- She was almost buried alive soon after birth, all because she was a daughter too many. But she lived on to enchant the world with her talent.
Here’s the story of a Kalbelia dancer from Rajasthan, whom I’ve recently interviewed for my radio show. From being buried alive soon after her birth by elders of the Sapera community (a community of snake charmers), Gulabo Sapera lived on to acquire global fame as a dancer.
She is the proponent of the majestic and enchanting Kalbelia dance, which imitates the movement of a serpent. Those who visited Rajasthan in India must have seen beautiful women dancing, dressed in flowing black ghagra and long cholis, embellished with colorful ribbons and gotta Pattis.
The Kalbelia dancers would not have existed if it wasn’t for this very headstrong and extremely passionate little girl who loved to dance even though girls were not allowed to dance in their community. Gulabo paved the way for many women to perform the Kalbelia dance, not just in Rajasthan but also at a global level. An empowered woman is the one who helps other women rise and realize their full potential.
Gulabo is a living testament to what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” — “We need to keep our eyes open for people on the fringes, communities that are neglected and oppressed because many a time they are the one’s who break barriers and step out to do great things.”
The Kalbelia community is a nomadic tribe, that lives on the fringes of society. The name is derived from the association with snakes that symbolize ‘Kaal’ (death). They are the snake charmers and are called upon to catch venomous snakes. They revere the cobra snake and pray to Naag devta. They do not kill the serpents.
Due to the nomadic nature, and not having enough resources to live, any girl child was considered a burden on the family. The custom was to bury the second girl child in all families. No family was supposed to have two daughters.
Gulabo was born on the day of Dhanteras and was named Dhanvantri. Being born as a third girl in her family, the elders in the tribe pressured her family to bury her immediately after birth. Her dad was a follower of Durga Ma and respected and revered women. He fought to keep his second daughter. He was away when Gulabo was born, so her mom’s sister (masi) secretly took her away and dug a hole in the forest, placed little Gulabo in there, put green grass on top as was the tradition (for a good journey ahead) and covered the hole with mud.
Gulabo was born at 7:00 pm when everyone was praying on the auspicious occasion of dhanteras and was buried soon after. Her mom became hysterical when she didn’t find her baby girl beside her, she pleaded to her sister to take her to her daughter. They waited till midnight and both mother and sister sneaked out to find Gulabo. They dug out the shallow grave and miraculously found little Gulabo still alive.
After hearing that the women had saved little Gulabo, the elders pressured her father to kill her anyway or pay a heavy price. The father stood his ground, paid a huge penalty and obeyed whatever punishment was meted out. Gulabo was given a chance to live. Despite opposition from her community, the love and support of her parents not only helped her survive but also thrive.
Her father would take Gulabo along with him on trips when she was only seven or eight months, as he was afraid that some people might harm her again when he was away from home. He was a snake charmer, so he would play the ‘Sapera been’ flute-like instrument to charm the snakes and also carry some snakes in a straw basket to earn money. Little Gulabo was fed the milk that people gave to the snakes, as she grew older, she slowly started to sway, dance and embody the movements of the snakes as she spent her days playing around them. She was a natural.
Rest is history. Gulabo went on to receive the Padma Shri award in 2016. She swam against the tide all her life and won. She recently opened a school in Pushkar, her dream project where she trains students in Kalbelia and other folk dances of Rajasthan. Besides formal education, they will also learn about the cultural practices of the Kalbeliya community. The students will also learn how to make jewelry, mirror work, carpet weaving, dafli making, how to make medicines from herbs and how to remove snake poison.
Gulabo has visited 165 countries till now and has schools in France and Denmark. The inhuman practice of killing a girl child after birth is no more prevalent in this nomadic tribe. The girls are allowed to study and pursue their dreams. Her daughters are helping her run the school she opened in Pushkar. They are educated but want to carry their mother’s legacy forward. She is the current President of the community. They are fighting for reservations and quotas for their community members. The young boys and girls have moved away from the life of snake charmers and are pursuing mainstream jobs. She was born a fighter and she is still fighting for the community that buried her alive and disowned her when she was born.
What a life, what an inspiration. I believe empowerment is not restricted to the wealthy and the educated. It has to be owned. It comes from within.
Namrita Yuhanna is a poet and San Fransisco Bay Area-based host of a radio talk show on Bolly 92.3fm. She believes everyone has a story to tell and the potential to enrich others through their actions.