Last year, I was fortunate to visit Jaipur, where I interacted with Gulabo, (née Dhanwati), a world famous Kalbelia dancer.
I was amazed by her struggle to rise to such a level of excellence.
Walking into her modest house, I was unaware of what an inspiring afternoon lay ahead of me.
Gulabo has been born dancing, as she put it, and the youngest she could remember herself dance was as a 2 year old. Hailing from the nomadic kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan, she accompanied her father when he used to beg on the streets of the city, and danced to the tune of the ‘been’ and the ‘pungi’ , the traditional instruments of her art. Her society was completely against this, but her father stood by her. When she became hungry, he used to lovingly give her the milk leftover by the snakes to drink.
At the age of four however, she stopped accompanying her father, and got involved in household tasks such as rearing cattle, cutting wood etc.
At the age of nine, she was again allowed to dance on the festival day of Holi, in the month of phagun(spring), on the roads of the city, and she once again danced to the tune of the ‘dafli’, the ‘pungi’, and the ‘been’.
When she turned ten, in 1981, she performed at the annual Pushkar Festival in Rajasthan, along with other girls from the Kalbelia tribe, and was spotted by Himmat Singh and Tripti Pandey of the Tourism Department, who then called her to perform in a two day event.
As she was noticed, she was invited to perform in Jaipur, and her society was completely against her. Her father told society members that he would burn her alive if she didn’t succeed or went on the wrong path. They reluctantly agreed to this.
After this, she went on to perform in various venues in India and abroad.
She still travels, and visits France twice a month, where she produces music albums with Titi Robin, a French Jazz artist.
After hearing about her career, I proceeded to ask her about the Kalbelia tribe itself. According to her, this tribe has existed since the beginning of civilization. They are known for catching snakes and taking out the venom. Also, if any human is bitten by a snake, they have certain prayers to rid the body of the pain. Besides this, they care for snakes who are unwell. An interesting element of the tribe is that they use snake venom to make kajal, and because of this, no Kalbelia tribe member has spectacles. As far as cosmetics go, she says that the best application for someone’s skin is the sun and the wind; therefore the girls in her tribe have beautiful skin and hair.
Devotees of Guru Gorkakhnath and Kani Pavnath, they revere the snake, and worship it.
They are also affected by the policy of the government, which prohibits keeping snakes in captivity. The elders of the community are unhappy with this decision, as it takes away their livelihood.
As far as her dance is concerned, she says that she herself is the mother of this dance form, and she considers the stage her temple and the viewers as God, and wishes that all her viewers go home blessed.
When asked whether she would ever be a part of a fusion ensemble as far as her dance is concerned, she flatly refused, and answered that she wanted to keep its originality intact.
The songs she sings depict sadness and grief, one example of which is as follows: A young boy rears goats. One day, he decides to go to the Pushkar mela. Meanwhile, his uncle and aunt have a fight. He brings back some wood, and she assumes that he is going to kill her with it, and hence, starts abusing him. The boy however, doesn’t react, and in the morning, she realizes her mistake.
She designs the costumes and jewellery herself, and looks magnificent in the many pictures adorning her walls.
She has been invited to be a part of many films, both in India as well as Abroad, and has starred in Jungle Book. Her records have come out under the HMV label, and she has acted in movies with Rishi Kapoor.
It has often been suggested to her to move out of her existing house, and shift to a better location. However, she recalled her past, and told me about how her mother used to make tents for them to live in, using scraps of material. Hence, she is now happy with a roof over her head.
She has five children, out of which four are dancers, and they all consider her as their friend. Her husband is also very supportive of her.
She also wants to set up a school to teach Kalbelia dance to others but unfortunately the government is not giving her the adequate land. What is ironical is that she has been offered this opportunity from various governments abroad, but she has not been given this land from the Indian government. She is determined to continue this struggle, and build the school finally, and ensure that a future exists for this dance form.
Gulabo is a role model for the woman of today. From speaking a tribal language to being able to understand Hindi and also speak in several other languages including French and English, and from living in a tent and roaming around on the streets to having a house with a car, an traveling abroad frequently, she has surely come a long way. She owes her success to God, and is very optimistic about the future of this dance form. She stresses on female literacy, and hopes that parents don’t discriminate against the girl child.