Early Life of Gulabo Sapera
Gulabo Sapera, named Dhanvanti at birth as born on the day of Dhanteras festival in November 1972, suffered the same fate as the rest of the girls did, who were born in her nomadic Kalbeliya community in that time. She was, like other girls, buried alive only one hour after her birth with her umbilical cord still uncut and attached to her belly. But she was later rescued by her aunt, who later dug her out of the grave at midnight. When merely a year old, she fell seriously ill and was taken to a peer who placed a rose on her chest. She recovered and her father, with the belief she recuperated with the blessing of the rose, renamed her Gulabi, the term ‘Gulaab’ meaning rose in Hindi. As a child, she would dance to the tunes of the been, along with her father’s serpents. The Kalbeliya community was traditionally the community of snake charmers who would also earn their livelihood through snake venom trade.
Career of Gulabo Sapera
Dancing in Gulabo Sapera’s life became an indispensable aspect when, in 1985, the Rajasthan tourism department officials Himmat Singh and Tripti Pandey (sister of Ila Arun) spotted her with her friends at the Pushkar fair. The duo was charmed by the "little girl who moves as if there were no bones in her body". Later that day, the officials convinced her father to allow 13-year-old Gulabi to dance on stage. She had only danced on bare ground at Holi till then where those watching would throw coins at her. When she performed on the stage for the first time, the audience did not throw coins, instead applauded and appreciated her art. She felt as if she was dancing in a temple.
Gulabo discovered the now famous wild and whirling Sapera dance form watching snakes move about to the tunes of her father’s been. The Sapera dance style has steps that correlate with the movements of a snake. The costume is a black dress adorned with tiny mirror embellishments and cotton thread braids, Gulabo’s trademark, inspired from screen, specifically the popular song ‘Sheesha Ho Ya Dil Ho’ of the 1980 Hindi film ‘Aasha’, in which Reena Roy wore such dress that Gulabo was smitten by. She later got the dress stitched for herself and has been wearing it in her stage performances. Gulabo knew she had to become a dancer after her performance at Pushkar and later that very year, she was noticed by art curator and scenographer Rajiv Sethi in Delhi, who drew the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s attention to her. That led to the young danseuse travelling all the way to Washington and perform at the ‘Festival of India’. When she returned, the same community elders who had attempted to bury her alive and then boycotted her family, welcomed her back and elected her the president of the caste association. She accepted it on the condition that killing of the girl child would stop in the community, to which all agreed saying they wanted a Gulabo to be born in their homes as well.
She became popular with the name Gulabo instead of Gulabi, because of a typographical error in Dharmayug magazine as she puts. She has become a celebrity dancer, having showcased her art of Sapera Dance in over 165 countries. Of late, Gulabo has been actively collaborating with French composer Thierry "Titi" Robin in his musical work. They together released a 14-track album titled ‘Rakhi’ in 2002, featuring a fusion of Robin’s mediterranean music with Rajasthan’s rusty gypsy sounds performed by Gulabo.
In 2011, Gulabo featured in the television reality show Bigg Boss (Season 5) as contestant no. 12 and finished in the 16th place, evicted on Day 14. Composer Thierry Robin and Véronique Guillien wrote a book in French on her, ‘Gulabi Sapera, danseuse gitane du Rajasthan’ (Gulabo Sapera, the gypsy dancer from Rajasthan).
Awards and Honours received by Gulabo Sapera
In 2016, Gulabo Sapera was conferred the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour by the Government of India, for her contribution in the art of folk dance.
At 44, despite being a grandmother, Gulabo Sapera remains a tireless dancer who can endlessly perform her art for hours. As a matter of fact, the tourism officials are always in the worry of their schedule getting hampered if she does not stop dancing. The longest she has danced is for continuous eight hours, on the sand dunes of Jaisalmer. Gulabo also doesn’t believe in owning a copyright for her dance art. She wants it to be kept free and spread as it is amongst young girls and across all college festivals. She says that Sapera dance has no calculated steps, unlike Kathak. It is wild and free, having a beginning but no end.