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Circle of Gypsies

They are folk musicians who live continents apart. Yet when they performed together last week in Jodhpur, a rare bond was struck between them, writes Malvika Nanda.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2009 23:34 IST
Malvika Nanda

They are folk musicians who live continents apart. Yet when they performed together last week in Jodhpur, a rare bond was struck between them.

Flamenco guitarist Antonio Rey, 28, set the electric rhythm for the foot-tapping fireworks of the 21-year-old dancer ‘Farruco’. Matching them beat for beat at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) was Rajki Sapera, a dancer from the Kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan. It was more than just creative fusion — it was the coming together of artistic traditions that were torn apart centuries ago.

The Gypsies or Roma people, whose music has enthralled Western audiences for decades now, started out from the Thar Desert. What’s not certain is when they headed out westwards or which route they took.

Over centuries, the banjaras, the nomads from Rajasthan, probably cut across West Asia to Egypt, and then made their way up to what’s now Eastern Europe, before eventually landing up in southern Spain. Along the way, they gathered Persian, Turkish, Romanian, French, Celtic and Spanish influences in their music and dance.

This winding cultural caravan has been memorably captured in Tony Gatlif’s 1993 documentary Latcho Drom (Safe Journey). Rajki Sapera is from the same tribe as Suva Devi, the dancer who lit up the film with her barrel turns.

Sapera sensed the connection instinctively. “Although they were playing their own music, I didn’t feel alien to the rhythm,” she said. “At first, I didn’t know what music to expect — but as they struck the rhythm, I figured it was the same.”

Sapera isn’t aware of the Gypsy connection, nor is her husband Puran Nath. But he says, “Who knows what, but there is surely some relation. I can see glimpses of our style in theirs — the same passionate movements, the same ghoomar, the same bhawai (dance styles from Rajasthan).”

Sardar Khan, one of a group of well-travelled Langa musicians who watched the show, says, “Their sharp pick-up was like ours… their rhythm was the same as the banjaras.” No one could miss the similarities.

Fernando Casas, producer of the Flamenco Gala, says, “Farruco talked of how following her gestures came naturally to him. He noticed her expressions and the similar turns with her feet. That’s exactly what he teaches back home.”

Casas, who patiently translates for the Spanish performers, says the entire team would like to go farther along the link. “We have to find out how and why there are so many similarities in flamenco and Rajasthani folk or kathak. Some of kathak’s rhythms are the same as those in flamenco. The foot-stomping, hand-clapping, twirls and turns are all similar.”

After all, for both the groups, music is a medium of storytelling as well as a source of livelihood.

It is only fitting then that Ion de la Riva, the ambassador of Spain to India, is looking at making Jodhpur ‘the flamenco capital of India’. He says that with the help of Gaj Singh, the maharaja of Jodhpur and chief patron of RIFF, such flamenco-meets-Rajasthani-folk shows would become an annual affair.

Festival director Divya Bhatia is already on the job of organising next year’s fest, which will have ‘the homecoming of the Gypsies’ as a prominent theme. “I’ll be travelling on the Gypsy trail to look out for the right acts — starting in Poland.” Talks are also on with Instituto Gitane, the Gypsy music centre in Barcelona.

Centuries after they ended up continents apart, the Gypsies just want to return home.