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Roma Gypsies: The original travellers

Published Aug 13, 2013 03:42pm

‘In Gypsy culture, a ‘millionaire’ is not a person with a million in his bank account, but someone who has spent a million, though he might now be a pauper.’

My first interaction with the Roma gypsies was in 1991. I had gone to the town of Banja Luka in Bosnia to visit some friends, while Yugoslavia was still intact. While walking in the outskirts of town, we passed by a house where two kids were playing in the courtyard. The girl must have been around six and had a broken doll in her hands. The boy looked about four and had his thumb in his mouth. What initially struck me was that both kids looked like street children from any slum area in Pakistan – brown skinned, matted black hair with defiant unwashed faces, playing barefoot in the mud.

I paused outside the low fence of the run-down house and greeted them. The girl just stared at me with a blank expression on her face. The little boy took one look at me, turned around, dropped his pants and stuck his buttocks out at me! I was shocked, amused and insulted at the same time, to be thus ‘mooned’ by this little rascal! My host just laughed and said, “These are Roma gypsies, thieves and vagabonds, don’t mind them. They don’t have regard for anything, but they’re great musicians!”

My second encounter with a gypsy was in a pub in Zagreb – Croatia about a year later. A tough menacing looking teenager, with scars all over his face and tattoos on his arm, was playing pool. He was introduced to me as Tyson. When he discovered that I was from Pakistan, he hugged me warmly and told me that as he was a Roma, his ancestors were also from India. I ran across him a few years later, on a dark road, returning home after a rough night. He was completely drunk and half crazed and almost mugged me, but then suddenly recognised me and started crying. He made me promise to return the next day so that he could take me home and introduce me to his wife. I was so shook up that I avoided that road from then on.

They say that the Gypsies migrated to Europe about a thousand to a thousand and five hundred years ago from the areas of Sindh and Rajasthan. There is a myth that tells about how the Sassanid Monarch, Bahram Gul, who ruled Persia during the 5th century, imported around 10,000 musicians and dancers from Hindustan, and established their colonies all over his country. According to popular theories, many of these ‘ancient Meerasis’ continued their migration to Byzantine and Europe and are the predecessors of the Gypsies.

Certainly the Gypsies of Europe today have music and dance in their veins. They have deeply influenced the music of Russia, the Mediterranean and the Balkans. The largest tribe of Gypsies are settled in Central Europe, and call themselves ‘Roma’. Their cousins in Northern Europe call themselves ‘Zintis’, which could be derived from ‘Sindhis’, since their ancestors migrated from around the Sindhu River.

The Gypsies who arrived in Spain later integrated with the Sephardic Jews and Moorish Arabs, and gave birth to Flamenco music. Indeed Flamenco dance today can be seen to closely resemble Indian classical dance.

The Romany language is a strange mixture of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian, Turkic and Slavic languages. Counting in Romany from ‘one to 10’ is the same as in Urdu, as well as several words, such as, ‘ankh’, ‘naak’, kaan’, ‘paani’... The features of the Roma people stand out in Europe. They look more Indian and Pakistani than anything else, though usually more rugged and defiant.

The features of the Roma people stand out in Europe. They look more Indian and Pakistani than anything else. -Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Faces of the Roma.
The features of the Roma people stand out in Europe. They look more Indian and Pakistani than anything else. -Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Faces of the Roma.

There is a lot of superstition associated with the Gypsies. They are feared and persecuted at the same time. In most countries, especially Romania, Poland and Russia, there are a lot of hate crimes against them, as well as state persecution. Yet, everyone respects their music and wonders about their rich mythology and travelling way of life.

Though there have been several people of the Gypsy origin who have excelled in their respective fields, their most notable contribution has been towards the arts. Several great musicians around the world have been of Romany origin, such as Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born virtuoso guitarist and composer and inventor of the ‘Gypsy jazz’ style of guitar playing; and Robert Plant, the vocalist and lyricist of the British rock band, Led Zeppelin. Even actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Yul Brynner come from a Romany background.

Several attempts to make the Roma conform to modern society have been unsuccessful, due to a lack of understanding of their rebellious nature towards ‘civilized’ society. Gypsy folklore, music and poetry, and a strict code of conduct towards each other is based upon a wandering and persecuted existence. And even if educated Europeans might mock or look down upon Gypsies, they still fear their curses and believe in their fortune telling powers.

Taraf De Haidouks - Rind De Hore.

The Gypsy way of life always celebrates the ‘here and now’. In Gypsy culture, a ‘millionaire’ is not a person with a million in his bank account, but someone who has spent a million, though he might now be a pauper.

The Roma refuse to compromise with modern society and settle down, even at the cost of losing their independence. As they say in Romany,

Yekka buliasa nashti beshes pe done grastede
With one behind, you cannot sit on two horses

More on the Roma Gypsies:

Faces of the Roma.