Bopa – an afternoon with one of the ancient and fast-dying musical nomadic tribes of Indian subcontinent

Rekha and Raju. A Bopa couple in their twenties, parents of two toddlers, married at the age of 7. They hardly remember the wedding affair. While growing up separately in their own villages(read  settlements) they never met but were always told about an existing spouse somewhere. When adolescence hit they started living together. Some 14 odd kilometres away from the city of Pushkar, amidst rough terrains of dry earth and sands, Rekha and Raju stay with their fellow Bopa nomads in a temporary settlement now, for a few years. Raju says he likes this place the most and he wishes to stay here as long as possible. These gypsy clans generally stay far off from the main town but in the vicinity of nearby villages. They continue in one place as long as authorities or the locals do not put an objection. I asked him if he ever wants to move to a town or village for good, to a somewhat permanent arrangement. Raju said a firm no and added a philosophical “what is so permanent anyway!”

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Rekha and Raju with their kids whom I visited one February afternoon in their settlement

So who are these Bopas?   A quick google search will reveal, well, nothing much!

Bopas are gypsies, famous for their excellent musical and singing talent. They hail from the lowest order of Hindu caste system having no permanent home and generally looked down upon as trouble makers or thieves. Quite contrary to their current situation, Bopa singers were much sought after during the royal periods and so was the Kalbeliya dancers! They used to be hired to provide exotic entertainment in various forms along with singing, story telling and dancing. Kalbeliya dancers are now only seen in very touristic resorts along the Thar desert for an evening dance show and I must say the quality of the dance does not feel very authentic any more. Living along the fringes of Thar desert in temporary settlements, Bopas try hard to make ends meet as street singers in popular touristic towns, occasional fairs and social ceremonies. The latter though is indeed rare with the local’s inclination towards more popular hindi dance numbers! Without any written lyrics or notations, the tradition of music and story telling through songs is passed down for generations among these talented musicians. It is one of the oldest oral traditions of India and sadly at the helm of being an extinct form of art.The women of both these gypsy tribes are exceptionally beautiful! They have a very rugged, earthen and attractive look specially with a pair of greyish silver eyes

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Rekha with her younger one, sitting by the fire.

Raju plays Ravanhatta, the traditional musical instrument and walks around playing it in the nearby city of Pushkar. Pushkar, a famous melting pot for travellers from all across the world, will tune to his Ravanhatta at any time of the day.  I met him on one such hot afternoon while having my lunch, a standard indian veg thali, in a small dhaba near the main bazar. After months of backpacking across the Himalayas, Pushkar was a sudden change of nature & people and a refreshing change at that! Seeing people, colour, hustle and bustle everywhere along with the tranquility of sitting by the Pushkar lake and watching hundreds of pigeons fly around has become my daily doze.

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Lazy afternoon with the pigeons by Pushkar lake

A soulful tune of Ravanhatta would occasionally sip into these leisurely daily frames. Intrigued by the solemn and somewhat melancholic tune of Ravanhatta, I glanced up from a window of the small dhaba where I was eating. He came near me and started playing for me. Being on a budget backpacking trip I was not in a position to pay him well and thus I was hesitant initially. But he was a nice man and in no time we started talking about his music, the instrument and his life. In english. Yes. He spoke enough english to get engaged in a conversation. My childhood curiosity about gypsies and their lifestyle, about the tangy stories that we hear from travelogues got a breakthrough and it was my only chance to know more of them. He happily agreed to take me along to his settlement which was around 14 kms away from the city of Pushkar. I took a leap of faith and accompanied him in a borrowed motor bike.

Initial few kilometers was a nice fast ride on pitched roads winding through the Aravallis which soon gave away its glory to bumpy, rough and sandy patches with an absolute no road condition!

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Beautiful road through Aravalli, initial few kilometers
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Sandy roads and a camel cart on the way…

I don’t mind accepting the fact that I was scared and always on alert through the entire trip as I had heard a lot of negative stories about the gypsies. I was also told that their naive looks is the reason for ill fate of many travellers. Thankfully I reached in one piece and lived to write this story 🙂 . The first appearance of the gypsy settlement was that of a motley collection of rags and tents. My trained urban eyes of abundance were startled by the sheer nothingness and misery.

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The Bopa settlement of 14 to 18 families

They stay in a makeshift tent, which is more like a rag thrown on couple of strings that is tied at the top end of a wooden pole. it was just enough to provide a shade from the sun. Rain definitely makes them shelterless. In spite of the barren set up, I was greeted with a typical Indian welcome at Raju’s tent. Rekha came with the kids and offered me a seat on a rag on the floor and a few feet away she started preparing tea in an open oven which was nothing but a hole on the ground with raised earthen platforms from three sides. Wood pecks and dry leaves were used to make the fire.

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One of the two tents, among the very few earthly possessions of Raju and Rekha

Few pots and pans and 2 very small trunks along with a few rugs were all that this family of 4 had along with wooden polls and a goat.  To my enquiries Raju said that when they shift places, it’s a painstaking walk across the barren lands and villages carrying all the possessions that they have. Sometimes they may use camel cart which generally is used to carry old and sick people and children at times. The kids were half-naked and adults’ clothes do not seem to have had a wash since eternity. Both Raju and Rekha were wearing a set of clothing which seemed to be the only one they have. May be another set reserved for performances! It was getting uncomfortable for me to sit and crack a normal conversation with them. My privileged urban soul was not able to fathom the depth of this austerity.  Kids are being raised with no education, no access to health care, fresh water or enough food. In an absolute unhygienic world they live, laugh, marry, entertain, give birth, raise kids to become gypsies like the previous generation. And yet I found a certain normalcy among them. They were happy to receive a guest. Giggling and playing with her father, the girl seemed to be as happy as any 3 year old!

