New Delhi: When the Kalbelia women dance, their sinewy movements are magnified by the embroidered serpentine whirls of their ghagras as they sway to the rhythm of the pangli (reed pipe) and the beat of the dafli. But it’s quilt-making, and not their dancing—for which they have won international awards and recognition—that has come to their rescue in the face of poverty and unemployment.
Hidden in their folklore and customs is the art of quilt-making, passed down from mothers to daughters over generations. During the pandemic years, when the nomadic tribe of snake charmers could no longer perform and were reduced to begging, quilting sustained them and brought a measure of dignity in their lives.
“Singing and performing has always been an integral part of our community and our lives. While we enjoy it greatly, today we get very few opportunities to perform, sometimes one or two in six months,” said Mewa Sapera, a dancer who has performed in the United States of America and the United Kingdom. At the height of her career, she met world leaders such as Rajiv Gandhi and Ronald Reagan.
She treasures the photographs she has of them, but memories and past fame do not put food on the table.
When things looked bleak for some of the dancers during the pandemic, Dr Madan Meena, a folklore historian along with the Kota Heritage Society (KHS) convinced some of the dancers to take up quilting as an alternative source of income. Thus the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project was born in 2020.
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Quilting as their saviour
Mewa Sapera, Meera Bai, Laad Bai, and Nattibai are some of the women who have traded their ghagras for fabric and batting to fill quilts for insulation. They each earn Rs 300 a day, allowing them to provide for their families without having to resort to menial labour.
“My mother taught me how to make these quilts at a young age. We also look at things around us and make designs based on that. I’ve also taught my daughter to make these quilts,” said Mewa Sapera.
Most of the women, who are from Bundi and surrounding villages in Rajasthan, are internationally acclaimed Kalbelia singers and performers, having performed in cities such as London, Paris, Moscow as well as Washington DC among others.
In 2010, the folk music and dance forms of the Kabelias were recognised in UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. However, exploitation has pushed the community into poverty.
They were never able to cash in on their international recognition. “Seventy-five per cent of their earnings are taken by these agencies and the performers are forced to compromise to earn a livelihood,” said Kishan Nath Kalbelia, one of the leaders of the Kalbelia community.
Barring a handful of troupes, 70.4 per cent of the community worked as daily wage labourers before the pandemic and migrated seasonally, said Dr. Madan Meena, a folklore historian, based on his study at the Bhasha research and publication centre in Gujarat. Finding work is never easy as they continue to face the stigma of criminalisation that has its roots in the colonial era.
The situation took a turn for the worse with the spread of Covid During various lockdowns, the Kalbelias were forced to return home to their villages. With no access to work, they had to beg on the streets.
This was when Dr. Meena with the help of the Kota Heritage Society (KHS), began the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project with the aim of preserving the tradition of quilt-making within the Kalbelias and giving it the recognition it deserves.
The women, who work from their homes, spend anywhere between a fortnight to more than two months making a single quilt. So far, they have made about 15 quilts, which are sold through the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project. They’ve sold around eight quilts, and have started making pillow covers, wall hangings and small totes that are proving to be popular.
Kalbelia quilts have also found appreciation in markets abroad. “Many of our quilts have already been sold to countries like Australia, UK and more. I strongly believe that these quilts will sell very well,” said Dr Meena. They are sold for anywhere between Rs 1500 going to up to Rs 20,000 depending on factors like the time taken to produce it as well as the quality of the details. They are priced relatively higher than other quilts since the artisans are paid daily and producing one quilt takes months driving up production cost, Dr Meena said.
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For the Kalbelias, quilting is an essential part of their identity, a repository of their cultural history. But it took some convincing before they agreed to sell them. The Kalbelia women never considered quilting as a source of livelihood. They are meant to be gifted, not sold. So far, only about five dancers have taken up quilting.
“I have been partaking in this tradition since I was a child learning from my mother. Now, my daughter is learning from me and she will continue passing down this tradition. This is how we pass down our history and stories showcasing our nomadic lifestyle,” said Mewa Sapera.
In 1972, after the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted, the Kalbelias had to give up their primary source of livelihood as snake charmers. But the snake continues to be an intrinsic part of their folklore, music and dance.
“We worship the snake, and our dance form is also inspired from their movements. We used the same rhythms used in snake charming with the dafli and pungi, in our dance. Only instead of the snakes, now we are dancing,” said 2016 Padma Shri winner Kalbelia dancer Gulabo Devi Sapera to Doordarshan Rajasthan.
But the snake, unlike a majestic tiger or a cuddly looking bear, does not have mass appeal. There are disputes on the interpretation of the community’s quilt designs, with some traders insisting that the snake motif features too prominently.
“A textile trader told me that there’s a significant presence of snakes in their quilts. But when I asked people making these quilts in the Kalbelia community, they strictly denied any such influence,” said Dr Meena, while talking about the influence of snakes on Kalbelia quilts or gudadis. He noted that since snakes have remained a fundamental aspect of the community, their designs also have an inherent resemblance to snake skin patterns, often unintentional.
Within the Kalbelia nomadic lifestyle, these colourful quilts or gudadis made from old shawls, scrap fabric, bed sheets among others, are treasured. These quilts, layered by hand with multi-coloured yarn or waste fabric collected from local tailors, are filled with vibrant colours to create geometrical motifs. A distinctive feature of these quilts is their triangular applique border design or Kangra. Some gudaris also have mirrors stitched onto them, that flicker in light.
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Lack of understanding
Through the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, Dr Meena and his team have enabled the community to tap into tradition to earn a living. Yet, there continues to be a lack of sensitivity and respect for handicrafts in India.
Dr Meena argues that rather than trying to commercialise handicraft processes and traditions, it is essential that government agencies work towards focusing on the lives and communities behind these products.
“In any handcrafted item, artisans put their thoughts, a part of themselves in what they’re making, into their craft. We need to treat their products with respect and understand its meaning and significance, not simply look at it as a decorative item,” said Neerja Sarin, an attendee of the exhibit.
With Covid restrictions lifted, Kalbelia women have started performing locally, but say they will not give up quilting just yet. Dr Meena hopes to get more women into the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, especially those who have retired from dancing.
After they were de-notified in 1952 by the Indian government, no policies were created recognising their art forms or providing them with any support. Hence, the community continues to face a stigma of criminalisation, often seen as thieves and dangerous t society. Through the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, Dr Meena and others are helping keep a tradition alive, while offering ‘outsiders’ a peek into a community and changing the narrative around people who are still fighting prejudice today.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)