Traditionally nomads, Rajasthani banjaras now settle in scattered villages around the Thar desert, west of Jaisalmer city. They depend solely on tourism in the winter months and at other times, resort to odd jobs such as working at construction sites. Some of them also migrate to nearby cities such as Jaipur and Delhi to find work, leaving children behind sometimes that they are hardly able to educate. However, none of them today are nomads like they used to be.
Rekha, a banjara girl merely of twenty, came about as darkness set in our desert camp; she danced on very fast folk songs sung by a little elderly Geeta – accompanied by the Rajasthani ‘snake-charmer’s flute, played by Geeta’s husband. The flute stopped in between and the player looked up in despair and spoke, ” Humne favicol se joda tha subah par reh na paya” [I had repaired it with fevicol in the morning but it couldn’t keep itself together]
Both women wore cheap makeup and painted their eyebrows haphazardly with caked up kohl shining in the dim orange fire. The dance was too fast and quite tough, though all the songs followed a similar beat and tempo.
A sort of wildness followed the music, in the middle of that dark and cold desert with no one except a few camels around.
Rekha had just been married. She looked anxious sometimes, probably for wanting to return home although they all managed to sit with us until we had finished eating our dinner cooked in a wooden chulha, sang songs with them, danced with them – and had a little drunken party under the inexplicable halo of the starry sky with no moon. The women were desperate to drink the alcohol we gave them – understandably to be warm against the biting January cold as they had no cover except flimsy lehenga-choli and dupatta on their head.
Desert safari organizer Munna was most probably a former camel herder, who has now set up his business right at the gate of the Jaisalmer ‘golden’ fort – to find tourist seeking a more ‘natural’ experience under the desert sky, for which obviously the foreigners are a good bet. He is good but crass. Munna charges a bomb from the non-Indians and so does every other tour operator in the state. Nonetheless, the man had principles; he would do what he said in terms of serive, albeit was a bit too much at times with his pan-strewn red mouth scurrying incomprehensible conversations with his fellow tour partners – a jeep driver, a cook and a young boy all of 12-13, who should in no way be around. But most of the camel herders and safari-organizers are young Jat or Muslim boys. They had a business plan of their own, which was revealed when you are perched atop a camel and in no position to drop the trip and go back as also you are in the middle of the desert, and also a little willing to help these hard working boys. They would promise to get your safari extended to a more exotic inner desert with no other tourist or camel around. Some people give in to them for the wish to see wind patterns on sand dunes, some did to just make them a little happy. There is everyone around – banjaras, ‘algoza (a Rajasthani flute with two pipes) players and camel cab owners – to make brisk business before the night is about to set in and tourists start going back to the city.