Gulabo, the 45-year-old exponent of Rajasthan’s celebrated dance form Kalbeliya, received the Padma Shri in 2016. A first in her community — traditionally engaged in catching and ‘charming’ serpents — to be awarded the nation’s esteemed civilian award.
Proud with her achievements, she points her finger towards the glass cupboard where around 86 trophies and citations given to her are placed. “Awards are encouragements, and one feels confident and responsible after receiving them,” she tells Sunday Herald, in an exclusive interview at her house in Shastri Nagar, Jaipur.
In 2011, Gulabo featured in the reality television show Bigg Boss (Season 5) as ‘Contestant No 12’. There she spoke openly about the truth behind her birth and the miraculous survival.
The world that she has enraptured with her art for four decades might as well have lost her, because, as soon as she was born, in 1972, the elders in her family buried her alive as girls were considered a burden in her tribe. But her aunt dug her out of the grave at midnight on Dhanteras, coincidentally a holy day on which Hindus pray to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.
Dressed in her signature black dress, her eyes move to another cupboard containing her old photos. The visibly moved danseuse, while holding a photograph in which she is standing with her father, shares how his profession impacted her life. “My father, who was a snake charmer, would always take me along when he travelled to the nearby villages. So I have lived in the company of snakes throughout my childhood. I used to imitate their dance; I used to interact with them,” Gulabo fondly remembers. She recalls that being the fourth daughter in her family, her elders buried her in the absence of her father. “My father would be afraid that if he left me at home, elders would try to kill me again, so he carried me in one of the straw baskets. Snakes were like my sisters, and he used to feed me the same milk he used to get for the snakes.”
Speaking about her dance form, Gulabo shows her discontent with its name, ‘Kalbeliya dance’, and suggests that it be called Gulabo Dance or Sapera Dance instead. She would rhyme her movements with the snakes as they swayed to the tune of her father’s been (snake charmer’s flute), and the moves heralded the now internationally acclaimed dance form.
Like the dancer, her dark swirling dress has a story behind it. Adorned with tiny mirror embellishments and cotton thread braids, Gulabo recalls that she was inspired by the film Asha, she saw on screen as a kid. “I became fascinated with the dress Reena Roy was wearing in the song Sheesha Ho Ya Dil Ho, and I asked my father to get me a similar black dress. As it was expensive, he refused, but after a few days he got me a five-metre-long black cloth for 50 rupees, with which I designed as my dress and identity.”
Though dancing professionally was discouraged in those times, her journey as a dancer began in earnest when in 1985, a few Rajasthan Tourism Department officials spotted her with her friends at the Pushkar fair. The 13-year-old girl charmed the officials, who later convinced her father to allow her to dance on stage for the first time.
After that, there has been no looking back, and she has been sizzling on national and international stages. The world took note of her when art curator Rajiv Sethi encouraged her and she ended up travelling to Washington to perform at the Festival of India.
Gulabo, who had created her space in the glittering world, also found acceptance in her own house. Gulabo Sapera had become a celebrity dancer.
A book has been written by Thierry Robin and Véronique Guillien in French, Danseuse Gitane du Rajasthan, meaning Gulabo Sapera, the gypsy dancer from Rajasthan.
Internationally, she is very active in the musical work of Titi Robin.
As a mother of five children, and as a grandmother, she practises her art and performs in different spaces among varied audience. For an international dancer who has performed in 165 countries, Gulabo takes sand dunes and the giant stage of New York with equal seriousness. She calls her dance a form of religion and meditation that should be spread.
“I may have coined this dance form, but it has brought laurels to our nation, especially the community I belong to. When I see women dancing on the tunes of been, it gives me happiness. This dance form is free; it has a beginning, but no end, so it can go on till your body manages to dance.”
The teacher in her believes in spreading Kalbeliya, and has taught thousands of students from her community, and others. She has taught it to her three daughters and grandchildren. Foreigners take classes from her at her residence. “When I start dancing, I feel I’m out of this world. Dance steps keep coming on their own — my heart, feet, hands and mind become one as I dance. I still practise and that’s how my children and grandchildren have learnt.”
She shares her deep wish of starting a school where she can teach Kalbeliya, but at the same time she says that the state government there should include the art form in the school syllabus, so that students can read and learn about their culture.