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In search of the Gypsies of Jaisalmer

Tracing the interconnected origins of world music -- from flamenco to the blues -- Alex Shoumatoff travels to India in search of the Gypsy music of Rajasthan.

The overnight train from New Delhi to Rajasthan is called the Pink City Express, and at nine in the morning it pulled into the big, seething capital city of Jaipur. After changing trains, I continued into the Thar Desert, past red dunes, mud huts with thatched roofs, women in veils, men in turbans, the scant vegetation clipped by goats. Wild peacocks, the males' fans folded into long, streaming tails, were trotting around in the desert scrub like flamboyant roadrunners. At 1:30 we reached the last stop: the ancient desert citadel of Jaisalmer.

Slideshow: Tracing the Roots of Rajasthani Music
Guide to Jaisalmer

The main gate to the city opens onto a cobblestoned courtyard, and on the far side of it loom the walls of the 12th-century inner city, with intricately filigreed balconies projecting from them, and bell-shaped guard towers. A Bollywood movie was in the process of being shot. The director was barking instructions at a little boy in a turban who was playing the young maharajah and standing under a sumptuous canopy. They would be at it, take after take, for the entire week I was there. The cast members' costumes were gaudy, but no more so than those of the locals. Rajasthanis dress like human butterflies or flowers, explained a Jaisalmer native: "We try to make up in our clothes, art, and music for the lack of color in the desert," he said. "The men wear bright orange turbans, their long shirts green like calyxes, and their pants white like corollas. The women wear long green or yellow robes with tie-dye patches, and outline their eyes with mascara."

My interest was in the music. During my far-flung travels over the past 40 years I have always taken along a little guitar and played with local musicians, from pygmies in the Ituri Forest to flute players in Kathmandu and charango strummers in Ayacucho. There's no better icebreaker -- the language of music is universal. Over the past few years, I've been tracing the historical connections between world musical cultures, and not long ago, I saw the wonderful 1993 documentary Latcho Drom, about the music of the Gypsy diaspora. The people known as Gypsies, or Roma, mostly left north India a thousand or more years ago, but a few remained behind. The film starts in Rajasthan, with a woman twirling under a tree, accompanied by men playing various instruments, then proceeds to Gypsy bands in Egypt (from which the word Gypsy is derived), Turkey, Romania, Hungary, France, and finally Spain, with guitars, castanets, and flamenco dancing. The whole film is just music, no words, and the music in each country is very different, but you can always clearly hear echoes of India.

That was what I was doing in Jaisalmer: looking for the Gypsies who never left.

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Squeezing past sacred cows in narrow alleys lined with all sorts of intriguing wares made by local artisans, I made my way to the Deepak Rest House. There was a nice restaurant on the roof, where a bearded old man in a turban came every night at six and sang while playing the kamaica, a stand-up fiddle with a banjo-like skin resonator box. Instead of pressing the strings down on the neck while drawing his bow across them, he raised their pitch by inserting the nail of his index finger under them. There was an unmistakable Appalachian flavor to his mournful tunes, which may not have been entirely coincidental.

The hotel's owner, Deepak Vyas, belongs to a Brahmin family that has inhabited the citadel for three generations, and he sketched the history of Jaisalmer for me. The fort was built in 1156 for the Rajput (warrior caste) maharajahs, who still control much of the action in Rajasthan. The city was attacked by the Moghuls in the early 14th century, peace was subsequently established, and it became part of a new, more southerly trade route that ran across the Thar Desert into what is now Pakistan, only 85 miles to the west. Jaisalmer's maharajah grew rich from the taxes he levied on the camel caravans that passed through laden with silk, spices, gold, and opium.

Today the entire inner city is given over to tourism. The merchandise on display every step of the way is the product of the local traditions of weaving, painting, ceramics, and metalwork that tourist dollars keep alive. There are two groups in Jaisalmer and the surrounding desert thought to have ancestral connections with the Roma: the Kalbelia tribe and the Manganiyar caste. It didn't take long to find some of them.

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Photograph: Dominic Xavier

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