False Steps

The commercial roots of a “traditional” folk dance

Most Kalbeliya dancers followed Sapera’s example and improvised their own steps. Anchit Natha
01 May, 2020

Whether or not you have been to Rajasthan, you have probably seen the famous Kalbeliya dance of the desert state. Visuals of Rajasthani women twirling at a dizzying pace, their carefully crafted black skirts a circular blur, are etched into our collective memory. At festivals, in folk-dance competitions, on television, the dance can be seen everywhere. You probably believe that this is the “traditional” dance form of the nomadic tribes of the Thar. Well, not quite.

According to Ayla Joncheere, a Belgian anthropologist who has spent the past decade researching the Kalbeliya community, this hugely popular dance form is an “invented tradition.” The term was first popularised by the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger in their 1983 book, The Invention of Tradition. They noted that many traditions are recent creations, often invented to express the social cohesion of nations and communities, or to legitimise an existing order, institution or authority. From the foundational myths of nation-states to the pageantry of the British monarchy, from the Kechak dance of Indonesia to the Scottish tartan, there are many examples of inventions of recent vintage masquerading as traditions passed down over many generations.

The Kalbeliyas, most of whom are poor and uneducated nomads, have traditionally made a living as snake charmers and itinerant performers. They play musical instruments such as the pungi or the canga, and Kalbeliya women may sing from door to door. “They were little-known and marginalised before,” Joncheere told me. “The story of the Kalbeliya dance begins in the global music industry and India’s cultural policies in the 1980s.”

The 1980s saw the evolution of “world music,” a broad genre including all forms of non-Western international music, whether indigenous or not. Western audiences were deeply invested in the historical journeys and marginalised positions of nomadic peoples, and the idea of the gypsy as global citizen was exoticised. “If you see the documentaries of the 1980s, there is a lot of interest in the nomads of Rajasthan,” Joncheere said. “There are so many films that popularised the idea that the Romas in Europe are descendants of the Indian gypsies.”