"I have broken down three
walls", says the attractive middle aged woman conscious of the power
of her personality. "My people were nomads but I have shown them the
pleasures and profits of making a home. Our art was only related to our
livelihood but after I took it on-stage it now entertains people. And
finally, I led my community in putting our children in schools".
There is no false modesty. Gulabo Sapera wears the
disdainful smile of a winner.
She is one of modern India's many leaders, questioning
the handed down prescriptions for life , rejecting what they believe are
restrictive and adapting their uniqueness to grab a place in the modern
Let us consider the lot of the Kalbeliyas till the 1980s.
They have for centuries believed in the following legend: In ancient times
Guru Jalandhernath had two disciples, to whom he set the exercise that
they each fill a cup with their art and learning.
Gorakhnath, the gentle scholar filled a cup with ambrosia whereas
Kannipav, the audacious presented a cup filled with the venom of snakes
and scorpions. The angered Guru set a curse upon Kannipav that he and his
descendants forever live outside the limits of towns and villages, and
earn a living as snake-catchers.
Let us not be judgmental about an India that can be so
hard hearted, but look how, far from the widely-held belief, social
conditions are not immutable.
Kalbeliyas made a living out of an average man's fear
of snakes and reptiles. They were the 'snake-squad', ridding your home and
farms of pests. Their 'fun' gatherings around the festival of Holi,
resounded to the music of 'been' and 'duff'. Their women whirl and sway in
village fairs. The pace is fast, and combined with their colourful
costumes and sinuous bodies the effect is heady. Crowds would gather and
throw a few pennies for the dancers. This was the Kalbeliya's extra
At the Pushkar fair, near Ajmer in Rajasthan in 1981, 12
year old Dhanvantri was left alone, as her elders were busy attracting
fair-goers. She was the last of seven children and the darling of her
father. Her rosy complexion had made her father rejoice in the pet name
'Gulabo'. Away from the throng, she was amusing herself imitating the
elders. She swung and she whirled.
Rajasthan was then beginning to be 'discovered' by
tourists and the government was trying to market the Pushkar Camel Fair.
Mr. Hanumant Singh and Ms. Tripti Pandey, culture activists, stood riveted
as they watched young Gulabo. Won't she wow the visitors? They could
imagine the Kalbeliya dance on a formal stage to be just the draw the fair
Her father was willing to have his pet girl go on stage
but the larger community was obdurate: 'Kalbeliyas do not perform on
stage.' After much persuasion from Singh and Pandey, they agreed to 'just
Gulabo's debut on stage brought the large audience to its
feet, thumping, applauding and asking for more. Professional stage
managers had packaged the dance and music well and a folk art form was
Singh and Pandey now over-powered the community
resistance and Gulabo became a part of the daily show at the fair. In the
audience one day was Rajeev Sethi, soon to become art czar in the reign of
The Kalbeliya Dance, became a Rajsthani exclusive.
Invitations from around the country took Gulabo everywhere.
To the Festivals of India.
In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi took on an activist role in
projecting a new image of India overseas, with the 'Festival of India'
series. Sethi was the key organiser. He remembered Gulabo and away she
went to Washington in 1986. To a vivacious 17 year old, it was a heady
experience. In her new world, the attention and adulation sowed the seeds
of responsibility in her. And made her self confident.
Picture a scene she narrates: " A day before I left
for Washington, my dear father had died and I nearly dropped out. When
Rajiv and Sonia came to the Festival, I was moved to tears that he had
heard this. 'I am glad you came and are doing this for your country' , he
said. I instantly pulled out a long strand of hair from my head, wound it
around his wrist and said, 'Now you are my brother!' "
Some country girl!
If such a girl from an oppressed community can feel so
expansive and resentment-free, and have a sense of belonging, then India
must surely have a bright future. Gulabo must be understood not as a stray
case of a girl making good, but as a symbol of changing India. How one
break of good fortune in a community can motivate and change a whole lot
Back in India, Gulabo was no longer apologetic or
subservient to her community elders. She was a leader and decided to
inspire others by her ways. She bought a house, in Jaipur - a sacrilege
some time ago in a nomadic community! Her lovely daughter Rakhi goes to
the school run by Rajmata Gayatri Devi at the Jaipur Palace!
There's a cheerful irreverence about her. The
tattoos on her face, are fine and several. There's a pair set to
elongate her already large eyes. Her body is in confident repose.
She is a role model today!
She married a man who was not a Kalbeliya. She dragged
him in and converted him: 'It's a trivial thing', she mocks.
She has spurred several of her community members to join
her ensemble and widen their horizons.
She is a prosperous woman who lives in Jaipur, where many
other Kalbeliyas have begun to live rooted lives, sending their children
to schools and looking at opportunities modern India offers.
She is part of the international culture and music
circuit, part of jazz bands and a performer in films.
She is a visiting teacher in Copenhagen, Denmark every
year, to train children there in body-awareness and dance.
She is a woman who has broken down more than the three
walls she is aware of.
Gulabo, and many little-known people like her, are
leaders in a changing India.
- Gulabo Sapera
- Plot No 36
- Baba Ramdeo Colony
- near Tagore Public School
- Shastri Nagar,