You may have loosely heard a reference to gypsies. It generally denotes people belonging to a tribe or an ethnic community that leads a nomadic life and moves from place to place. No wonder so many so dearly claim that they have a “gypsy soul” which I wonder is said with or without the knowledge of their dark past. How many of us actually know where the gypsies come from? What are they like? What is their way of life? Let’s find out!
It was the Romani tribe that came to be referred to as the gypsies. At the time this name came to be coined for them as a result of the fact that the Europeans then believed they came from Egypt. But interestingly, these European gypsies actually originate from India! The Cambridge dictionary thus defines gypsy as “a member of a race of people originally from northern India who typically used to travel from place to place, and now live especially in Europe and North America”. Before being called gypsies, the Europeans had bequeathed upon them the name of “goddess-worshippers” as they prayed to none other than Kali Ma. Added to this, in 2012, a research-based study more specifically came to the conclusion that the gypsies belonged to the Doma clan that had once settled in India. The Doma founders moved home from India approximately 1,413 years ago. The study through its tests came to establish that the gypsies actually come from the Indian community of Dalits!
This finding goes to corroborate their dark and horrific past. Members of this tribe were often ridiculed and disrespected. Then at a time they were asked to enrol into the military for a chance of uplifting their social standing. However, the other Indians could not shake off their dislike towards the Dalits and by extension the gypsies. As a result of the constant demeaning tasks and treatment, the group at large fled from India as early in the 6th century itself. Thereafter, they started to enter Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was around that time that the then Roma tribe came to be called “gypsies” after having been mistaken to be Egyptians originally. On account of a past that weighed them down, the gypsies did not bother correcting the Europeans. They hoped to adopt a new identity and even acceptance.
But this hope was unfortunately short lived. Even continents away, in European lands which we believed to be further ahead, they faced ostracization. To be a gypsy came to be understood as being a participant of the illegal way of life. Events such as fires and other accidents were blamed upon them. Ferdinand I called for them to be expelled. They were shunned out so severely that a number of laws came to be passed against them. So much so that in the 16th century, Germany permitted murder of gypsies as a lawful act. They were hung without any trial. To make matters worse they fell prey to the then prevalent ethnic cleansing. As late as the 1940s the Nazi Germany regime killed over 500,000 Roma on account of being gypsies. By the 20th century, the gypsies had made their way not just to Europe and Asia but to every continent. They became a tribe or a community that was no longer subject to one single ethnicity or nation, they only had a similar or overlapping way of nomadic life. In 1979, the Roma succeeded in getting a seat of membership in the UN. And no, this seat is not limited to the gypsies of any one country alone. Further, by 2000 the 5th World Romany Congress came out with an official public declaration proclaiming the Roma to represent a non-territorial nation.
Within India the gypsies had originally been traced around the ancient Punjab region but the living and breathing gypsy tribe of India today is that of the Rajasthani kalbeliyas or saperas. If you have ever been to Rajasthan, you are sure to have seen a performance by them! The musicians from their tribes sing out loudly with deep fervour and vigour and the dancers perform in perfect coordination. From carrying multiple mud-made vessels on their head to dancing on swords or broken pieces of glass, these dancers are appreciated for their strength and agility. The musicians wear traditional turbans in orange or yellowish colours and the dancers don elaborately decked lehangas with stone work and every colour imaginable. Their deep dark eyes are made prominent with their makeup and the bangles worn by them are said to be a part of their identity itself. Although the rise of tourism in Rajasthan has led to some putting down their roots and continuing performing in the same place for their livelihood, the age-old method of living adopted by gypsies is also continued. These kalbeliya gypsies move across the Thar desert and set came at various places. Increasing efforts have been made to preserve their culture too. The first ever study for the culture of gypsies was established in Udaipur.
Gypsies have through centuries sustained their livelihoods through fortune-telling, shamanism, becoming talismans, tarot-card reading, craftsmen and a whole range of other work, their music and dance remain a very key part of the gypsy identity. Some even believe that in the ancient times their dance form was seen as rather provocative by certain sects of Europe who then condemned them for it. Today, whether its Central Asia, Europe or India itself, throngs of travellers sit down to watch the medieval style gypsy folk performance. Nowadays, the ones performing frequently for travellers have choreographies and music set. But originally there was no set dance or set music. Gypsies in fact pride themselves for letting their passion for life consume them as they sing out and dance in the manner that their surroundings or environment speaks out to them. They continue to be vibrant and vigorous in their way of life and personas. Here’s hoping that their past is never again a reality in their future and that irrespective of whether one does or does not have a gypsy soul, one can certainly be respectful of theirs and vice-versa.
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