” I was buried alive for virtually seven hours before my mother and aunt dug my tomb and drew me out after hearing my incessant cries. I do not know if it was the grass handling the soil that helped me breathe or simply a fighting spirit that afforded a less-than-one-day-old baby from Ajmer’s Kotda village the strength. But I refused to give up on myself, ” says Gulabo Sapera, who bloomed in the patriarchal landscape of Rajasthan and went on to create history in more styles than one.
Years later, this daughter with an indomitable spirit was featured in a publication; but her name was misspelt and, since then, to the world, she came to be known as Gulabo- the sensational Sapera( or Kalbelia) dancer from Pushkar who could bend in unimaginable ways.
When she turned one, Gulabo, originally identified Dhanvati, fell seriously ill and the doctors nearly gave up on her, but once again she contended hard to live. A arise was placed next to her in health clinics, and ensure the flower as a sign of good will, her father-god changed her name to Gulabi.
In 2016, Gulabo was bestowed with India’s fourth-highest civilian award, Padma Shri for her outstanding contribution in enhancing India’s folk dance culture. Apart from this prestigious accolade, acceptances and commendations have poured in ever since her first public concert in Pushkar Mela at 10.
“I still remember people applauding in appreciation and bewilderment after verifying my first performance. I failed to understand why they met around, took a few minutes out of their lives to see me but I felt very special. For the first time, I was not judged for belonging to a lower caste or being a girl. Dance gave me a fresh identity, ” she recollects.
From running a dance academy in Denmark to expand her legacy internationally, imparting free lessons to daughters from rural areas of Rajasthan to soon opening a dance school in Ajmer, Gulabo is going all guns flaming to preserve her dance shape.
She takes her passion to grow as a dancer and welcome new developments very seriously. No wonder that, even at 49, she learnt video calling to launch online dance first-class. The money she pays is used to support sapera dancers who the hell is out of work due to the pandemic.
Gulabo’s life story is straight out of a film with many high-priceds and lows, and it is her outlook of inducing the world a better place through her art that is the hero, or rather heroine.
Of Snakes And Dancing
Gulabo’s father was out of the terminal when she was born. Upon his return, he learnt about the unfortunate incident that was a result of female infanticide, a practice that was prevalent in many parts of Rajasthan a few decades ago.
He called them out for their inhuman treatment of a newborn. Fierce with the man’s fight for equality, the village heads ostracized the family.
Her father was a sapera or snake charmer who would go around the village with a basket of serpents to put up concerts that would typically include hypnotizing snakes with an instrument called a pungi, juggling and other such acts.
When Gulabo was scarcely six months old, her father started taking her on his performances. She would effortlessly tap to the songs of pungi alongside the serpents and would copy their moves. From them, she learnt whirls and flexibility that later become the base of her brand of sapera dance.
Here’s her journey from dancing with serpents to being spotted by Tripti Pandey and Himmat Singh, who worked with the Rajasthan Tourism Department at Pushkar Mela.
In the early 80 s, Gulabo began a brand-new period of life after moving to Jaipur, one of India’s busiest cultural hubs, where people were less republican. She became a part of the state’s cultural and tourism department.
She started working on polishing her dancing skills here. She created her garb of the flowing black ghagra-choli and dupatta with decorative cords. The reflect work on the lehenga helps attract the attention of the audience.
To ensure that people find this dance easy, she stayed to no rules.
“It is a freestyle dance that heavily depended on fluid body gestures. From snakes, I learnt how to kind a U-shape with the body, hip moves and vortices. It is chiefly performed on the beats of the dafli, manjeera, dholak and chang( types of percussion instruments ). There are no prerequisites to this dance. All you need is fervour, ” she says.
Over the years, she mastered her craft and was attended various parts organised by the government and even got an opportunity to be a part of the government’s contingent walk to Washington D.C. for a show in 1985.
When she returned, most of the regional newspapers had handled the history of a sapera’s daughter establishing India proud in’ Amrika’.
The same people who once humiliated her now welcomed her with open arms, “Women from our sapera community in Jaipur inspected my house and insisted that I teach their daughters this dance. I was also inundated with calls from my native village, and people told me how proud they were. I could not believe that my artistry form was gradually eliminating the differences, ” she recalls.
Performing on the international stage was the turning point of Gulabo’s life and there has been no looking back since.
She has a humongous fan following all over the world. One such follower is Jyoti Tomar, who won a National Award for choreographing Padmavat’s song, Ghoomar in 2019.
“I was mesmerized to see the flexibility and the stance with which Gulabo danced. Her circles, rhythmic tap, and costume were very unique. The graceful body movements and her backward arch were unbelievable. Only like serpents, Gulado does the waver, flexibility and hypnotizing circles. While I speak I have visuals in my is chairman of her dancing with her charming smile, ” Jyoti tells The Better India.
Overcoming Challenges Gulabo Sapera with Ila Arun
While there was glamour and appreciation, the journey has not been without the market share of challenges. Even after being a part of so many indicates, there are periods when Gulabo and artisans like her are out of work.
“As artisans, we do get a lot of respect but we also need money to survive and this is something that the government needs to take care of, ” she says.
Jyoti agrees with Gulabo and likewise highlights the dire need to preserve this art form.
“Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had started with zonal cultural centres, but very little is reaching to the deserving. With recorded music, TV, films and so many other available options, we are losing on our heritage. The government must do something more constructive. We, as citizens, must respect our culture and should start showing interest in these artwork sorts. I extend my academy, Rajmata where we invite simply authentic tribe artists from Rajasthan to conduct workshops, ” she adds.
Gulabo likewise talked about how the lockdown has further created troubles for artisans, “We have received minimal ration from the authorities concerned but one dancer has to share it with a family of four or five, which is not enough. No solution that can create an alternate subsistence has been implemented. Dancers like me have the internet so we are managing but what about those who don’t? ”
Despite such difficulties, Gulabo has managed to stay true-blue to her artistry while creating her course and carrying forward the legacy. She credits her family members who have stood by her at all times.
“In the initial days, my husband, Sohanath( a city-based classical vocalist and harmonium musician) would visit gymkhanas, agencies of private organisers and occurrence management corporations as my agent. His enthusiasm and respect for my work have played an instrumental role in raising awareness about this dance. My children have also learnt this dance and are now teaching others. Finally, I owe all is my parents who believed I was born to do great things, ” says Gulabo.
Whether it was turning abuse into applause, becoming the chairmen of a caste association that once ostracized her for being a girl or putting the sapera dance on the world map, this legendary woman’s excursion is exceptional.
Get in contacts with Gulabo Sapera here
Edited by Sandhya Menon
Read more: thebetterindia.com