The Incredible Journey of Gulabo Sapera

In conversation with the celebrated folk dancer from Rajasthan
Legendary Kalbeliya dancer Gulabo Sapera
Legendary Kalbeliya dancer Gulabo Sapera

Gulabo Sapera needs no introduction. The irrepressible&nbspKalbeliya artist from Ajmer has given a new life and impetus to the age-old traditions of the Kalbeliya tribe. From buried alive, right after her birth, by elders of the Sapera community to receiving the Padma Shri and taking her art across the globe, Gulabo&rsquos journey has been truly inspiring.

An epitome of women's empowerment, she went on to evolve her own individual style and school of dancing, based on the Kalbaliya form and received global fame and recognition.

The dancer shared details about her journey with cultural icon and her mentor Tripti Pandey during the recently held Jaipur Literature Festival. During the session, Gulabo talked about the incredible story of her life, her inspirations and learnings.

We caught up with the world-renowned folk artist to know about her journey, her struggles and her future plans to promote folk arts and artists. Here are excerpts from the interview.

We have read that you were buried alive by your relatives as an infant because you were a girl child. Now that you have achieved international fame and your dance has won you many accolades and awards, including the Padma Shri, how do you look back at your journey so far
Firstly, I don&rsquot look back, I only look forward, and even if I revisit my past, I think that I should take my dance further ahead and spread it to all corners of the world, I am delighted that I was honoured with the Padma Shri and that Kalbeliya dance has received its share of fame and honour over the years. Now it has also been recognised by UNESCO. Mujhe bahut aage leke jaana hai isko (I want to take it ahead.) Mai chahti hun ghar ghar me Gulabo ho (my dream is to see a Gulabo in every household). I am also building a school in Pushkar, where we will not only teach them dance, but also teach them everything about the ancient crafts and lifestyle practices of the Kalbeliya community and they will also receive a formal education.

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How did your journey as a dancer begin What were the challenges that you had to face How did your family support you
As you know, I was buried alive by the women of my community as I was the fourth daughter born to my parents. My father wasn&rsquot around and even my mother did not know about it. When my mom came to know about it from my aunt, she went to the site where they had buried me. She had a firm belief that even after five to six hours of being buried, I would be alive.

They rescued me and from thereon, my father was always extremely cautious about my safety. He would not leave me in the village and would take me everywhere he went to perform. He was a snake charmer. I was only six months old when he started taking me to his performances. He would make me sit in a basket and keep the snakes in the other basket.

I still have faint memories of my childhood, about how dance came to me so naturally. I would see the snakes moving their flexible bodies and I would see my father do tricks with them. By the time I was one or one-and-a-half year old, I had already started dancing like the snakes. My father used to feed me the leftover milk that was served to the snakes by the villagers.

Aap keh sakte hain ki main saanpo ke beech pali-badhi (it would be right to say that I grew up in the company of snakes). I understood the music, the beats and the rhythm at a very young age, so dance had to come naturally to me. As a snake charmer, my father would play an instrument called pungi and would hypnotise the snakes, and do other entertaining acts like juggling.

Soon, I started dancing with the snakes and I used to love it. But society asked questions of my father because he was letting a girl dance. &ldquoShe is not a snake, she is a girl and girls in our society are not allowed to dance,&rdquo they would say. My father told them that he was scared to lose me because of the fear that people were trying to kill me, which is why he would take me with him everywhere.

When I turned six, the community members used to warn my father that they would expel him and he would have to leave the village. My father was forced to keep me under house arrest but I would cry a lot. All I wanted was to dance. Soon my mother started taking me to perform in small functions secretly. It would help her financially.

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By the time I was eight, I got the opportunity to perform at the Pushkar Mela. I was performing to a large crowd, which had gathered in a circle to watch me sing and dance. Senior officials from the Rajasthan Tourism Department, Tripti Pandey-ji and Himmat Singh-ji, spotted me dancing and requested me to do a &ldquoprogramme&rdquo in the evening. I had no idea what a &ldquoprogramme&rdquo was. I danced that evening and to my surprise, everyone was clapping during the entire performance. I didn&rsquot even know what clapping signified. I was confused whether they were clapping to boo me off the stage or were they clapping because they liked my dance. After my performance, Tripti-ji told me that the audience had loved my performance.

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After some time, I wanted to devote all my time to dancing and I wanted to move to Jaipur for that. My father was scared of being banished from our community and was against the idea. I had to elope from my house with my brother&rsquos support. We met Tripti ma&rsquoam in Jaipur and I moved to Jaipur in 1981 to start a new chapter of my life. I mastered my craft and worked over my costume, jewelry, style and other important aspects.

I was only 13 when I got the opportunity to travel to America to perform in Washington DC. I had a great experience, almost life changing. I was featured by leading newspapers after my performance. That changed my Sapera community&rsquos attitude towards a girl child. I started teaching dance to their daughters and everyone started respecting me and my dance.  

They invited me to their homes and told me that they would never practice female feticide again. I feel overwhelmed to see their daughters supporting them financially today.

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Even Maharani Gayatri Devi-ji of Jaipur convinced my father that he should support me and my dance because she knew my talent would take me places. My father supported me a lot after that, fighting all odds.

After his death, I was pressurised by society, again, to quit dancing. But I was determined to pursue my passion for dance. I didn&rsquot get an opportunity to study though. I was always performing, and girls in my community were not allowed to study. Now, I am helping the Kalbeliya folk community and ensuring that their daughters are able to get formal education.

How has the pandemic impacted the lives of folk artists and Kalbeliya dancers
Aisa lag raha hai ki ye corona to sirf kalkaaro pe hi pada hai (It seems like the pandemic has only hit the artist community.). Kalaakar wo log hain jo roz kuan khodein aur roz paani piyein (Artists are people who live a hand-to-mouth existence.

The condition of artists is very bad. They have not earned anything for the last 10 months. Recently, an artist from my community in Jaipur committed suicide. He had brought gannas to sell on Diwali, but when he couldn&rsquot sell them, he took the drastic step.

I have been helping folk artists of Rajasthan. I sent food packets to them during the pandemic. But there are lakhs of them. The government and some NGOs also supported them but now once again, they are in a very sorry state. The government must pay attention to our ordeal.

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During the lockdown, I taught Kalbeliya to my neighbours, I took video classes but most people from my community said that there was no use being an artist as nobody cares about them.

I even had my power cut because I was so involved in helping artists that I forgot to pay my electricity bills

Everyone is going through a tough time. The government must help us.

Tell us about the dance school that you are opening in Pushkar.
Yes, it&rsquos almost ready. I might launch it on March 28. We would train them in Kalbeliya and other folk dances of Rajasthan. Besides a formal education, they will also learn about the cultural practices of the Kalbeliya community. We will teach them how to make jewellery, mirror work, carpet weaving, dafli making, how to make medicines from herbs.

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Saanp ka zehar kaise utarta hai, bicchu ka zehar kaise utarta hai...bahut saari cheezein sikhaaenge hum bacho ko (How do we remove snake and scorpion poison, we will teach many things to kids.) Kalbeliya and saperas have earned international fame but now I want to bring the other aspects of Kalbeliya life to the fore. I want to make our handicrafts, our costume, our traditional jewelry and other such things famous.  

How was the experience of being a part of Jaipur Literature Festival 2021
I feel very fortunate that I got to share my life story and I would like to thank the organsiers for inviting me. It was surreal being interviewed by the same person (Tripti Pandey) who spotted me in Pushkar as a child.

You have travelled across the world. Which has been your favourite place to perform
I love India the most. I also love America. I have homes in France and Denmark, where I teach dance.

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