Padma Shri Awardee Gulabo Sapera was buried alive right after she took birth. Years later, her achievements compelled her community to pledge against killing any female child ever again.
The villagers of her remote Rajasthan were regressive enough to think of a girl child as a curse. After a frantic rescue by her aunt, her family decided that her father would take her with him for the day’s work to avoid another trouble. Moving daily with her father who was a snake charmer, she her befriended snakes. Eventually, as fate might have it, she revived the centuries-old folk dance form of snake dance and made it a global phenomenon. Making her village proud of their girl child, a transformation it direly needed.
Persevering atrocities the day she was born
Dhanvanti (who would later come to be known as Gulabo) took birth in a community where newborns were buried for being a girl. Her father, a snake charmer by profession, did not agree to it and pledged to protect his daughters from this evil practice. Everything went well for the birth of his first three daughters. Unfortunately, he was out of town at the time when Gulabo was born. The women of the village went ahead to bury her while her mother was asleep. Her aunt frantically dug her out five hours later to find her alive. That is how she spent her first day in the world. What followed was a life equally miraculous and worth celebrating.
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Days of infancy and a new-found friendship with the snakes
The community was against the rescue. Taken over by superstition, they told her father that she would not stay alive for long. The words instilled deep fear inside him. So, he decided to avoid leaving Dhanvanti at home. It led him to take his 6-months old daughter to work.
She used to sit in the basket with snakes and drink their leftover milk. Snakes became her intimate friends. Being so close to them introduced her to their natural flexibility. She would often imitate the movements of the snakes while her father played the Pungi. It often caught the attention of onlookers who affectionately showered her with gifts and blessings.
So when was she named Gulabo? “I was not”, she chuckles with the innocence of a six-year-old. “I had fallen critically ill when I was one. Doctors had given up on me. My father did not. He took me to Dargah Sharif and prayed relentlessly. And received me back healthy, alive with petals of roses.“, she mentions with gratitude. “Hence, he named me Gulab, which means rose.” It was years later, that a typo in a foreign magazine made her famous by the name ‘Gulabo’.
Her rendezvous with the stage
It was one such performance around Holi at the Pushkar Mela where the well-known author, Tripti Pandey, recognised her. She was closely working with the Rajasthan Tourism department back then. Pandey introduced Gulabo to the world of stage performances. Soon, she performed in front of Maharani Gayatri Devi (of the royal family of Jaipur) who immediately declared her the daughter of Rajasthan.
Rising to glory and being awarded the Padma Shri
The endorsements by Maharani grabbed the attention of the nation. Within no time, Gulabo started performing all across the country. She got her first opportunity to perform abroad in 1985. Taking a flight to Washington DC a day after the loss of her father was one of the hardest things for her to do. “I knew he would not have let me stay back and miss the show if he was around.“ she says, “I know he’s always around with me, watching over me.” At the event, she shared the stage with the likes of Pt. Ravishankar and Ustad Allah Rakha Khan. She became a phenomenon overnight, with media houses from worldwide acknowledging her talent.
Fame and recognition did not distract her from what she wanted to do; go back to her hometown and make sure a newborn girl is not buried. Gulabo Sapera rejected lucrative offers to stay back in the States and came back to India. To her relief, the media coverage changed so many things at once. The society that had outcast her first for being a girl and then for being a dancer was ready to celebrate her. The villagers promised to make sure no girl child suffers from any malpractices.
Building a Legacy
The rehearsals often caught the attention of people who had never seen anything like this before. A lot of girls who saw her dance wanted to learn it. She could not say no to their requests. So she also began holding dance classes in her spare time. It was the beginning of her life-long passion. Since then, she has had disciples schools across the world in many countries like Denmark and France. So far, she has travelled to more than 130 countries. She will soon inaugurate her school in Pushkar. This school will empower the children from tribal areas to become employable from ingenuous skills like handicraft, folk art, dance and music. In 2016, the Government acknowledged Gulabo Sapera for her eminence and hard work with a Padma Shri. She dedicates the Padma Shri to her students each year with a celebration.
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