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Gulabi’s Journey: From a Sapera village to Smithsonian

by Sunil Nair

It was a decade back, while I was in Surajkund for the famous annual mela, that I first witnessed the Kalbelia dance. A lady wearing an attractive black attire with silver embroidery was dancing enthrallingly to the tunes of traditional Rajasthani folk song and the accompaniments of Pungis and Daflis. As the tempo of the song kept rising, so did the tempo of her movements, as though akin to a snake's catching its prey. It was indeed mesmerizing.

Curiosity to know more about this dance form through the Internet led me to Gulabi Sapera, a Kalbelia dancer from Rajasthan. Her story was quite intriguing. Apparently as a kid, she had an uncommon love for snakes. She would dance around the snake, and sometimes wrap it around her neck. She craved to follow her father, a snake charmer, on his trips. But the social circumstances in the Sapera villages were stringent against girls.

The story goes that her father returning from one such trip found Gulabi running high fever and was shocked to know that she kept weeping missing the sound of pungi. Believing that there could be a divine bond between the snakes and his daughter, he took her on every trip of his. He carried her in one basket and the snakes in the other. After the performances, the little Gulabi would go around collecting coins from the crowd. Supposedly, she would drink milk from the same bowl as the snake, so was their bond.

Despite objection from her family and village elders, she first performed on stage during the Rajasthan Tourism festival, on an invitation from the state Government. Her untiring efforts since then helped this dance form getting recognition from UNSECO. She today trots the world for stage performances.

It was only in 2004 when Gulabi danced to the music of Thierry Robin, a contemporary French guitarist, that it drew many appreciative eyes towards her talent. This serendipitous rendezvous is quite startling. She has since appeared in many of his productions.

The other Kalbelia dancers have also been getting a lot more offers for performances these days. Even today Gulabi puts in a lot of efforts to train the young dancers from her village, helping to perpetuate the art form.

Unfortunately, there seems no historic records on origins of the Kalbelia Saperas, a nomadic community whose profession is snake charming and treating snake bites. Hope there are some concerted efforts from academia and government quarters to study how and from where they came to Rajasthan, and how this dance form had evolved with time