The Indian region of Rajasthan is believed to be the ancient homeland of the Roma community.1 In 2010, UNESCO listed Kalbeliya, a traditional dance from Rajasthan, as an example of intangible cultural heritage. Over the past three decades, a series of documentary films have been produced featuring performing artists from Rajasthan that, according to Ayla Joncheere and Iris Vandevelde, have greatly influenced public perceptions of ‘Gypsy’ culture and articulate a ‘Gypsy’ identity of unity (Joncheere and Vandevelde, 2016). The film Latcho Drom (France, 1993), directed by Tony Gatlif, has been labelled by Michael Beckerman as a form of ‘cine-poem’ where the music forms the subject matter and the visuals enhance the musical experience (Malvini, 2004).
While a number of larger- and smaller-scale films have been produced that show the communicative nature of Roma music and its relationship to the body, we have chosen to curate two smaller collections. These two collections come from different production companies: De Kulture, based in India, and Artnetwork Productions run by Melitta Tchaicovsky in the United States. Both companies have a trajectory of working respectfully with the Roma community in India and they have focused on the various nomadic communities, the Kalbeliya dance and the musical instruments used by these groups. Both companies have provided videos and stills.
Mohini Devi - Kalbeliya Dance
De Kulture Music aims to preserve the authentic music of India by promoting local music-making. De Kulture is an artists’ agency, record label and festival organiser and also represents folk, Sufi and indigenous artists of India. Among them is the Mohini Devi group who perform the modern Kalbeliya dance. The ensemble is made up of several musicians who have not received any formal education, but instead learned music from an early age from their guru, Kalunath Kalbeliya. The Mohini Devi group have gained international recognition and many of the dancers have performed and taught Kalbeliya dances abroad. The group also performs many other dances, such as Bhavai, Chari, Ghummar and Terah Taali, and their performances include fire shows and acrobatics.
Kalbeliyas are a wandering tribe of Roma native to the regions of Barmer, Jodhpur, Ajmer and Jaipur in Rajasthan who were traditionally snake-charmers and traders in snake venom. Their ancestors enthralled royalty by performing an array of tricks with the serpents, a practice which later developed into public shows at local fairs and bazaars. The dance form these snake charmers have evolved over time is intricately linked to their lifestyle and history. It is characterised by sinuous, reptilian movements and the performance has a hypnotic emotional quality.
The sound of the Been, an Indian woodwind instrument also known as the Pungi, ranges from plaintive to seductive, like that used to charm snakes, and provides the characteristic music for a dancer to strut her movements to. The beats of the Dhap or the Dafli, a flat-plate like percussion instrument struck with the fingers and palms, accompany the Been.
The dancers traditionally wear a black costume comprising an ankle-length skirt embellished with silver filigree, a top reaching halfway down the thighs and a dupatta (loose flowing stole) pinned to their heads. In addition, the costume is beautifully adorned with jewellery made out of tiny matted pearls and silver hangings. Several tassels formed of braided thread and coloured cloth hang from the elbows, waist and back, and as the dancer swirls round and round at an almost unbelievable speed, the tassels jut out horizontally from her form, adding to the dynamism and allure of the performance. Sexually charged yet graceful swaying of the hips and the waist is typical of this dance form. The dance is punctuated by many different acrobatic moves, demonstrating the flexibility and agility of the performers. The mystical and hauntingly piercing notes of the *Been* stay with one long after a show is over.
The De Kulture Ltd collection includes fifteen images and one film, which is a live performance of the Kalbeliya dance by the Mohini Devis at the Brave Festival 2013 in Poland.
Artnetwork Productions focuses on creating and sharing videos that promote an understanding and appreciation of the art, culture and traditions of people from all over the world. Its work is premised on the idea that art provides access to a higher dimension of human consciousness. Envisioning the Earth as a work of art, Artnetwork Productions was established to express the worldview that perceives life on Earth and the cosmos as an evolving creative consciousness. It showcases the work of photo-videographer Melitta Tchaicovsky and promotes the release of Beny Tchaicovsky’s Multimedia Art Book (external link), published by Last Gasp, highlighting the artistic legacy of this prolific artist.
The collection includes eight short excerpts from full-length films. One excerpt from Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway of the Gypsies (India, 2004) captures the lives and journeys of nomadic communities who are believed to share common lineage with the Roma people. The film traces the open roads of the desert that lead to these communities’ temporary encampments and follows the castes of the Bhopas (storytellers), Jogis (snake-charmers), Kalbeliyas (dancers), Banjaras (salt-traders), Gadolya Lohars (metal workers) and Manganiars (musicians).
The collection also includes other short excerpts showing the above-mentioned castes either singing or playing their wind or percussion instruments. The remarkable soundtrack of Rajasthani music merges with the images of an ancient world, while presenting the way of life, dance and many rituals of the region’s last generation of nomads.
Synopsis of the film Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway of the Gypsies
Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway of the Gypsies (India, 2004) directed by Pepe Ozan and Melitta Tchaicovsky, paints a beautiful and colourful picture of a disappearing nomad community in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Featuring highly emotional Rajasthani music, the film provides insights into the roots of the European Roma.
The film captures the lives and journeys of vanishing nomadic communities of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. From the open roads of the desert to their temporary encampments, the camera follows snake-charmers, storytellers, musicians, metalworkers, salt traders and dancers as they travel from village to village in their struggle for survival. A minimal narration takes the viewer through the intricacies of the Hindu caste system and the practice of marrying within their own tribe. Many of their customs have much in common with those of the European ‘Gypsies’2 and of the ‘Gypsies’ who have migrated from India.
Nomadic Communities Featured in the Documentary
There are about sixteen active nomadic communities in Rajasthan today, each belonging to a caste within the complicated and rigid Indian caste system (Komar Khotari, 2003).
For a period of seven months, Melitta Tchaicovsky, Pepe Ozan (1939–2013) and I travelled with communities on the verge of extinction such as the Gadolya Lohars (blacksmiths) Kalbelyias (dancers), Jogis (snake-charmers), Banjaras (traders), Bhopas (storytellers), Manganiars (musicians) and Nats (acrobats), capturing their way of life, music, dance, weddings and rituals.
Kalbeliyas and Jogis
The traditional occupation of the Kalbelyia caste is to catch snakes and train them to dance to the sound of the Pungi. Today this charismatic caste mainly consists of dancers, musicians and singers.
The Kalbeliyas are believed to be descendants of Guru Kanipath and Guru Gorakhnath, who in turn are descended from Lord Shiva. They still arrange marriages between children. Kalbeliya women compose the songs of the caste and are known as the best dancers of the desert. They dress in traditional black attire (kale) and their movements resemble those of the snakes.
The Gadolya Lohars are travelling blacksmiths who have no fixed homes. They fabricate and repair iron tools and utensils, travelling in carts from village to village. They get their name from gadya, the name of their decorated carts drawn by bullocks, and lohar, the word for blacksmith.
The Banjaras are an extended nomadic community of traders. Their main business in Rajasthan is travelling from village to village selling salt, although they also trade in a number of other products. Banjara women dress in beautifully ornamented outfits and jewellery
The Bhopas, colourful storytellers and musicians, move across the desert relating the story of heroes at the time of the Moghuls (Paburathore and Prince Pabuji, among others). They perform to the villagers in front of a painted backdrop which is used as a guide to the story. They also sing ballads and recite poetry, travelling from village to village.
The Langas/Manganiars, who consider themselves descendants of the Rajputs, are known as the creators of the finest music of the desert. Their songs are passed from generation to generation, which makes them effectively the keepers of the history of the desert. They sing songs about Alexander the Great, the Maharajas and past battles in the region.
Manganiars have survived for centuries on the patronage of wealthy merchants in caravan towns, particularly Jaisalmer where there is an important settled community today. At births, marriages or any other family festivity, the Manganiar musicians are in attendance to evoke the right mood with songs of the desert and many especially composed songs to praise the patron and his family.