Romany Empire

One of the pieces of trivia that used to come in handy during school quiz contests was that gypsies had originated in India. Blissfully unaware that the term "gypsy" is considered pejorative in many parts of the world (besides being inaccurate, since it is a corruption of the word Egyptian), I had never bothered to look up the colourful lives of the Romany people, only 15 million of whom are scattered all over the world today.

Linguistic and anthropological evidence points towards the Romany having originated in the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of India. Originally musicians in the temples in this area, they began emigrating in the eleventh century after the invasion of their homeland by Mahmud of Ghazni-- some of these displacements were voluntary (better patronage of musicians in Persia) and some involuntary (enslavement or forced to serve in the Afghan army). The pathbreaking connection between Romany and Indo-Aryan languages of northern India was discovered as late as the eighteenth century, and the migration path of the Romany has been estimated by the influence of words from other countries in their language-- Persian, Armenian and Greek.

While many ancient Romany beliefs have adapted with local customs of host countries over the years, the musical and dance skills of this community continue to set them apart, and have influenced art-forms like bolero, jazz and flamenco. Even classical composers like Liszt, Bizet (his most famous opera, Carmen, is based on a colourful gypsy character living in Spain) and Brahms have been inspired by traditional Romany musical elements. To this day, the Romany is romanticised and stereotyped as dancers, fiddlers and fortune-tellers in caravans. Unfortunately, they have also been typecast as felons and law-breakers, a fable even the venerable National Public Radio (NPR) of America helped perpetuate by damning them in a 1997 broadcast.

One of the little known tragedies of the Romany people is the porajmos (literally "devouring", in Romany) programme of persecution they were subject to under the Third Reich. Modern researchers agree that over 5,00,000 Roma were systematically exterminated by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. Ironically, the lineage of the Romany can be traced back to pure Aryan roots, but Nazi propaganda popularised the myth that their nomadic lifestyle and racial mingling was a threat to Aryan homogeneity. Romanies in Germany were sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where they were subject to the most inhuman medical experimentation, before being gassed or shot to death. Despite the fact that over 90% of the Romany population of Austria and Germany were wiped out during this mass murder (the same proportion of loss as Jewish people), the Romany genocide remains but a footnote in the history of the holocaust.

The Romany is the perpetual outsider. Without any home to call their own (and even being discriminated against in countries they have tried to call home), they are too few and too dispersed to lobby for acceptance of their heritage and recognition of their courage. As they wander from land to land in search of a better future, it is incumbent upon us, the educated and the educators, to extol the past of this unique group of travellers who have struggled in the face of adversity but refused to accept defeat.

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?
Langston Hughes, Minstrel Man

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