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Essentials of the household

Raju was born in this musical gypsy family where both his parents used to do night long musical story telling sessions. He never went to school. With no formal training in music he still became a qualified musician from early age. Raju says its in his blood. He started playing from a very young age and with growing years he started making rounds in the nearby cities. While the demand of night-long story telling musical sessions are depleting fast, Raju and his parents are still enthusiastic to do it and they invited me time and again to stay with them once and witness the age-old tradition. Raju also makes Ravanhatta,the instrument that he himself carries and plays. He also makes it to sell to visitors or musicians. An interesting facet of seeing this community was the use of technology. Although they seem to live pretty authentic in their nomadic ways, use of mobile phones, radio or a CD walk-man was common. I wasn’t quite sure how they charge up the batteries as there wasn’t any electricity in the vicinity, but I am assuming with his friendly nature Raju must be getting it arranged somehow in the city as he is a pretty common face around. While sipping my hot tea, he made me listen to a CD of his music which was recorded by an elderly Spanish lady. A music connoisseur herself, she was like Raju’s god mother who taught him spoken english as well!

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The elder kid in playful mood
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While the elder one was busy playing with her father, the younger one chose to listen to some family tradition!

The brief afternoon I spent in Raju’s home, and yes it was a home to me even though it does not match our normal definition of a home, I was made absolutely comfortable by other gypsy members of the settlement. I met the elders of the community including his parents. Visited their revered god Pabuji, which strangely is nothing but a piece of stone! While talking to them and watching their kids play in the dust my eyes did not miss the expression of urge and longing in their eyes. For them someone coming from the other side of the world, being interested in their culture and life means a straightaway connection of the person helping them in more than one ways. I was not able to do that. I was falling short of words as I realised that apart from asking questions about their lifestyle and culture like a journalist I could do nothing to improve their situation in any way other than buying that CD. I did that. And I did hand him over some more money as a gratitude of him accompanying me this far and letting me look into their lives! And this article is a tribute to this amazing Bopa clan, their hospitality, their extraordinary music and also a small attempt to voice against the common myth that ‘Gypsies are thieves’. I do not know how good or authentic his night long recitals will be but I found an amount of truth in his music and I would not mind to go back to this village again and experience the night long singing. I will urge any traveller going to Pushkar to look for this ragged and dirty looking guy with a pair of impressive eyes and a mellifluous tune following him while he walks. That’s Raju. Walk up to him, listen to his music, talk to him and don’t forget to pay him and if you can, help him by buying the CD and spreading a word about this dying tradition.

PS – Anyone wants to know further details kindly drop me a message in the comments section here.

A leap of faith …

15th October, 2016

“Someday I will leave this daily mundane and go see the world, someday I will live my dream,  Someday I will” .. and just as many of you did, I too whispered this to myself. Time and again, until one day, until that one moment when I decided to take the leap of faith.

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Ganges as seen from high above the sky.

It was a foggy, misty morning when I left. I left comfort,security, familiarity, nip of fall evenings in my city of love for an unknown, uncomfortable, unsecured, unfamiliar world. The city has never appeared to be sleepier to me and neither ever more charming than that morning. As the flight took a leap tearing off the spell of morning mist leaving the sun behind in the east, my window shield started playing an amazing kaleidoscope of rays of the dawn – blue to orange to purple to red. It slowly became a pallet of an impressionist artist and left me speechless when I tried to map the colours of the sky behind me with the feminine bend of the Ganges. It’s laid back swirls and twists had an uncanny similarity with that of a saree clad woman in her afternoon siesta – when she is not decked up, when she is the most casual of herself – she is wearing a soft, cotton saree, lightly spiralled along her body, not pleated or pinned up, rather a bit lousy and thus more natural…more soothing to eyes. Her demeanour is more lusty due to unconscious mess of her attire and hair! The morning Ganges was an epitome of that womanhood which attracts, seeks respect and embodies art at the same time. That was a full moon day when I flew over her in her most attractive poise and I felt a bit sad, a small pinch somewhere deep down for the first time.

The full moon of the bengali month of Karthik, the one after Dussera, is as per hindu calendar a very auspicious and powerful one as moon is closest to earth during this time making her attraction way too stronger on earthly affairs. The tides are heavier, fuller and so is the moonlight. It literally floods valleys, hills, cities, rivers alike. The whole earth gets covered by a thin film of silver – at times it’s paler and at times it shines bright  depending on the time of the night. So one such full moon, one which came in 2016 marked the day of my departure from a hundreds odd square feet caged security to go out in the wilderness.

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The full moon and the highway and the ever speeding life

The overnight bus from Chandigarh to Manali sails through the tide of the moonlit mountains and slowly with these thoughts I submit to my tiredness, anxiety, unseen future and daunting apprehensions. Like the obscure hindi songs playing at the front panel of the bus to make sure that the driver do not steer us down the valleys, my thoughts too have sunk in the deep gorges of the hills and finally I sleep, for the first time in an overnight bus, all alone, beside an unknown male passenger!

I kept aside every little angst of tomorrow for tomorrow !