Timeless Traditions of Rajasthan

By Dr. Maha Gingrich

I was doing a presentation for a corporation on the global influence of Indian dances. I was discussing both classical dances and folk and tribal dances. Especially, we cannot forget the Russian Gypsy connection to Indian Gypsy. Many folk traditions have the similar flowing skirts and movements, and they also dance barefoot. When I was sharing some images, I had to share the beautiful architecture and folk costumes of Rajasthan.

When we think of Rajasthan, we think of beautiful palaces shown in movies like Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, Padmavati and so on. We also see the elaborate royal clothing and jewelry. As a dancer when I think of Rajasthan, I think of the pirouettes, swirls, acrobatic movements, and incredible costumes with vibrant colors, the intricate folk jewelry, timeless and diverse dances.

Rajasthani dances require not only grace, but also elegance, flexibility, acrobatic moves, and dynamic music filled with toe-tapping tempo. A few years ago, when we did the Ghoomar dance during the Dances of India production, people were spellbound. Ghoomar, meaning going in circles, was originally restricted to be performed only by Rajput women (the royal families). Here the ladies dance with elegant hand movements wearing colorful lahangas or large skirts. As they go in circles the skirts flare beautifully giving you a spectacular dimension. The Indian film Padmavati has a super dance if you would like to see this dance style.

Then there is a dance of chivalry called Geendad. This is an exclusively male dance requiring years of experience as they carry swords or sticks and jump and exchange positions in a circle. These are real swords making it a dangerous dance form like the martial arts of Kerala. Same kind of precision is needed as they also do fire dances where they eat fire and jump through the fire rings. Yes! Like in the Renaissance festival.

The other exclusively male dance is the Gair. It was originally performed only by men but has now developed into an inclusive dance form. However, usually men and women dance in separate circles. Men wear long, pleated tunics that open out into full-length skirts. Here when they are dancing it seems as if they are depicting a scene from a war front. It is believed by the locals that this dance must have some significance to war. This form of dance is also seen in Africa and Central Asia.

The sticks used in the dance are called Khanda. These sticks are very attractive and catch every eye. They play a vital role in the dance. They are very thin and light, and give a flare look. They are cut from the gundi tree and involve very little cleaning. In some places swords are used, instead of sticks, making it very difficult for the dancers and challenging them on precision.

Rajasthan also is known for religious dance forms. We have many pictures of beautifully dressed snake charmers with turbans. The Kalbelia community, or snake charmers of Rajasthan, do a beautiful snake dance to the tunes of the Been instrument. During this dance, they worship the Snake God and imitate the snake with difficult back bends and hand movements.

The Terah Taali dance is a ritual dance performed as an ode to Baba Ramdev with 13 cymbals called Manjeera tied to their bodies, creating music with great speed while making it look easy. To make it more complicated they also hold a sword between their teeth and place pots with lit lamps on their heads. How can you not be focused when you do a complicated dance such as this? That focus itself is a ritual and a trance, as I call it “A prayer in motion".

The Bhavia is a dance that was influenced by the neighboring state of Gujrat. This dance is incomprehensible as I watch with horror. The dancer balances nine brass pots on his or her head. Then they stand on a sharp sword or glass and continue their dancing with graceful hand movements and speed.

The dance that touches the hearts of all ages is the Kathputli (the Puppet) dance. Years ago, the classic Bollywood movie Chori, starring Nargis and Raj Kapoor, brought attention to this dance form. It was also featured in the newer movie Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. These puppet shows tell the folk stories, stories from Ramayana and Mahabharat and other literatures. Due to the intricacies of making these puppets, these dances have not been spreading beyond its origin.

The energy and beauty of all the dances performed in Rajasthan is a divine gift. This state is truly embodied in its various dance forms its spirit and creativity.

Art has always been an integral part of Rajasthani culture and its people. All over India and abroad the legacy of Rajasthani dance forms continues to flourish making them timeless.

For questions or comments contact Maha via e-mail at: Gingrichmaha@gmail.com