Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/22/10 12:25 PM

Travel: The gypsies of Granada

A touch of India in Granada

Photo: Sheila Kumar.

I’m sitting in a small cave high up in a barrio in the Sacromonte hills of Granada in Spain.

The walls are rough in texture and look white-washed. There are copper and brass utensils hanging from the rafters and on the walls, and they look oh-so-familiar: pots, pans, woks, lotas and the like we see back home in India.

The cave is basically a long rectangular area and is currently seating two rows of tourists down its length. I’m one of the tourista and I’m in a state of considerable bemusement not unmixed with a little trepidation.

Why, you ask? Well, the coach tour itinerary stated that an evening spent watching the gypsies dancing is an absolute must-see, so I signed up for it.

Then, as is my wont, I did some background reading on Spain’s gitanos. Their migration pattern is fascinating; they are believed to be  pilgrims, mostly Hindus, who had wandered  from Rajasthan, Sindh and Punjab, over the Persian lands and beyond, to Europe, between 300 BC and 600 AD.

Thus was born the legendary Romany sect, of which Spain’s gitanos, of whom there are more than 750,000 in the country,  are one lot.

One look at the gypsies in the brochures and posters, and the desi tie is unmistakable: the colour of their skins, the bones of their faces, their hair. What’s more, I later noticed one of the dancers wore long gold earrings that were a dead ringer to mine!


Photo: Sheila Kumar.


Deep divide

All of which, I will concede, is no reason for bemusement or trepidation.

It’s just that I also read that Spain treats its gypsies as non-people.

In fact, our tour guide warned us throughout that we weren’t to encourage, lock eyes with or indulge in any conversation with the gypsy vagrants and beggars we’d meet in Seville or Granada; we had been told of their confidence trickster moves: trying to sell sprigs of rosemary, asking for money for sick children who in all likelihood had been borrowed for begging (now, doesn’t that sound familiar?) or urging you to have your fortunes told (in dubious fashion) by one of them.

So there we had it. Fact One: the gypsies were not liked at all.

Fact Two: they still looked like the Indians they were originally.

Fact Three: I looked every inch the Indian I was. Now, would they come up and ask me to dance?

Jokes aside, though, the gypsy story has been a far from happy tale, one of migration, emigration, hardship, persecution, isolation and ghettoisation. (Is it coincidence that the word barrio stands for district but is a colloquial term for ghetto?)

These groups of sheep and goat herders looked different, dressed differently, spoke a different language and worked as smithies, fortune tellers and animal rearers… but inevitably carried the taint of an underclass looked upon with distrust and suspicion.

Photo: Sheila Kumar.

Today, there are estimated to be around 6,50,000 gypsies in Spain, mostly living in the Andalusian region; since they move around a lot, census surveyors have their work cut out. These gitanos have yet to be accepted into the mainstream. While they speak fluent Spanish with just a few Calo terms thrown in, their religious rites, patriarchal system and cultural rituals continue to be observed steadfastly, ironically deepening the divide.

Troubled history

Religious persecution has been the bane of the gitanos for almost all their time in Spain, despite the fact that they have been in that country since the 1440s. In the 1600s, the gitano language, costume, music, even association in public, were all banned.

Settlements were broken up, gypsies were forced to marry outsiders and they were denounced and excluded from public office.

While the present-day Spanish constitution protects the gitano’s fundamental rights, and there are special programmes for education, you still don’t see the dark ones living in common housing or sending their children to the neighbourhood schools.

Ironically, their contribution to Spanish music and dance has been admittedly invaluable. These professional musicians learned flamenco rhythms, added their own strains and underpinned the whole with passion and emotion.

Gradually, it became a mix of Moorish, Arabic, Jewish influences, all forming a melodious entity. Eventually, the gypsies settled in the southern towns, singing their typical songs of anguish and despair, all the drama that life holds.

The legendary opera Carmen gets its inspiration from a dark-eyed, dark-haired gypsy femme fatale. The Spanish writer Lorca has written celebrating the gitanos. The gypsy celebrity line-up includes singers, dancers, artists, sculptors… and footballers!


Just the evening before, I had been to see the professional flamenco dancers perform and the gypsy flamenco was quite different, definitely more sensuous.

Their dancing borrowed from the zambra, from India (of course) and from the Middle East. The word zambra actually means party and gitanos dance it at their wedding ceremonies.

Then again, this barrio’s dancers were famous; King Juan Carlos frequently called them to the palace in Madrid to perform for visiting dignitaries and royals.

Back to the cave. The performance started with the sound of music, a keening sound, with drums and tambourines as accompaniment.

The dancers seemed to all belong to one family and the father (he could easily be a Sukwinder) and one sister (she would be Preeti, back in India) were playing the guitar and singing.

The mother (a surefire Pratima) and her two comely daughters took the narrow length of the floor and proceeded to cut it up with some deft moves.

The dance was full of sound and fury. We watched entranced, as the young girl (Zohra, and that was her real name) falls in love with an eminently unsuitable young dancer (a dead ringer for any Rajinder down by Janakpuri).

Some facts were lost in translation, but there was no denying that it all seemed a typical Bollywood drama.

The heroine is dragged away from her suitor by an irate parent, she goes into a (dancing) decline but love triumphs all and they marry, wearing suitably resplendent wedding costumes for the last set. Good fun.

More on the desi connection. The gitanos have elaborate wedding ceremonies (brought in from the motherland?) lasting as much as three to four days, involving much song, dance, feasting… and inspection of the bride’s virginity by designated elders, all women of course. (Virginity is highly prized among the gitanos.)

Calo is both the language as well as the word for dark. The gypsies are known as cale, the dark ones.

And then, as it all got over, ‘Pratima’ came straight up to me and gestured that I was to join the gypsy dancers. I quailed, I demurred. You see what I meant by trepidation? And no, I won’t tell you if I joined them.

When I emerged from the barrio, the magnificent Alhambra, the jewel of Granada, was gleaming gold on a parallel hill. I left with much to think about.

The gitanos, silent and impassive when not performing, are still clearly foreigners in the land they have chosen for their own. Therein lies their tragedy.

This ran in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS of 22 Aug 2010.

All photos by Sheila Kumar subject to copyright.

Related Links:

Travel: Montserrat, Spain

Travel: The Mesquita in Cordoba, Spain

Travel: Toledo, Spain

Feature: Walking a virtual Camino

Travel: The Alhambra Gardens




CarmengitanosGranadagypsiesIndian originsLorcaRomany gypsiesSpaintrail from India to Spain

Sheila Kumar • August 22, 2010

Previous Post

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *