When a 13-year-old Gulabi Sapera would set out to dance on the streets of Ajmer and nearby villages to the sound of her father’s been (pungi) and alongside snakes — mostly cobras in cane baskets — her credentials were based on the similarities to the snakes’ movements. She would contort her body and swirl, as if it was a cathartic ritual, “the ecstasy was enough to pull off the tiring routine every day”. “That’s why, those who came to watch, threw coins at me. I thought I had arrived,” says Gulabo Sapera, 46. Gulabi became Gulabo before a performance in Haryana. “They said Gulabo sounded stronger,” she says.
As a child, never did she factor in dancing on stage for a living, finding respect for her art form and definitely not a Padma Shri, which was conferred upon her in 2016. It was the first award for her community — the Kaalbelias, who trace their lineage to Kanlipar, the 12th disciple of Guru Gorakhnath and reside predominantly in Pali, Ajmer, Chittorgarh and Udaipur.
“Post the award, my responsibility has increased, to make sure that the art form is preserved,” says Gulabo, who was awarded for putting Kaalbelia, the Rajasthani folk form, on the world map. She will present a concert at the Global Carnival, organised by Navrasa Duende, from February 23-25 at Delhi’s JLN Stadium. The carnival will also present London Festival Opera and Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra among a range of music and dance acts.
The songs and dances of the sapera community are an intrinsic element of their oral traditions. “They call India the country of snake charmers. I’m the daughter of one, have grown up in the community and have found an international audience,” says Gulabo, who is not comfortable with the term Kaalbelia and says that it should be “Sapera Dance” as the word kaal refers to death and is also the reason the women dress up in black, deemed to be the colour of death. “Snakes were a reference to death, and controlling them meant controlling time, destiny and death, hence the term kaalbelia. I always refer to it as Sapera Dance,” says Gulabo.
Gulabo was the seventh child of a sapera. But her birth wasn’t a happy occasion for the community — “as girls were a lot of work” — which buried her alive, with the umbilical cord intact. Her father was away and her mother was unconscious. The latter was told hours later that it was a stillbirth. “Later at night, my mother told the women at home that she had heard the child cry. That’s when my aunt caved in and told her that the baby was a girl so the elders decided to bury her,” says Gulabo. Her aunt and mother dug up the grave and pulled out the baby, who was miraculously alive. “They had put some grass on me before the sand burial. Probably that saved me,” says Gulabo, who was born Dhanvantri but named Gulabi by a pir.
After her father found out about the burial, he began carrying Gulabo in one of his snake baskets. He’d do naag pujas at people’s homes and divided the milk he received among the snakes and his daughter. “I was growing up with snakes, playing with them. Dancing like them came naturally,” says Gulabo, who adds that till then, women from the sapera community, didn’t dance in public. She would dance when her father played the been, just like the serpents did.
It was at the Pushkar mela in 1984, during a similar performance, that life changed for Gulabo. Among many visitors walking around were Rajasthan tourism department officials Himmat Singh and Tripti Pandey who saw many people watching a young girl dance. “She came to me, like a fairy godmother I had imagined, with long hair and asked where my bones were,” says Gulabo. Pandey asked Gulabo’s father to get her to dance on stage with ghunghroos. The smooth stage felt much better than the hot sand or the pebbles. “When the audience applauded, I was scared. I was used to coins, not the applause. It took me a while to understand that this was appreciation,” she says.
But the community removed her from among their own as women couldn’t be entertainers. “But I knew this is what I wanted. So one night, I came to Jaipur to Pari mam (Pandey), with my brother. She helped me perform, and travel,” says Gulabo, who was later also spotted by art curator Rajiv Sethi in Delhi, who drew the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s attention to her. The dancer soon travelled to the Festival of India in Washington. Gulabo was also approached by many filmmakers for dance sequences in Ajooba, Batwara and Jwala Daaku, among others. She also performs regularly with French composer Titi Robin.
She now teaches the art at her residence in Jaipur apart from spending three months in Denmark and a few in France where she has students.She now wants to begin a formal academy, where girls from the community and others will learn. Her three daughters also dance. “I can see Kaalbelia becoming Sapera Dance, finding success. We aren’t agents of death. We are artistes,” says Gulabo.