When an Indian scholar went to study the Romas or gypsies in Kosovo in Serbia in summer 2007, his hosts had a special term for him - Purano Manush or ancient person.
The term referred not to the age of the scholar, but the Roma's recognition of their ancestral links to India. It is therefore fitting that when India gets ready for its annual jamboree to celebrate the achievements of the Indian diaspora next week, the journey of perhaps, the oldest group of them all, will be the focus of a cultural festival on the sidelines of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Jan 8-9.
For the second consecutive year, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts is organizing a diaspora festival with Romas as the thematic focus. Nearly 60 artists and scholars from all over and outside the country to discuss are expected to attend the festival from 10 to 12 February.
Among the highlights will be performances by three Roma dancers, including Czech Simona Jovic, who has performed her repetoire of gypsy dances from Turkey, Iran, Romania and even the Kalbeliya dance of Rajasthan in cities around the world.
Besides, there will also be a lecture demonstration on Indian roots of Spanish-gypsy dance of Flamenco. There will be a photo-exhibition on the journey of the gypsies from India to Europe and beyond, as well as screening of three films.
With over 15 million people, Romas constitute the largest ethnic minority, albeit largely invisible in Europe. Their links to India were first recognised in 18th century and are now thoroughly documented through linguistic and genetic studies.
Their long journey started from northwestern India in the 10th century and there is historical evidence of their presence in Byzantine Empire. Their first footprint in Europe was recorded at Kosovo in the early 14th century.
Through the centuries, they were always treated as outsiders dabbling in the black arts, with contemporary literature documenting their presence on the outskirts of human habitation, literally and metaphorically. "They were treated as dirt, discriminated on the basis of their traditions and the colour of their skin," said IGNCA diaspora project, consultant Suresh Pillai.
Over the centuries, European countries have enacted laws that specifically targeted gypsies, restricting their right to residence and livelihood. By the time of World War II, their marginalisation from society was so extreme, that the targeted killing of about two million gypsies by the German nazis during the holocausts was not acknowledged by historians, till several decades later.
Modern India reconnected with 1971 at the First World Romani Congress in London, which adopted a flag, anthem, motto and decided that "Roma" would be the correct term of their people. Interestingly, the Roma flag has the ashok chakra imposed on a background of blue and green. At the first international Roma festival, held in Chandigarh on 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had supported their demand for Roma to be recognized as national minority of Indian origin.
"The Romas do not want want PIO cards, but they would like their culture should be recognized as originally from India," said Pillai, who lamented that there were only a handful of Indian linguists who knew the Romany language.