Eli Becker

Posts Tagged ‘Indian caste system’

Many Strings Attached

In Rajasthan, India on May 15, 2011 at 3:07 am

Now that I’ve bombarded you with stories of gypsy dancers, I thought I would relieve your leisurely reading and switch topics from dancers to puppets (who have, on occasion, been known to dance). The puppets are a specialty of another gypsy subcaste found primarily in the state of Rajasthan. They’re hand crafted from wood and are used to enhance historical tales and songs or rajasthan like the king who lost his head:


the camel racer,

and the couple who are “head-over-heels” for one another. (Alright, actually it’s more like the argumentative couple who “flip out” often, but I prefer the idea of the former.)

Their charm captured my attention to the point where I sent one as a gift to my 13 year old brother. Sadly, the charm did not translate throughout cultures. . . he had just seen “Chucky”.  Hopefully readjusting to American culture won’t be as scary as my brother’s interpretation of Indian culture.

What’s in a Face?

In Rajasthan, India on May 10, 2011 at 11:41 am

As I sat down with a representative from the Rajasthan Department of Tourism, Art and Culture, it soon became painfully clear to me just how embedded the caste system is throughout parts of India. A quick tutorial: there are four divisions of caste: the spiritual leaders, the warriors and rulers (government officials), merchants and skilled workers, and “unskilled workers”, beggars, gypsies, or as they are sometimes referred to, the “untouchables”. You are born into a caste and the likelihood of ever changing your caste is extremely unlikely. Arranged marriages only happen within a caste; two are not allowed to combine despite whether the marriage is arranged or a love-marriage.

It became apparent to me just how significant this social divide is when  I asked the representative, Mr. Man Singh (who belongs to the second caste system) one question: why aren’t the gypsies allowed to enter the city? He smoothly came up with, “because the women are so beautiful they would distract our workers from getting anything done!” Nice save Mr. Man Singh. The truth is, gypsies are so strongly associated with stealing and begging that they are shunned from the town and as a result, are forced to live either in stone or mud built huts or to be nomadic. That may seem shocking to our culture, but I was surprised to learn that many of the gypsies like the nomadic lifestyle and being so in touch with nature.

On the other hand, Mr. Man Singh wasn’t completely wrong, the women are stunning!

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Goin’ on a Gypsy Hunt

In Rajasthan, India on April 25, 2011 at 6:08 pm

As a child, hide-and-seek was never my forté. It was quite problematic at times growing up on a block with over 40 kids, excuses like,  “I’m claustrophobic”, “I can’t hide in good places because I’m scared of the dark”, or “only if I can be the seeker” weren’t viable options. That’s why I hired a professional seeker for my most recent game of gypsy hide and seek:

We were on the prowl for a group of nomadic gypsies who travel the Thar desert in Jodhpur. It was tricky, I learned the hard way as a child that the best way to throw off the seeker is tell them to look someplace opposite of where you will be. The gypsies have obviously played this game before. Thankfully, my tour guide was too a gypsy (although had managed to provide a settled, non nomadic life style for he and his family) and knew what sorts of clues to look for. After a short while, we stopped the caravan as the guide explained, “It smells like Kalbelia” (the name of the caste to which these gypsies belong). I didn’t smell anything, but it couldn’t hurt to look. We got out of the car and trekked over a hill to find, sure enough, a small community resting in the shade of a single tree, huddled around a small bassinet which turned out to be cradling 7 day old twins! It was the calm before the storm. The second they saw us, the children rushed over to figure out first hand what was going on:

After an hour of teaching them games like patty-cake and duck, duck, goose, we sat down with the women to understand their thoughts on living a nomadic lifestyle and (in regards to my current research,) if and when they danced. Of the three women asked, two preferred the nomadic lifestyle and one explained that she would prefer a settled life so she could send her children to school. When asked what’s keeping her from settling she explained that they are banned from entering the village. Their caste is so strongly associated with theft and begging that they are shunned from entering the village, forced to wonder. (A stereotype that later proved to be true when I caught one of the little girls with her hand sneakily slid into my backpack, which was laying on my lap!)

The sort of education received in this wandering community is completely aural and tutorial as none of them are able to read or write and the lessons taught are survival skills, cooking and how to dance and play music. The latter, I soon learned, was performed in instance of celebration, be it a marriage (which is always “arranged” as opposed to “love”) or a religious ceremony. They explained that the  movements are inspired by a sensation of joy, which I found to be inspiring considering their harsh living conditions. What I found to be more amazing was that as a whole, they seemed to be happy. Maybe it was just the fact that there was a white girl with a camera and candy who had traveled through the desert for the sole purpose of hearing their story but there was still an undeniable aura of content that seemed to be a result of being with their family and loved ones.
It’s hard to explain. I conducted a few more interviews which I will write about later and add to this argument at that time. In the meantime, I’ll let their expressions speak for themselves.

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