India’s Gypsy, Rom Elsewhere

20 Jun

For reasons too involved to enter into here, my friend and I have been researching the Romani people for a while now.

You might know them better as “gypsies”, a term that is today considered politically incorrect thanks to the historically negative connotations attached to the word – thieving, lying, dirty, lazy, etc. You might also know that the Roma are of Indian descent – Punjabi and Rajasthani to be precise.

And if you’re a student of history, especially the Second World War, then perhaps you’re also aware of the fact that the Roma were also victims of the Holocaust. The Nazi persecution, however, was only one of many.

But unless you went specifically looking for information, this is probably the most you know. The majority of modern Roma bear no resemblance to the gypsies of folklore. There are no dilapidated caravans making their slow way through the picturesque countryside, playing haunting music and setting up fairs where fortunetellers ask people to cross their palms with silver for the pleasure of having their fortunes told.

And yet, they are a people on whom very little information exists. Most first hand accounts stress that the Roma seem to prefer it that way. And when you think about how the world has treated them for the past 1000 years, can you blame them?

But yesterday something interesting happened. No, I didn’t receive a blinding insight of any kind, but we were combing through the net, looking for examples of Romani music (try a sample here) and suddenly I remembered the Bollywood gypsy songs.

These appear to have been primarily a big 70s phenomenon. There’s the odd exception – Kishore Kumar, for example, seems to have been very fond of using them as a device. He even made a movie with Madhubala in which the gypsies had a central role: Jhumroo (1961).

You’ll notice that I refer to the Bollywood version as “gypsies”. That is because that is who they are. They are an Indianized Western stereotype of a people who were once Indian! They have very little to do with the Roma – when gypsies show up in Bollywood movies, they’re simply devices thrown in for color or convenience. And as devices, they’re about as flexible as you can get. They can be sexy, venal, violent, passionate, beautiful, poor – whatever you want, they’ve got it all, no problem.

You’ll see it done with tribals too. Have you noticed how Bollywood portrays its “tribals” with a distinctly (stereotypical) African flavor? The most famous example, of course, is that weird group of “tribals”, people in blackface no less, marching through the forest in the middle of the night in Shalimar chanting “Oo la la la hoo, oo la la la hoo, phurr phurr” (man, that never fails to crack me up!) while Dharmendra sings, “Hum bewafa hargiz na the…”

There are still actual nomadic people in India, of course. But none I ever saw behaved like the ones below:

Dharmatma: The Afghani-Madrasi Gypsy

Sholay: The Shake That Booty Gypsy

Caravan: The I Love Jeetendra Gypsy


Posted by on June 20, 2007 in Entertainment, Life, Movies, Video


15 responses to “India’s Gypsy, Rom Elsewhere

  1. Ankur

    June 20, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    i never knew Roma were indians… whenever you have some time.. care to elaborate

  2. Amrita

    June 21, 2007 at 1:47 am

    Hey Ankur – if you click the link “Indian descent” above then you can see the wiki entry for it. Basically, genetic and linguistic tests have pretty much confirmed that the Roma migrated from India 40 generations or so ago for a reason lost to time because they don’t keep written histories. The theories for their migration include: they were Hindu slaves taken by Ghazni, they were warriors sent out to fight Islamic invaders and for some reason kept moving westwards instead of returning to India, etc. it’s a very interesting topic.

  3. Ankur

    June 21, 2007 at 3:11 am

    yups thats what i am reading… thanks for sharing… this was news to me

  4. Amrita

    June 21, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    n/p 🙂

  5. Aspi

    June 21, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Terrific. And not just the Indians. It used to always tickle me when Star Trek used to portray cultures less advanced then humans with a distinct African flavor. Heck, sometimes the backward alien people would just be black.

  6. Amrita

    June 22, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Thanks Aspi!
    Oh sure 🙂 why just africans, have you seen how Indians are portrayed? I’m a big fan of pre-70s cinema and it always cracks me up when i see Indians going from shifty eyed sadhus to chilled out hippies.

  7. Beth

    July 12, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Remember the “African tribal people” in Hera Pheri? Veeeeeery bad.

  8. Amrita

    July 13, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Lol, Beth… you really have to see Shalimar if you havent already.

  9. Swati

    January 13, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Amrita, really nice write-up. So apt Bollywood references. Rom, gypsies now called “travellers” in Europe are the nomadic “banjaras” in India. Yes, they have Rajasthani ancestry and now spread over in many States of India and are called by pseudonyms like “lambadis”, “lamanis”, etc.

  10. Amrita

    January 14, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Thanks Swati 🙂

  11. Anonymous

    June 28, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    I’d like to add that, according to Collins English Dictionary, the term “gypsy” is a derogative term deriving from “Egyptian” (quite obvious actually).

  12. Rebekka

    October 8, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    I am Roma..I wanted to add to your wonderful information. It is not often people speak of us kindly. I wanted to clarify that all Roma are Romany, but not all Romanies are Roma. Roma are ethnically “Gypsy”, whereas, Romany is sort of an umbrella term for many different traveller peoples who are often referred to as Gypsies, such as sinti, and Irish Travellers, etc..

    Also, The story handed down through my family, and many other Romany families I know of, is that Roma were Rajput, the warrior tribe in Rajasthan and Punjab. When the Persians came to India, their army was just too large for our ancestors to win against, so they were beaten and most were taken as slaves to Persia, in what is now Northern Iran. The Pashtuns(Northern Iranian tribal people) were also slaves. We mixed and the result born of that were the first “Gypsies.” After our ancestors were freed, they become nomads by force. Linguistically, we can be traced to India, of course..But culturally, we are most like our Pashtun ancestors. And by force, I mean we moved on purely because locals never wanted these new Gyptians where they lived. It is a mistake, the popular belief that we claimed to be Egyptian to gain respect. It was a title placed on us by racists cos at that time, everyone hated Egyptians. It was hardly a title that would garner respect.

  13. pitu

    October 8, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Serendipity to find this post! I just watched an old episode of ‘House’ (Season 3, episode 13 – Needle in a Haystack) where a Romani family is resisting Dr House’s efforts to treat their son. Very interesting backstory. The thing that really shocked me was when the Romani father says (I am paraphrasing here) that the Romani were legally discriminated against in New Jersey till 1998. Horrid, no? 😦

  14. Rebekka

    October 10, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Horrid and true. Bill Clinton, or rather William Blythe III from one of the largest Romany families in scotland, was the one who did away with the last of the laws in this country making it illegal to be a Romany. Just our very existence was illegal. And while the laws seem like something from old days no longer in use, they were very much still being used to discriminte against us. The discrimination continues still, and the worst of it is in PA (where my dad’s fam is), NJ and NY. But we are also having large groups of us here in Miami & Ft.Lauderdale area, Texas, southern Cali, and Washington state..I find it kind of ironic. Throughout our whole existence, we have been forced to live on the outskirts, so why should it be any different now lmao…

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