Life is a tightrope walk literally for the rope dancers in Gujarat. Few in the state know that the rope dancing a generic name for acrobats who perform balancing tricks on ropes tied between two poles is as much a folk tradition of Gujarat as of other states.
In fact, the state has had a long-history of such performance, the details of which (most of it) have been lost in the ravages of time. Now, even the future of rope dancers seems to be as lost for, thanks to the risk involved in the business, few are willing to safeguard it.
“We don’t keep count of accidents and deaths during performance” said Kishanbhai Maganbhai of Deesa in Banaskantha, believed to be among the few families in the state that are continuing with the tradition. Kishanbhai, 55, and his troupe of 11 men perform in various villages and earn around Rs400 a day. “Earlier, our performances kept us fed for the entire year but now that is not the case,” said Kishanbhai.
Rope dancers begin training their children from the age of seven. The children are first made to walk on several ropes tied together. As they learn to balance, the ropes are removed one by one with the child eventually learning to walk on a single thick rope.
Once this is accomplished, children are taught to balance pots and plates on their head while walking the rope.
Eventually, difficult tricks are added. It takes a child 3 to 4 months to master a trick before moving on to the other.
What sets apart the rope dancers in Gujarat is the fact that they don’t use children for performances, although they are trained early in life. Even while training children, the parents never try to cushion their fall. “We don’t put a mattress or any such thing to cushion their fall because there is no such cushioning available when they perform for an audience,” said Kishanbhai.
Thanks to the nomadic nature of their business, few members of the rope dancing community have access to government schemes and help. Most even lack a basic voter card. In case of accidents, they rely on traditional knowledge and grace of Sati Mata (their reigning deity) to get well as expensive medical care is out of their reach given the fact they don’t even have documents like the BPL card to prove their poverty.
The earnings are distributed equally among the members and no single member leaves the troupe in between a performance. In case of accidents the rest chip in to help avail whatever medical help is possible.
Unlike other traditional folk forms, this is perhaps the only one which is dying a slow death not only because of the onslaught of television but also due to the reluctance of its practitioners to risk their life and limb for something that can’t even put enough food on the table.
“The accidents further push them into poverty and many now question the cost-benefit ratio of taking so much risk for a performance that fails to get enough audience,” said Ishwarbhai Rawat, who has worked with the Nat community for long.
Rope dancers belong to the Nat community. He however adds that despite the risks involved, it is a form that needs to be preserved. “They also have excellent sense of music.
Apart from the dancers, there are dhol and shehnai players who are now taking to playing at weddings to earn a living. A far-less risky proposition,” he added.