Kalbelia won awards for folk dancing, but their quilt making put food on the table

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New Delhi: When the Kalbelia women dance, their nervous movements are magnified by the serpentine swirls embroidered with their ghagras as they sway to the rhythm of the pangli (reed pipe) and the rhythm of the dafli. But it was the quilt making, not the quilt dancing – for which they won awards and international recognition – that came to their rescue in the face of poverty and unemployment.

Hidden in their folklore and customs lies 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, the quilt supported them and brought some dignity into their lives.

“Singing and performing have always been an integral part of our community and our lives. Although we appreciate it very much, today we have very few opportunities to perform, sometimes one or two in six months,” said Mewa Sapera, a dancer who performed in the United States of America. and in the UK. At the height of her career, she met world leaders such as Rajiv Gandhi and Ronald Reagan.

Mewa Sapera with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Mumbai | Facebook/@MadanMeena

She treasures the photographs she has of them, but memories and past fame don’t put food on the table.

When things looked bleak for some of the dancers during the pandemic, Dr. Madan Meena, a folklore historian 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.

Famous Musician Kalbelia Mewa Sapera at Kalbelia Craft Revival Project Exhibition at IIC, New Delhi |  Photo by Dishha Bagchi
Famous Musician Kalbelia Mewa Sapera at Kalbelia Craft Revival Project Exhibition at IIC, New Delhi | Photo by Dishha Bagchi

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Quilting as their savior

Mewa Sapera, Meera Bai, Laad Bai and Nattibai are some of the women who have exchanged their ghagras for fabric and wadding to fill quilts for insulation. They each earn Rs 300 per day, which allows them to support their families without resorting to menial work.

“My mom taught me how to make these quilts at a young age. We also look at the things around us and create designs based on that. I also taught my daughter how to make these quilts,” said Mewa Sapera.

Most of the women, hailing from Bundi and surrounding villages in Rajasthan, are internationally acclaimed Kalbelia singers and performers, having performed in cities including London, Paris, Moscow as well as Washington DC, among others.

In 2010, the folk music and dance forms of the Kabélies were recognized on UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. However, the exploitation has pushed the community into poverty.

They have never been able to take advantage of their international recognition. “Seventy-five percent of their income is taken by these agencies and performers are forced to compromise to earn a living,” said Kishan Nath Kalbelia, one of the leaders of the Kalbelia community.

Except for a handful of troops, 70.4% of the community worked as day laborers before the pandemic and migrated seasonally, said Dr Madan Meena, a folklore historian, based on his study at the center. research and publication of Bhasha in Gujarat. Finding work is never easy as they continue to face the stigma of criminalization that has its roots in the colonial era.

The situation deteriorated with the spread of Covid During various confinements, the Kalbelias were forced to return home to their villages. Without access to work, they had to beg in the streets.

It was then that Dr. Meena, with the help of the Kota Heritage Society (KHS), started the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project with the aim of preserving the tradition of quilt making in the Kalbelias and giving it recognition. that she deserves.

The women, who work from home, spend between a fortnight and more than two months making a single quilt. So far, they have made around 15 quilts, which are being sold as part of the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project. They sold about eight quilts and started making pillow cases, wall hangings and small bags which are proving popular.

Kalbelia quilts have also been appreciated in overseas markets. “Many of our duvets have already been sold in countries like Australia, UK and more. I strongly believe these duvets will sell very well,” Dr. Meena said. They are sold anywhere between Rs 1,500 ranging up to Rs 20,000 depending on factors such as the time taken to produce it as well as the quality of details.Their price is relatively higher than that of other quilts, as the craftsmen are paid daily and the production of a quilt takes months, driving up production costs, Dr Meena said.


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Past influences

For the Kalbelias, the quilt is an essential part of their identity, a repository of their cultural history. But it took time to convince them before they agreed to sell them. The Kalbelia women never considered quilting as a source of income. They are intended to be offered, not sold. So far, only about five dancers have taken up quilting.

“I have been part of this tradition since I was a child and I learn from my mother. Now my daughter is learning from me and she will continue to pass on this tradition. This is how we pass on our history and our stories showcasing our nomadic lifestyle,” said Mewa Sapera.

In 1972, after the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, the Kalbelias had to give up their main source of income as snake charmers. But the snake continues to be an integral part of their folklore, music and dance.

“We worship the serpent and our dance form is also inspired by their movements. We used the same rhythms used in the snake charm with the dafli and the pungi, in our dance. Only instead of snakes, now we dance,” dancer Gulabo Devi Sapera, winner of Padma Shri in 2016, told Kalbelia. Doordarshan Rajasthan.

But the snake, unlike a majestic tiger or a cuddly bear, has no general appeal. There are disputes over the interpretation of community quilt designs, with some traders insisting that the snake pattern is too prominent.

“A textile trader told me that there was a significant presence of snakes in their quilts. But when I asked the people who made these quilts in the Kalbelia community, they strictly denied any such influence,” Dr. Meena said, while talking about the influence of snakes on the Kalbelia quilts or gudadis. He noted that since snakes have remained a fundamental aspect of the community, their designs also bear an inherent resemblance to the often unintended snakeskin patterns.

    Kalbelia or gudadi quilt on display at Kalbelia Craft Revival Project at IIC, New Delhi |  Photo by Dishha Bagchi
Kalbelia or gudadi quilt on display at Kalbelia Craft Revival Project at IIC, New Delhi | Photo by Dishha Bagchi

In keeping with the Kalbelia nomadic lifestyle, these colorful quilts or gudadis made from old shawls, scraps of fabric, sheets among others, are precious. These quilts, hand-layered with multicolored yarn or fabric scraps salvaged from local tailors, are filled with bright colors to create geometric patterns. A distinctive feature of these quilts is their triangular or Kangra appliqué border design. Some gudaris also have mirrors sewn on them, which shimmer in the light.


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Lack of understanding

Through the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, Dr. Meena and her team have enabled the community to tap into tradition to earn a living. Yet there is still a lack of sensitivity and respect for craftsmanship in India.

Dr Meena argues that rather than trying to commercialize the processes and traditions of craftsmanship, it is essential that government agencies strive to focus on the lives and communities behind these products.

“In any handcrafted item, artisans put their thoughts, a part of themselves into what they make, into their craft. We need to treat their products with respect and understand their meaning and importance, not just see them as an object of decoration,” said Neerja Sarin, a participant in the exhibition.

With the lifting of Covid restrictions, the women of Kalbelia have started performing locally, but say they will not give up quilting just yet. Dr. Meena hopes to attract more women to the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, especially those who have retired from dancing.

After their denotification in 1952 by the Indian government, no policy was created to recognize their art forms or give them any support. Consequently, the community continues to face the stigma of criminalization, often seen as thieves and dangerous to society. Through the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, Dr. Meena and others are helping to keep a tradition alive, while giving ‘outsiders’ a glimpse of a community and changing the narrative around people who still struggle with prejudice today. today.

(Editing by Ratan Priya)


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