TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Plight of the Nomadic Spirit: Roma and Banjara

Vintage Gypsy Postcards available on Vintage Charmings

From time to time, I buy a bunch of Banjara patches from a woman in India. Wild, gaudy, and bright, they are among my favorite indigenous textiles. I love the shisha mirrors, coins, and use of color. Coveted by belly dancers as costume decorations, the patches are also great to use as accents on other accessories like pillows, bags, hats and larger textiles. My interest in an object, style or technique often leads me to dig deeper into the origin. Who made this? What is the cultural context? How is it used? What materials enrich this piece? With indigenous textiles, the story often has a dark side, one of abuse that can point to cultural annihilation. Such is the case with the extended family of the Banjara: the Roma (commonly known as gypsies throughout the world although they find that name pejorative).

The Romani people have long been associated with the Banjara as their languages and customs have similar roots. Yet, only since DNA analysis has become available has their connection been accepted as fact within the academic community. The Banjara have in their oral tradition stories of how part of their people left over one thousand years ago, never to come back. Most historians believe that the diaspora was spread initially through military contracts and then later continued as their descendants continued to move east, on into Europe and then to the New World.

Both the Banjara and the Roma have resisted assimilation into their dominant host societies. Marriage outside of the clan is discouraged and both retain similar dress codes and mores. Although the Roma have largely converted to Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, in Europe, they have sincretized old beliefs into new ones.

I had read about the connection between the Banjara and the Roma in the past and knew I wanted to write a post about it for this blog. As always, the information is larger and more disturbing than I expected at the outset. The Roma have been persecuted wherever they have been for centuries. Most people know that they were also exterminated during the holocaust, but I was shocked at the numbers. The accepted guess is between 220,000-500,000 although some believe that the number was in the millions. Orders by the Nazis were to shoot them on sight, so who knows how many actually perished... (Roma People) More shocking to me was reading about forced sterilization of women without their consent in Europe as recent as 2005. The United Nations reported in 2000:

"It is a well-known fact that whenever the human rights of a group are trampled upon, the children and women bear the brunt of such abuse. They become, in fact, the victims of double discrimination. There have unfortunately been reports from Roma NGOs of sexual violence and also of forced sterilization suffered by Roma women. Moreover, there is information that young Roma women are lured or forced into prostitution, ending up as subjects of international trafficking. Particular attention should therefore be paid to their situation and national strategies in favour of the Roma should include a specific action plan for women."
Roma People states that much of this is done through State policies:

"In Communist Eastern Europe, Roma experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romany language and Romani music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, they were labeled a "socially degraded stratum," and Roma women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future welfare payments, with misinformation, or after administering drugs (Silverman 1995; Helsinki Watch 1991). An official inquiry from the Czech Republic, resulting in a report (December 2005), concluded that the Communist authorities had practiced an assimilation policy towards Roma, which "included efforts by social services to control the birth rate in the Romani community" and that "the problem of sexual sterilization carried out in the Czech Republic, either with improper motivation or illegally, exists."

The following video is a news report about some of the conditions Roma face in Europe today:

This is all so depressing! When I read and see things like this, I just cannot stomach the kind of world we live in! Yet, part of the reason the Roma are so persecuted is that they also play into the stereotypes that surround them: being filthy, procreating like rabbits, stealing, lying, using the system to have an easier life, etc. I worked in social service in a very poor area in Chicago and have always lived in urban neighborhoods where there are obvious extremes of poverty and wealth. The question always comes down to the chicken and the egg, which came first? Do the Roma exhibit "in-your-face" behavior because of how they are treated or are they treated the way they are because of their "in-your-face" behavior?

I believe that there are people who cannot and refuse to live in the systems which we have created and labeled as "civil". AND, these people include many artists I know! Somehow they survive, but they are always on the fringes, living a bare existence, drinking and smoking too much, mooching off of others when they can, unable to cope with responsibility, but also adding an interesting twist to what we perceive as reality. I'm somewhere between the tamed and the dregs. But, most of us have choices that the Roma, Banjara and others of nomadic traditions do not. In order to fit in, they have to deny the very core of their identity.

If I may speak for the American subconscious of the Roma stereotype, we are not as aggressive as the Europeans. Probably because we have more land, more diversity, and a bad record for how we have treated other minorities such as the Native Americans, Blacks and Chinese who were either here first or helped build this country. Oh, let's not forget the Mexicans!

