The mesmerizing dance of the Kalbeliya community has become famous all over the world. But, about 50 years ago, this community of snake charmers could never have thought in their wildest dreams that their daughters would dance and popularize this folk art. This phenomenon can only be attributed to Padamshree Gulabo Sapera- a woman who refused to stop dancing and living!
The sand dunes of Rajasthan have been a silent witness to the changing times. They have been mute spectators of a time when thousands of new born girls were buried alive in their sands and died without a whimper. But then they have also witnessed the miracle of Gulabo Sapera, a girl who was buried in their folds minutes after she was born and lived to tell the tale.
Today, the world knows her as Gulabo Sapera, but she was christened Dhanvantari after the Hindu god of medicine and nectar, after she was found alive despite being buried in the sand dunes. She belongs to the tribe of Kalbeliyas who are known for their ability to catch and tame snakes.
Gulabo reveals, ‘We are gypsy people who live in the jungle, catch snakes and make them dance to earn money. Our people used to go from door to door asking people to feed the snakes milk and collect dakshina. In the old days, most girls were killed as soon as they were born because most of our tribe lived in the forests. There was an unwritten rule that no family could have a lot of girls in their house. If they wanted they could keep a single girl child but not more because abduction of girls was quite common in those days. Then, we were quite poor and most families don’t have enough money to ensure that their daughters along with the sons can be fed, clothed and protected or pay dowry in their marriage. When they had to marry their boys, they used to get girls from the chhabri community (basket weavers) by paying the bride price and marry them. These girls were brought from their families at a very young age. A lot of women in my family have been married like this.’
The famous model and actor Milind Soman may have married Ankita Konwar, a girl who is 25 years younger to him but this trend is not new to Rajasthan. Gulabo says, ‘My father is 25 years older to my mother. Infact, my father was taking care of my grandmother when she gave birth to my mother. He travelled 10 kilometers, went to the village and got the things required for the delivery for her. So, my grandfather proclaimed that this newborn girl would not be killed and will marry his son once she grows up.’
Having witnessed female infanticide in such close quarters within his family, Gulabo’s father was quite against it. ‘He wanted that men from our community should marry the girls from their own community instead of getting girls from other communities by paying the bride price. He believed that girls of his own community were far more beautiful and talented. He worshipped Goddess Chamunda and was dead against female infanticide.’
Gulabo’s three elder sisters were protected by her father when they were born. ‘The people of our community were quite upset about the fact that my father did not allow any one to kill his daughters. I was the seventh, child, born after three sisters and three brothers. I was born on Dhanteras. My father had gone to buy some goods for the festival of Diwali. My mother slept out of exhaustion after the delivery. So, seizing the opportunity, the midwife who had come for my delivery, along with my five year old brother took me and buried me in the sands. When my mother woke up and demanded to see her new born, she was told that the baby had been buried. She insisted on visiting the place where I was buried and dug me up. Some how, I was alive despite being buried in the sands for more than five hours! As a result, I was named Dhanvantari after the gods of medicine and nectar.’
However, her struggles were far from over. The next morning the village panchayat admonished her parents for saving their daughter after she was buried in the sands. Gulabo reveals, ‘My father received a lot of flak from the village panchayat. In their eyes, it was a sort of rebellion. But my father said that since I was found alive even after five hours of being buried in the sand, I was no longer his daughter but the daughter of the Earth Goddess! He told them to spare me and punish him in case they deemed fit. At that time, my father saved me from being killed. However, people were not happy seeing me alive. My father ensured that I did not stay in the village but travelled with him for his performances.’
It was this travelling that helped Gulabo learn dance from the snakes. ‘I used to watch those snakes dance and I imitated them. Slowly and steadily, as I grew up, I learnt to dance like the snakes on the music of the been. After a while, I started dancing with the snakes wrapped around me. People started liking my dance and gave money to watch me dance. However, people of my community again objected that how could my parents allow me to dance and earn money? This continued but I did not stop dancing and people continued appreciate it. They started calling me Gulabo. When I was eight years old, I was dancing at the Pushkar Fair on a sand dune when I was discovered by the people from the tourism department of Rajasthan.’
But her struggles weren’t over yet. ‘There was again a huge hue and cry in my community after I started performing in dance shows. But I paid no heed to them because now I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was scheduled to travel to America for my first dance show when my father passed away on the eve of my departure. The people of the community said all sorts of things to me, they blamed me for my father’s death. They wouldn’t let me go. However, I begged them to let me go because I knew my father was my biggest supporter and he wouldn’t have stopped me from taking on such a big opportunity.’
It was only when her name started figuring in newspapers and other journals that people of her own community started realizing her true worth. ‘When I came back from America, people of my village were awed at my popularity. Many of them told me that the people from other communities invited them to their homes and honoured them because they were related to me. They, who were treated with nothing but contempt had never witnessed such a change of heart or received such respect from the villagers.’
As Gulabo’s fame grew and her art was revered in 153 countries across the world, the people of her community started viewing their own daughters in a different light and realized their potential. The infanticide which was so rampant earlier started declining as the daughters were finally allowed to live and dance. ‘They said that they wanted their daughters to emulate my success and help them to live better in the world. Today, girls are no longer killed in my community. In fact, they learn dance and earn for their families. Some girls manage to educate themselves. My husband supports me. We have five children, two boys and three girls. My girls love to dance. All my children are educated and have studied in English medium school. We will soon open a school for these girls where they will be educated and will also learn dance.’
However, despite her success Gulabo feels that girls are still not viewed as equals in many segments of the society. ‘Girls still need to be careful lest they give the wrong signals. My parents always advised me to be conscious of my step in the public. They told me to always be alert and understand the body language of the people I talk to. The girls have to remain strong.’
Gulabo’s journey is as legendary as this dancer herself. She has not only been an inspiration to the people of her community but has also helped people to realize the true value of girls!
This article was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on February 25, 2021.