The Day I Met Prof. A.L. Basham
First Published on: May 31, 2005 in Amma's Column
It was quite a cold day in Calcutta on 18th of January in 1979. I was working in All India Radio as Assistant Station Director. I was going through the bulky daily mail as usual. One small informal invitation suddenly startled me for a moment. Professor A.L. Basham would give an illustrated talk on Gypsies at Victoria Memorial that evening at 6.30 P.M.! It was long after office hours. I decided to attend.
The very idea of seeing Prof. Basham in flesh and blood was exciting for me. I had studied his magnum opus, "Wonder that was India" while working on my doctoral thesis. It is a world-class textbook on Indian Culture, almost a classic. It is studied across the globe. At that time itself, it had seen ten editions. By now at least it must be ten more. In my thesis in the chapter on sports, I had stated that it was hard to agree with Basham's view that a form of polo was introduced in India from Central Asia. Kannada inscriptions and classics of earlier centuries as also Sanskrit works mention ballgames on horseback. Purely indigenous Kannada names for ball, bat, strokes and goals have established that the game was very much native to Karnataka. In those days, I felt proud of discovering a ballgame on horseback in ancient times. In Karnataka itself it went further back by four to five centuries than that stated by Prof. Basham.
I knew that the famous Professor had guided more than a hundred students for Ph.D. degree. He was an authority on ancient Indian history, politics, archaeology, religion and culture at large. His academic output was also enormous. Foremost in Asian academics, he was associated with international societies and councils of historical research. Wrote hundreds of articles, and twice the number of reviews and forewords to books.
This great lover of India and distinguished Pundit was right in Calcutta (now Kolkata). I went to the august Victoria Memorial building and the hall, where a talk and slideshow on Gypsies by Prof. Basham were arranged. Dr. N. R. Ray, the director of the museum greeted me warmly and led inside. Very few people were there. After working in metro cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, I have realized that only scholars and persons interested in particular subjects attend such lectures by the learned. But at that time it was disappointing that a scholar of Basham's repute had to address such a thin audience.
Dr. Basham was a tall, lean person with sharp deep-set eyes and soft voice. He was quite informal and at home with Indian audience. His talk on Gypsies was quite illuminating.
In Europe, the Gypsies had arrived via Egypt, and got their name. There was general belief that Gypsies came from Egypt. In 1845, a Hungarian Calvinist, familiar with Hindustani (Hindi) language was surprised to listen to Hindi words in French docks. Those were spoken by roving Gypsies. Very soon it was established that the Gypsies were of Indian origin. Earlier they were thought to be descendants of disbanded Rajput Soldiers who had slowly spread over Europe and America.
But Prof. Basham had his own theory. He proved that they were a progeny of Doms or wandering minstrels (In Karnataka also Dombas are wandering acrobats. In ancient Kashmir Doms were roving dancers and singers). Firdusi's Persian Classic Shahnama, refers to the Shah of Persia requesting king Sandrak (Chandragupta?) to send ten thousand singing bards to his country. Perhaps the wandering Doms were recruited en mass to make up the numbers.
But this big band did not settle down in spite of land and liberal grants given by the King of Persia. That was not their habit. They dispersed slowly.
In European Gypsy language Dom means 'man'. Later Doms became 'Roman' or Romanis. They were treated as untouchables, thieves and kidnappers. They were shunned by so called civilians.
They kidnapped children because childless people badly needed them. This state of childlessness led the couple to hell, an Indian belief. Numerals in Gypsy language like ek, dvi, tri, shap (six), ashta (eight) and enay (nine) were all Indian. Linguistically, their language was closer to Vedic Sanskrit, than Hindustani. The language changed as the clan moved from country to country. Syrian Gypsy language is closer to old Sanskrit. It is clear that the Gypsies left India in the sixth century A.D.
Basham showed slides of caravans, camps and costumes of Gypsies of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their wagons resembled Indian Tongas. Their Indian traits were common. At night they sang and danced by camp fire, like other tribals. They led an insecure life. They were flogged and hanged for petty offences. Gypsy women told omens and predictions by reading palms. Some practiced Siddha medicine. They had festivals like our jatras. Several Europeans consulted them for occult happenings. But by and large, all disliked them for their cunning ways and stealing habits.
After the slideshow, I met Prof. Basham, introduced myself and told about my interest and specialization in history to his query. I also requested him to come to All India Radio studios to record a short talk on Gypsies, which he kindly did, in spite of his busy schedule. I very much regret for not having a snap of the memorable moment of meeting him. I did hurriedly obtain his autograph on a blank sheet of paper in a school-girlish way, which was misplaced and finally lost during my frequent moving.
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