Oliver Lee Willie Lee and Matthew Wood near Caernarvon,
June 1914
University of Liverpool

We see the Roma, still referred to by the media as gypsies here, as romantic but dangerous, mysterious but unreliable, sexy but scary.... we love the music, the dance, the freedom, but only if it is at arm's length. Johnny Depp in "The Man Who Cried" embodies this perfectly. He oozes sex, is close to his horse, watches everything from a distance, signs his name with an X, and has absolutely no power. We want him, we envy him, but we don't want to be him.

Johnny Depp in "The Man Who Cried"

One of the most interesting Roma personalities for me is that of Sir Richard Burton, not the actor, but the British spy from the late 1800's. I read one of his biographies several years ago and was transfixed! Supposedly, he had Gypsy blood and was thus dark in features. Because of that, he easily assimilated into many different ethnic groups and was sent as a spy by the East India Company, then went on assignment for the Royal Geographical Society (one goal was to find the source of the Nile River), and has such credited translations to his name as the The Book of One Thousand Nights and A Night and the Kama Sutra! Burton was gifted with the ability to learn languages easily, slept with local women wherever he went, was one of the first Westerners to document the woman's perspective on many issues in Central and South Asia (this all while he was married to a controlling English woman!), and felt so strongly about the remedial properties of good sex that he translated and printed the Kama Sutra in his own basement, subversively, of course, in Victorian England. He later became a devout Muslim and was the first Westerner to enter Mecca (in disguise, but unnoticed).

And, the female gypsy is even more alluring and scary. She is controlling, powerful and has control of magical powers. Don't get her mad at you! Our portrayal of the gypsy woman has always been one of romanticism. She knows all and has no heart.

I didn't find any such dark references to the Banjara. Instead, they are recognized mostly for their music, dance and needlework. Interestingly enough, the Banjara and Roma have recognized each other as "family" and speak out together on issues concerning both of them. They have had several joint festivals and their leadership meets regularly. (See Banjara Times)

What to do with an untamed people? The latest strategy proposed for saving endangered large mammals around the globe, oh, this does include insects and birds, involves setting up safe corridors where they are likely to migrate. Would this be the solution for nomadic humans, too? Perhaps corridors between state and national parks where the untamed can roam free? This is a big issue for those of us who love tribal and indigenous textiles, where wool is the material and sheep are its provider. If nomads with their sheep cannot roam, they can no longer produce the material or the lifestyle which grants us such beautiful gifts.

Whatever the solution, my focus is in the arts and it is my hope that both the Banjara and the Romani will find at least part of their voice expressed through their artistic talent. In 2008 the New York Times reported a dismal show given in Bucharest where the Romani were given space in a show at the National Gallery. The report stated that the Romani make up 10% of Hungary's population but suffer 80% unemployment. They described the show more as a flea market than as an up-scale art exhibit. Yet, one important fact was noted in that the Hungarian Guard, a Hungarian right-wing extremist group known for its attacks on the Romani, left the exhibit alone. A small victory?

I often wonder what I would do, how I would be, if I were one of the persecuted. I know that I am a coward at heart, so I could never be one of those French resistance women who biked along with a loaf of bread in their basket, secrets hid in their bras... But, I can see myself as angry and bitter, ready to lash out at those who have mistreated me for so long. I have dogs. I love them and they respond. I see other dogs in the neighborhood who are tied, day in and day out, and they still seem so willing to please, so hopeful for love. Would I be like that? I think not. I think I would be foaming at the mouth, ready to bite, even as I, the coward, peed in my pants.

In the end, we need to find a balance where both the wild and the tame are protected. There has to be room for all of us and it must be in the context of nonviolence and human rights. Maybe some of us have a problem with the "wild", the uneducated, with those who lack an understanding of boundaries and private property. Then, I believe, it begins with us treating them how we would like to be treated. You know.... the Golden Rule.

See my Etsy store for my Banjara offerings.

See Pesha's Gypsy Blog for the Romani perspective on what's going on...


  1. Wonderful post rachel! I've been reading "Bury Me Standing", so this was very timely.

  2. Thanks, Rachel! I'll have to get that book, too!

  3. Excellent post and blog Rachel. If only the world as a whole would rejoice in everyones differences instead of persecuting them, it would be a much better place. I couldn't resist buying one of these pieces in your etsy store - they are beautiful. I still have lots more to explore on your blog.

  4. Romani children - that is one rough photo - horrifying. Truly.

  5. Thanks for directing me to this post. The book that inspired my Etsy Treasury, "The Gypsies," by Jan Yoors, explores the issue of the Roma's bad reputation in society. Jan Yoors lived as an adopted son within the Roma community, so he provides a very intimate perspective on the Roma.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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