How the Pandemic Has Impacted the Lives of Rajasthan’s Kalbeliya Performers

The repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic have been devastating for various performing traditions and performers in India. One such example is of Kalbeliya performers from Rajasthan who, until last year, had been earning their livelihood by singing and performing in government-organised cultural festivals and fairs, resorts, hotels and weddings. These work opportunities diminished significantly after COVID-19 hit the world in 2020.

The recent lockdowns imposed in India due to an unprecedented spread of the virus has only exacerbated the situation for these performers, bringing their lives and ability to earn to a grinding halt.

Many of us would know, or have heard about Kalbeliya dance from Rajasthan as it serves as one of the major tourist attractions in the state as well as across the country. The impressive acrobatic dance steps of Kalbeliya women dancers and their enticing embroidered black dresses have continued to entertain people for decades. However, beyond this, not many know about the Kalbeliya community and its performing traditions. A lesser-known fact about the Kalbeliyas is that the dance form, along with their songs, have been recognised as intangible cultural heritage (ICH) by UNESCO.

Who are Kalbeliyas?

Kalbeliya performers come from the most marginalised sections of society. A distinguishing feature of the Kalbeliya community has been its nomadic lifestyle. Earlier, Kalbeliyas moved from one place to another to secure their livelihood. They have been involved in a range of occupations such as snake charming, begging, construction work, stone work etc.

Then, during the 1980s, some Kalbeliya women modified their traditional dance and began to perform publicly in order to earn more than just what was needed for survival. They picked up the tempo and modified the clothing to cater to the ever-growing influx of tourists visiting Rajasthan. Along with the songs, this modified version of Kalbeliya dance soon became popular and won accolades worldwide – including the status of ICH by UNESCO in 2010.

Its popularity has increasingly led to many Kalbeliya women to adopt dance as their profession and significantly contribute to the income of their families or even become the main breadwinners. Kalbeliya men, as singers and musicians, also supplement the income of families.

Sense of insecurity

Today many performers solely rely on their dance and singing performances for their survival. These potential sources of income, however, have come to a standstill due to Covid lockdown and other restrictions on mobility. Interviews with Kalbeliya performers signal an acute dearth of work opportunities since last year. Most have no choice but to sit at home as there are neither government cultural programmes nor private programmes in hotels or weddings.

A young Kalbeliya performer named Gordhan Nath in Jodhpur laments, “It has become difficult to survive for us as the cultural programmes have reduced due to COVID-19. We, as heritage bearers, need to be supported in some way in order to save our heritage.”

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Owing to their enormous popularity, Kalbeliya performances have received an overt promotion from the Indian state over the years. Their promotion has given a significant boost to the tourism sector in Rajasthan state as well as outside. However, amidst the pandemic-induced surge in unemployment, performers have been denied any substantial help from the state authorities. They maintain that they overhear some announcements of help being offered for artists from the government’s end but are yet to witness any successful implementation.

A Kalbeliya dancer’s house in Pushkar. Photo: Ruchika Ranwa.

Last year, the financial support extended by Rajasthan state’s art and culture department under the Mukhya Mantri Lok Kalakar Protsahan Yojana seemed like a relief for folk artists but it could not reach many of them. Apart from this, there were a few online performance events organised by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) occasionally which provided work opportunities, but only to a small bunch of folk artists. However, these steps could in no way suffice for hundreds of Kalbeliya performers reeling under the onslaught of unemployment and poverty due to COVID-19.

Safeguarding measures

In the aftermath of pandemic, some Kalbeliya performers attempted to teach online. However, a Kalbeliya dancer underlined interruptions during classes or even their cancellation as a common occurrence due to their poor access to internet or due to lack of technical know-how. There are a few online initiatives taken by independent scholars, dancers and entrepreneurs which enable performers to successfully deliver their online classes.

Kalbeliya World is one such efficient support program which collaborates with some Kalbeliya performers and provides them a platform to offer online classes. It equips them with all the required resources such as wifi, content development, marketing and any sort of technical help. Kalbeliya World has not only facilitated performers with regular employment but has also connected them with global audience transcending all boundaries. Such initiatives make the absence of state initiatives even more apparent on this front.

It is undeniable that such individual or collective initiatives are imperative for the sustenance of any art form. However, the concern with both government or non-government initiatives remains more or less the same currently, that is, their limited outreach. The benefits of the initiatives taken so far largely remains restricted to a dozen of Kalbeliya performers who have been popular for their performances. There are hundreds of other performers who are rendered jobless for the past one year and are hardly able to make both ends meet.

Succumbing to such excruciating circumstances and the rising sense of vulnerability among them, some Kalbeliya performers have started working as construction workers and agricultural labourers. Such trends pose grave threat to the sustenance of Kalbeliyas’ performing traditions and warrant urgent attention from the state. It needs to be remembered here that UNESCO strongly upholds the safeguarding of heritage bearers, as intangible heritage forms are embodied by their bearers.

Kalbeliya performers, as heritage bearers, are the prime guardians of Kalbeliya dance and songs and they need to be supported – either by strengthening existing support programmes or by introducing new and more efficient measures.

Ruchika Ranwa is a senior research fellow in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy (JNU), New Delhi.

Featured image: Kalbeliya dancers performing in a government cultural programme in Jaipur/Photo: Ruchika Ranwa