Renowned Kalbeliya artist Gulabi Sapera on her determination to dance, acts of resistance
Life changed completely when, as a child of seven years, Dhanvantri was spotted by Tripti Pandey and Himmat Singh of the Rajasthan Tourism Department while dancing at the Pushkar Mela.
At the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, Gulabi Sapera chatted with her mentor Tripti Pandey and told stories of her life that were so far unheard.
One Dhanteras evening, around 50 years ago, at about 7 pm, a daughter was born into a Kalbeliya (or Sapera - a nomadic tribe of snake charmers) family in a remote village called Kotda in Rajasthan. Like many others communities back then, this one was not known to be kind to its girl children, and the infant was taken away and buried alive. But, her determined mother fought the odds and the village folk, and five hours later found where her daughter was buried and dug her out. The child was alive, brought home and named Dhanvantri.
Dhanvantri, or Gulabi Sapera as the world knows her today, is the single largest proponent who put the Kalbeliya dance form on an international platform. This Padma Shri awardee, whose family was once ostracised for allowing her to dance, now has proud supporters among community members. Their hope, they tell her, is to have a Gulabi take birth in their homes too.
Debuting at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Gulabi says she is grateful to the divine that her achievements as an internationally renowned dancer have saved hundreds from female infanticide in her community. “Saving girls has been the biggest win. We were not allowed to step out of the home, let alone work or dance. There were no salwar suits for us, only 20 meter ghaghras and a ghunghat. Studying was out of the question as was living anywhere outside the village,” she says in an interview after her session. But, all that has changed over the last four decades and today the children, especially the girls of the community are educated, work in cities and follow their dreams.
A career spanning 40 years and counting
Taking her back to the beginning, I asked her what her earliest memories of dancing were, since she accompanied her snake charmer father when he set out. “I remember being mesmerised by the music of the pungi (a wind instrument) and the dhaphli (a percussion instrument). I would move the way the snakes did and it felt natural to me,” she says. She adds though that she distinctly remembers her father being chided for making his daughter dance and "earning off her back". His retort was telling of those times – "When with me and dancing, she remains safe. Left alone, she may be killed by the community for the crime of being alive when it was deemed that she should not be."
Life changed completely when, as a child of seven years, Dhanvantri was spotted by Tripti Pandey and Himmat Singh of the Rajasthan Tourism Department while dancing at the Pushkar Mela. They took her under their wings and against all odds, Dhanvantri performed in America, in the mid-1980s. Things took off from there. It was her father who renamed her Gulabi, a name that changed to Gulabo, before a performance in Haryana. She laughs when she says she prefers Gulabi.
Across her 40-year career, Gulabi says she has lost track of the countries she has visited. “I have a home in France and Denmark, have sang countless times on international radio stations, and have worked on music albums with international artistes too,” she says. Her albums like Rakhi and Musique du Rajasthan continue to rank high.
Gulabi’s shimmering costume of black with mirror-work and embroidery adds to the amazing spectacle that is the Kalbeliya dance. It is a costume she designed, but “it’s a misconception that I designed it for the dance,” she says. “When I was quite young, black was not a colour that we were allowed to wear for religious reasons. I was getting a dress made and had to cover the black up. I used coloured patches of cloth, mirrors and sequins, and it ended up being a colourful representation of Rajasthan. I used to dance in this outfit and the association came about even though it was just a pretty dress I made for myself,” she explains.
Making a difference
Gulabi’s life is quite literally the stuff of books – she was buried alive, had her brother secretly bring her to Jaipur from Ajmer in search of Tripti Pandey, against the wishes of her community, became an international dance phenomenon, had her groom run away on the wedding day (but married him in the end) and is now watching her children live their dreams. “My son is part of a fusion music group and my daughter has played the role of a heroine in a Rajasthani movie,” she says proudly, a first for any girl of their community.
Gulabi’s life has been one of making a difference. “Despite being a tiny at 5ft, I have been able to make that change in society, but at the same time, it’s not something I want to boast about,” she says. People are constantly looking to change for the better, and that is never without any obstacles, she asserts. "You do need the support of your family, which is what I got. But, that said, never look to the people behind you, they only want to hold you back from your potential. Instead, look to the people ahead of you, who are extending a helping hand for you to move forward and to the next stage of your life. Make your passion your life."
Gulabi says that in India we have such a wide range of art forms that need to come into the limelight but, the encouragement for them is minimal. “More artistes need to consider government-sponsored shows not for the money, which is a pittance but, for the platform and exposure it offers.”
Gulabi will soon inaugurate her own academy in Pushkar, which will not only teach the dance form, but also be a place that educates children and teaches them traditional Kalbeliya arts like snake catching, poison extraction, making of instruments like the been and dhaphli. Age being no bar, Gulabi says that she is the dance and the dance is her and there is no other way she would rather be.