Academic journal article Romani Studies

Representing Rajasthani Roots: Indian Gypsy Identity and Origins in Documentary Films

Academic journal article Romani Studies

Representing Rajasthani Roots: Indian Gypsy Identity and Origins in Documentary Films

Article excerpt

Introduction

There are some ten million Gypsies around the world, and to find out who they are and where they came from, we took the Romany trail, which led us back to every country of Europe; it took us through North Africa, and Asia, and into India, their original homeland. We discovered tribes of Gypsies still traveling in Northwest India. While others migrated around the world, these nomadic people have hardly changed over centuries.

Thus proclaims the narrator in the opening scenes of Romany Trail (1981). This documentary film presents contemporary nomadic communities in different countries as descendants of Gypsy forefathers, who settled in various places during migrations from India to Europe. The viewer is immediately introduced to the two central and interrelated issues at stake: the identity ("who they are") and origins ("where they came from") of the Gypsies. Concerning identity, the name 'Gypsy' remains subject to debate, especially with reference to Roma, as it is used as an umbrella-term under which people called Bohemians, travelers, nomads, wanderers, roamers, vagabonds, or in anthropological terms peri- patetics, are often assembled. Attempting to clarify the prevailing confusion, Matras (2005: 53) distinguishes between two separate meanings of the term: first, "the social phenomenon of communities of peripatetics or commercial nomads, irrespective of origin or language", and second, "those groups whose language is a form of Romani" and who "are unique in having a language that is originally Indian, and so they also have an Indian origin" (idem: 55). Often this second category - which is also the one dealt with in this article - is preferably denoted by the term Roma(ni), rather than Gypsy with its charged history of stigmatization. The sensitivity of the term revolves around longstanding issues of both discrimination and stereotyping, such as the image of the Gypsy as a nomadic, poor "noble savage" naturally talented in music.1 Nevertheless, we stick to 'Gypsy', because it is most commonly used both in popular conceptualizations and in the Indian context that we will focus upon.2

The Romany Trail also introduces the idea that the origins of the Roma can be traced to India. This notion of the Roma's Indian ancestry is part of a scholarly debate and has been labeled the "Indian connection" hypothesis by Judith Okely (1983: 8). Together with Willems (1995) and Lucassen (et al. 1998), Okely belongs to a group of sociologists and anthropologists who question the Roma's Indian origins. They debate with predominantly linguistic scholars, such as Hancock (2002), Acton (2005) and Matras (2002),3 who accept this Indian descent (Matras 2005: 55). The idea of a shared Indian origin was first suggested by eighteenth-century scholars and was later accompanied by socio-historical narratives trying to clarify the initial migration from India. Some of these narratives live on to this day, not only in a limited number of academic works (examples of such narratives can be found in Bhattacharya 1965; Liégeois 1983; Hancock 2002: 70-4; Kenrick 2004: 75-80; Hancock and Karanth 2010: 106-10), but also in popular representations. Additionally, the Indian descent plays a crucial role in claims of a unified Gypsy identity, involving a political discussion about the worldwide unity of the Gypsies as an ethnic community, as well as about their status as a minority (e.g., Matras 2013). In the context of Gypsy identity, this inclusive approach has led to the thesis that current nomads (or, more often, descendants of nomads) from Rajasthan are also covered by the Gypsy label.

Public discourse, of which documentaries are a case in point, has adopted the arguments underlying these debates. As the above citation demonstrates, Romany Trail directly linked the notion of Gypsy roots to "tribes of Gypsies still traveling in Northwest India". Whereas Romany Trail - the first documentary to include Indian Gypsies - reflects the historical and political context of the 1980s, its perspective has been adopted time and again in a series of documentary films that continue to be produced today. …

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