingdoms, Rajasthan is a popular tourist destination for the architectural beauty of its many of forts and palaces. This region is also known for its colorful local folk traditions and has developed a reputation for lively and colorful festivals, including the Pushkar Camel Fair and Desert Dance Festival.

The people of Rajasthan are comprised of many tribal groups and have lived for centuries alongside the inhospitable Thar Desert, which creates a natural border with neighboring Pakistan. Perhaps because life can be particularly harsh in such an environment, the colors of folk-wear and liveliness of cultural events present a strong contrast to the starkness of the desert and challenging day-to-day conditions. Folk dances express a joy for life and reinforce community identity. As an oral tradition, the songs sung reflect aspects of daily life, including collecting water at the well and other chores, as well as love and marriage

Under royal patronage literature, painting, music and dance flourished in the courts of Rajasthan, especially from the eighteen century onward. The musical, dance and visual arts of Rajasthan are the recipients of this classical heritage. The traditionally nomadic peoples of this region often made their living as bards, storytellers, puppeteers, musicians, and dancers and so the expressive arts thrived on all levels of society.

But the history of the lands of Rajasthan go back far further than the times of the Rajput princes. The land was once home to the Vedic and Indus Valley Civilizations. The Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1600 BCE) once thrived along the Indus river, in modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, northwest India, and evidence of human cultures in this region goes back much further than that.

The Dancing Girl, bronze, IVC c. 2500 BC, National Museum, New Delhi

The Dancing Girl, bronze, IVC c. 2500 BC, National Museum, New Delhi

One of the most interesting artifacts from the Indus Valley Civilization is a prehistoric bronze sculpture dated about 2500 BCE in what is now modern-day Pakistan. Referred to as The Dancing Girl, this beautiful work of art depicts a naked young woman or girl in a confident, naturalistic pose.
The girl stands with one hand on her hip and wears a number of bangles and a necklace, similar to what is worn by folk women in the region today. She wears 24 to 25 bangles on her left arm and 4 bangles on her right arm, and some object was held in her left hand, which is resting on her thigh. She has her long hair styled in a big bun that is resting on her shoulder.

So here we have a faint echo of dance from the distant past – if indeed the girl really is dancing. But what of the dances in modern-day Rajasthan? This week we will be looking at two dances from Rajasthan: Ghoomar and Kabelia.

Ghoomar is a traditional folk dance associated with the Bhil tribe though it has been embraced by other communities as well. Originally performed to worship the Goddess Saraswati, Ghoomar dance was popular during the reigns of Rajput kings and is typically performed today by women during ladies gatherings and community festivals. Traditionally a woman is expected to dance Ghoomar for her husband’s family shortly after marriage.

The word Ghoomar derived its name from ‘ghoomna’ and translates to pirouette, referring to the characteristic turns that are performed while moving as a group in a circular fashion. The long skirts of the women twirl and their faces are covered with a veil which they may manipulate as part of the dance.  Here is an example of Ghoomar dance:

The second dance we will be looking at this week is Kalbelia dance, which has been honored as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanty by UNESCO. Here is what the organization says about Kalbelia dance:

Songs and dances are an expression of the Kalbelia community’s traditional way of life. Once professional snake handlers, Kalbelia today evoke their former occupation in music and dance that is evolving in new and creative ways. Today, women in flowing black skirts dance and swirl, replicating the movements of a serpent, while men accompany them on the khanjari percussion instrument and the poongi, a woodwind instrument traditionally played to capture snakes. The dancers wear traditional tattoo designs, jewellery and garments richly embroidered with small mirrors and silver thread.

Kalbelia songs disseminate mythological knowledge through stories, while special traditional dances are performed during Holi, the festival of colours. The songs also demonstrate the poetic acumen of the Kalbelia, who are reputed to compose lyrics spontaneously and improvise songs during performances. Transmitted from generation to generation, the songs and dances form part of an oral tradition for which no texts or training manuals exist. Song and dance are a matter of pride for the Kalbelia community, and a marker of their identity at a time when their traditional travelling lifestyle and role in rural society are diminishing. They demonstrate their community’s attempt to revitalize its cultural heritage and adapt it to changing socioeconomic conditions.

I had the pleasure of learning this dance many years ago from the Kalbelia people themselves and look forward to sharing this beautiful and lively art form with you. Have questions? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Hannah Romanowsky, Rajasthani Kalbelia dance