(Hey white girl, where is your village? I live in Kalakar Colony with my bhopa sister. And you?)

All together my two months in Jaisalmer district were filled with frustration, intense learning, a bit of loneliness and quite a lot of love. All of the love came from Fulli. For one month, I visited Fulli every day. We bought groceries and cooked together. We took tea together. We ate together. We sang together. Fulli taught me, more than anyone else, how the Kalakar Colony functioned, and how the musicians and artists had made a home for themselves. With an amazing heart, a good deal of patience and remarkable openness, Fulli brought me into their community. She claimed me as her ghora and made me her sister.

Almost every night, I would sigh loudly, shift Suman's sleeping body in my lap and say, Ha-ley, Fulli, I am going. She would grab my arm and say, Sapana, my sister, you are coming tomorrow, right?

I met Fulli along with the other Bhopa women, sitting in rows at the entrance to the Jaisalmer fort trying to sell imitation silver bangles to tourists. Sometimes they would sing. Other times they would just sit and drink tea. Business was bad. No one ever bought their bracelets.

After listening to her call out to me two days in a row, one afternoon I stopped to talk and bought everyone tea. Somehow, Fulli persuaded me to stay for three hours. Somehow she persuaded me to come home with her to have tea and listen to her sing with her husband. It seemed harmless enough.

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As we wove our way through the market of the old city, out past the film halls and back alleys, I could see the settlement up on the hill. The cluster of huts capped in thatch and the occasional sheet of black plastic clung to the eroded hillock in irregular clusters, as if casually tossed aside. We climbed a steep sandy path that wound around the homes. Most of the huts were no larger than 25 sq. feet, just large enough to lie down and tuck one’s belongings in the corner in a tiny chest. Roofs were gently sloped, allowing for clothing or other random objects to be hung from their slender beams. Three or four of the tiny compound miraculously held a pucca ghar, a house made from stone or brick or concrete. These rich houses stood out from the rest like scattered boulders in a streambed of gravel and sand. A quarter of the homes in the settlement would collapse in the next monsoon.

When I arrived in the Kalakar Colony (Musicians’ Settlement), everything looked tiny and dirty and foreign. That first night, Fulli made a small fire from a few twigs and some plastic and boiled a tiny bag of milk for tea. A half-dozen children peeked through the low stone wall as we spoke in an halted mixture of English, Hindi and Marathi. Eventually, Fulli asked me to speak English so that no one would be able to understand what we were saying.

After three days we were eating off the same thali (large metal plate) and taking care of her children together. Fulli cooked the subzee (vegetables) and I made the rotis. I became comfortable squatting on the swept dirt. Often, Fulli would send her husband off to spend time with his friends playing drums or ravanta so that we could be alone. We stayed up late into the night talking about her life in the village, traveling with her storytelling father, her marriage and eventual move to Jaisalmer with her husband. I kept the babies amused so Fulli might have some break.

Many nights we would sing together. Fulli began to tell me the epic of Pabu-ji, whose telling had been the nomadic occupation of her caste. She explained how the story was still told in the bajara (cattle breeding zones) where she was born.  The story is a long one.  Some say that it contains as many as 172 episodes, though like many Indian epics, there is no definitive written version.  The story can be recited by a solo performer, or may be accompanied by musicians on dholak and ravana and several singers.  Fulli’s father performed jhurava, or unaccompanied song narrations on the full life of Pabu-ji which would often run for several days, requiring him to sing all through the night. In the region in which he traveled, his regular patrons were Raika communities for whom Pabu-ji was considered their ancestor and protector.

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Some performers, especially those who told very long versions of the epic used a large painted scroll, called a par, often measuring 3-4 ft. wide and 18 ft. long.  The par was used to communicate movement through space and time during the storytelling performance.  The main characters of the story were all located at the center of the scroll, with each character demarcating a “character territory” or zone.  Pabu-ji’s enemies were depicted on his right and his family and friends on his left. Locations would be marked in between characters, or rather characters would be placed near locations radiating out from the center in a gradient of importance to the story (drama and frequency of appearance).

