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West by northwest: On the gypsy trail

It was not just Adolf Hitler who hated them. More than half a century after more than half a million of them perished in Nazi concentration camps, they remain the ‘most hated community’ in Europe, writes Amitava Sanyal.

columns Updated: Aug 25, 2010 18:28 IST
Amitava Sanyal

It was not just Adolf Hitler who hated them. More than half a century after more than half a million of them perished in Nazi concentration camps, they remain the ‘most hated community’ in Europe.

They are seen as troublemakers who steal, squat and take to prostitution all too often. Even the European Union’s official stance of integrating them into the economic mainstream hasn’t been able to root out the discrimination from locals. So, centuries after they left their country of origin — India — the gypsies, or romas, remain a people without a country they can call their own. Not even India.

It’s not that they didn’t try to integrate. They have always blended into the local culture of the land they have passed through, be it Egypt, Hungary or Spain. The most exquisite expression of this is in their music, which is a way of life among these nomads. They have borrowed local sounds as well as instruments.

It’s apparent just in the variety of lutes they use — among them are the Romanian kobza, the Spanish mandolin and the Persian saz.

In a week when ‘pravasi bharatiyas’ are being celebrated, they will be missed. Here’s a selection from their energetic music and troubled history.

' target=_BLANKThe road that bends

Crafted over six years in eight countries, Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (1993) remains the best exposition of gypsy music. Starting in Rajasthan, the film meanders through Egypt and five European countries before landing up in the flamenco-crazy Spain. Great musical performances that are full of women and children, breathtaking visual storytelling, and a non-judgemental approach add up to make this a classic.

Blues for Big Mamma
Esma Redžepova is not just a vocalist with a commanding voice. Apart from her 20-odd albums and six movies, this 65-year-old Romani artist is also known for her humanitarian work in troubled Macedonia. With Muslim, Jewish and Catholic blood in her veins, Esma speaks the language of tolerance. She was a revered figure among the cognoscenti much before the 2007 film Gypsy Caravan brought her worldwide fame.

Flamenco in the family
Juan Manuel Fernandez Montoya — better known as Farruquito, or the Little Pharoah — is the young head of an old Anadalusian gypsy family of flamenco dancers and singers. The artist, who took charge after his father Farruco passed away in 1997, has taken the troupe to sellout shows across the world. It’s the rawness of his Sevillanas (a flamenco form) and the precision of his kathak-style stamping that make him a star to watch.

At home nowhere

This is pure Django Reinhardt country. It was in a fire at a gypsy camp outside Paris, such as the one shown in this video, that the jazz guitarist lost two fingers of his left hand. This news clip from last September shows a part of the move by the French government to resettle some of these straggly nomads at a caravan camp outside the city. As a 15-year-old girl says in this clip, no home is perhaps home enough for the gypsies.