The Kalbelias moved frequently from one place to another in ancient times. Their traditional occupation is catching snakes and trading snake venom. Hence, the dance movements and the costumes of their community bear a resemblance to that of the serpents. They are also Sapera, Jogira or yogi. They trace their ancestry from Kanlipar, the 12th disciple of Guru Gorakhnath. The largest number of the population of Kalbelias is in Pali district, then Ajmer, Chittorgarh and Udaipur district. They live a nomadic life and belong to the scheduled tribes.
Traditionally, Kalbelia men carried cobras in cane baskets from door to door in villages while their women sang and danced and begged for alms. They revere the cobra and advocate the non-killing of the reptile. In the villages, if a snake inadvertently entered a home, a Kalbelia would be summoned to catch the serpent and to take it away without killing it. Kalbelias have traditionally been a fringe group in society living in spaces outside the village where they reside in makeshift camps called deras. The Kalbelias move their deras from one place to another in a circuitous route repeated over time. Over the generations, the Kalbelias acquired a unique understanding of the local flora and fauna, and are aware of herbal remedies for various diseases which is an alternative source of income for them.
Since the enactment of the Wildlife Act of 1972, the Kalbelias have been pushed out of their traditional profession of snake handling. Now performing arts are a major source of income for them and these have received widespread recognition within and outside India. Performance opportunities are sporadic, so members of the community work in the fields, or graze cattle to sustain themselves.
The Kalbelia dance, performed as a celebration, is an integral part of Kalbelia culture. Their dances and songs are a matter of pride and a marker of identity for the Kalbelias and they represent the creative adaptation of this community of snake charmers to changing socioeconomic conditions and their own role in rural Rajasthani society.
The dancers are women in flowing black skirts who dance and swirl, replicating the movements of a serpent. The upper body cloth is called Angrakhi and a piece of cloth worn on head known as Odhani similarly the lower body cloth is called Lengha. All these cloths are mixed in red and black hues and embroidered in such a way that when these dancers perform these clothes represent a combination of colours soothing to eyes as well as to the atmosphere.
The male participants play musical instruments, such as the pungi, a woodwind instrument traditionally played to capture snakes, the dufli, been, the khanjari - a percussion instrument, morchang, khuralio and the dholak to create the rhythm on which the dancers perform. The dancers are tattooed in traditional designs and wear jewelry and garments richly embroidered with small mirrors and silver thread. As the performance progresses, the rhythm becomes faster and faster and so does the dance.
Kalbelia songs are based on stories taken from folklore and mythology and special dances are performed during Holi. The Kalbelia have a reputation for composing lyrics spontaneously and improvising songs during performances. These songs and dances are part of an oral tradition that is handed down generations and for which there are neither texts nor training manuals. In 2010, the Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan were declared a part of its Intangible Heritage List by the UNESCO.
- "Kalbelia Folk Dances of Rajasthan".
- Kumar Suresh Singh; B. K. Lavania; D. K. Samanta; S. K. Mandal; N. N. Vyas; Anthropological Survey of India. "Suthar". People of India Vol. XXXVIII. Popular Prakashan. p. 1012.
- Miriam Robertson (1998). Snake Charmers: The Jogi Nath Kalbelias of Rajastan. Illustrated Book Publishers. p. 323. ISBN 81-85683-29-8.
- Jaisalmer Ayo:Gateway of the Gypsies
- About culture of Kalbelia by Suramnath Kalbelia Sapera
- Photo essay on the Kalbelias
- Kalbelia costume
- Kalbelia: Rajki-Puran Nath Sapera & Party
- "Kalbelia", World Music Central
- Kalbelia: Cobra Gypsies - full documentary
- KALBELIA FOLK MUSIC AND DANCE FROM RAJASTHAN
- Kalbelia In USA - Katrina Ji