In this way, the par emphasizes the relationships between events, places and characters.  As episodes are not placed in any sequential order, the storyteller is forces to move quickly back and forth in front of the scroll as characters move from place to place.  As Komal Kothari aptly comments in his fine work, “Rajasthan, An Oral History, “the par highlights space over time – where an event takes place is more  important than when.”  It seems an appropriate technique for reinforcing a theme of movement grounded in place which runs through the lives of the traveling storyteller returning again and again to the same patrons, the Raikas who move cyclically across the land, cnstantly leaving and returning to the same fields, the same watering holes, the same sites of trade and performance, and finally to Pabu-ji the hero who leads his herds through an epic adventure which spans the entire Thar Desert and hundreds of hours of song.

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Each night I too return to Fulli’s fire to hear another episode of Fulli’s life. From time to time, I wondered if I was becoming some sort of patron for her wild stories and rambling dreams as we chatted and sang through the nights. 

Fulli was a natural performer. She was always worried that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or bother to heed her advice. She could be very dramatic and protective.  More than anything, she was worried that I stayed alone.  She worried that I would be homesick staying in a rented room for so long, or that I would be taken advantage of by one of the man conniving touts. On the few nights when I made other plans and told Fulli that I wouldn't be coming to see her, Fulli would pout. If you don't eat, then I don't eat. No eating in a hotel for my sister!

And she meant it.


We were two little girls playing dress-up. It became very important to her that I stop wearing my salwar kameez and khurtas and start wearing bhopa clothing. My lack of jewelry upset her greatly.

Fulli had nothing but was constantly giving me things. At first I thought these were all just ways for us to play together, for me to give her money in exchange for something (for sewing me two full sets of clothing and making me jewelry), for her to teach me a skill (she was the only bhopa girl in the colony who could do the traditional beadwork). But the money only upset her. I bought boxes of ghee and sweets and fruit instead. And if she saw me out of my bhopa clothing, she would get very upset and sulk terribly. It took me a while to realize that she was actually making me family. She was teaching me how bhopas treat their sisters -- with gift giving, communal cooking, childcare, physical affection. In fact, she didn't have new clothes made for me, but re-sewed her own worn clothing so they would fit my considerably larger frame. Just as her older sister, Rampatti had done for her.

Everyone in town had something to say when they saw us together. Fulli and I would walk side by side through the market street back to the Colony. Suman would cry or pout if I didn't hold her hand. I learned to ignore all the questions and rude comments. Oh, you can't eat with those people... Do you really drink the water?... You know, they only want your money. You shouldn’t trust those women...

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I learned to bury my skepticism, my self-consciousness of power dynamics, hierarchy, manipulation and just open my heart. It is not the worst sin to love too much or too freely. For the first time in my life, babies were falling asleep in my arms and I gained another sister. Fulli and I would laugh all the time -- at the kids, at the crazy colony dogs scavenging for food, at the rats (my special friends), at ourselves. My evenings passed quickly and it became hard to make plans to leave. But surely enough, as interviews dragged on, I began glancing at my backpack and giving things away again. Fulli knew what was happening and began to call me on my mobile from payphones during the day to ask where I was and make sure I was coming for dinner. We talked a bit about Africa. And Fulli said once, only mostly joking, Okay, you take Suman with you. Another night she asked me, In Africa, everyone is black like me, no? Maybe you will become a kalliwalli (black woman). That would be very good. You find yourself a dark man.

Don't worry, Fulli, if I ever find a man to marry, I bring him to meet you first. If he can live in the Colony; if he can learn to play Ravanta and sing Pabuji; if my sisters like him; only then will we get married. I say this in jest and realize it’s actually quite a good idea. Such a person would be impossible to find.

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