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Kalbeliyas led by Gulabo Sapera begin a new life.

Kalbeliyas are typical of the challenging, changing communities of tribal India.


"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 world.

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.

At Pushkar.

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 income.

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.

On stage!

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 needed.

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 one evening'.

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 born.

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 Rajiv Gandhi.

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 of them.

Change maker.

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,
Phone: 0141-304786


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