Many of you will be familiar with the song by Cher, “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” that hit the pop charts in the 1970s. The title refers to the stereotyping of an entire group of itinerant people, constantly on the move, and therefore viewed with suspicion and exploited wherever their wagon rolls to a halt. We use the term ‘gypsy’ generically for anyone who travels a lot. The Maruti SUV was presumably named ‘Gypsy’ presumably because of its implied ability to go anywhere, even into the most inhospitable terrain.
I’ve just finished an excellent novel “Hungarian Dances” by my friend, England-based music journalist and author Jessica Duchen. In it, Duchen interweaves the past and the present, fiction and music history so skilfully that they all come to vibrant life. The main protagonist is British-born violinist Karina Veres, of Hungarian Gypsy descent, and in unlocking the secrets of her own family history, she is able to see her own life, her career and future so much more clearly. I won’t give away more than this, because it is a book I highly recommend, an un-putdown-able page-turner that had me under its spell from start to finish.
In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, Duchen credits a long list of musicians, scholars, books and websites that helped her research. Among the books was “And the Violins stopped Playing: A story of the Gypsy Holocaust” by Alexander Ramati. It was a book I had read many years ago, after I had watched the film of the same name on British television. It is Ramati’s “biographical novel about an actual group of Gypsy, or Romani people and their flight from persecution by the Nazi regime at the height of the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust; the word literally means “the devouring”) during World War II.”
The book is a heart-wrenching read for its vivid description of the humiliation and persecution of an entire people for no reason other than their “otherness”. Upto 1.3 million Romanis perished in the Porajmos.
What surprised me, however, was the fact that I was able to get the gist of much of the conversations in the Romani language between characters in the book, drawing solely from my own rudimentary knowledge of Hindi. The numerals sound very similar to ours, and other words, for nose, eye, foot, skin, dust, water, knife, work, village etc are also strikingly similar.
In fact, it is this very linguistic clue that points, among other things, back to India in determining the origin of the Gypsies, also known as the Romani people, or simply the Roma. The term Gypsy in English (French ‘gitan’, Spanish ‘gitano’, Turkish ‘kipti’) is believed to refer to their supposed Egyptian origin, now thought to be incorrect. But another sound-alike word, Frech ‘tzigane’ (German ‘zigeuner’, Hungarian ‘cigány’) is more telling, derived as it is from the Greek ‘athínganos’, meaning ‘untouchable’.
The Roma are thought to have originated from the northern Indian subcontinent, present-day Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. Genome data from 2012 seem to suggest that “the ancestors of present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northern India, traditionally referred to collectively as the Ḍoma, are the likely ancestral populations of modern European Roma.”
An article on the subject in OPEN magazine the following year stated: “Because of the country’s caste system, which keeps DNA locked within communities, India is fertile ground for such [genetic study] research.”
Professor Ian (Yanko) Hancock, himself a Romani, and Director of the Program of Romani studies at the University of Texas in Austin in his book “Danger! Educated Gypsy: Selected Essays” lambasts many ‘Gypsy experts’ and linguists for their racist bias and ignorance and reinforcing stereotypes about the Romani people through flawed research and conclusions arising from it. He produces linguistic evidence to support the hypothesis that the migration from India westward into the Byzantine empire (Byzantium was also known as ‘Rum’, from where the term Roma could have derived) began in the 10th century AD, as the foot-soldiers of armies defeated by Mahmud of Ghazni, and their camp retinue colleagues and families, fled from his wrath. There is oral tradition among the Banjara community to support this as well.
It was through a passing mention in Duchen’s “Hungarian Dances” that I stumbled upon the story of Hungarian Romani violinist János Bihari (1764-1827), founder of the verbunkos, the Hungarian dance and music genre. It is tempting to speculate on the provenance of his surname, but I am not sure that the region of present-day Bihar would have been known by this name all those centuries ago, and most Romani literature doesn’t indicate the region as their source of origin.
The surname is more likely linked to the Bihar county of the Kingdom of Hungary, today the Bihor county in present-day Romania.
In his heyday, János Bihari and his family ensemble of strings and cimbalom were famed and much in demand throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire and beyond.
He was nicknamed the “Hungarian Orpheus”, “The King”, and Franz Liszt was deeply impressed with his playing: “The tones sung by his magic violin flow on our enchanted ears like the tears.” The finale of Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) borrows a theme from János Bihari; Liszt used the same melody is his Hungarian Rhapsody number 13. Even Beethoven fell under his spell, using his themes in his commemorative work “König Stephan”. Jenö Hubay’s ‘Hejre Kati’ also takes Bihari’s melody for its finale. Quite a legacy for someone from the fringes of society who could not notate his own music.
Tragedy struck twice, first with the loss of his son to bowel cancer, and then the injury to his left hand in an accident. High society seems to have abandoned him once he was unable to play his magic violin. He died in abject poverty, a dramatic downturn from his earlier life of lavish luxury. His funeral was attended just by his Roma community, according to historical records.
Fortunately for us, contemporary violinist Roby Lakatos (who is also acknowledged at the beginning of Duchen’s book) is a direct descendant of János Bihari. Bihari’s spirit certainly lives on through him. I have been fortunate to hear him twice in London, and his feats on his violin, performed with effortless ease, beggar belief.
Apart from Beethoven, Sarasate, Hubay and Liszt, other composers have also had Gypsy references or inspiration in their music: just a few prominent examples include Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘La Bohème’; Johann Strauss II’s operetta ‘Der Zigeunerbaron’ (The Gypsy Baron); Maurice Ravel’s rhapsody for violin and piano (played incidentally with much verve by Joris Decolvenaer in the city recently), later adapted for violin and orchestra.
But for all society’s fascination with and glamourisation of the idea of the Roma and their culture, they have been persecuted through history and continue to face discrimination at every turn, with racist stereotypes flogged even harder by a militant far-right wave sweeping across Europe.
(An edited version of this article was published on 3 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)