Sitting on the steps of Lake Pichola with the Bopa family.
That's an elephant back there!
Naru Ram Bopa spends six months of the year living with his wife and six children in his native village near the Thar Desert. The whole family spends the other six months living in a tent just outside Udaipur, where it is easier to make money from entertaining tourists than it is by traveling from rural village to rural village singing in the hopes of getting a little rice or a few rupees from each house.
Traditionally, a Bhopa was kept by a Maharaja or Raja family. The Bhopa would entertain the family that kept him by singing epic poems about Pabuji, a medieval Rajput prince. Singing through the night in front of a long tapestry, called a phad, a Bhopa would point to different stories from Pabuji's life while his wife held a lantern to the phad. I've read that some of the poems the Bhopa sings are six times as long as the bible. A Bhopa would also keep the history of the family that kept him, and, if they let their Bhopa go, he took their stories with him.
Pabuji was raised by his mother and a tigress.
Naru is a handsome man with a dark, deeply lined face, jet black hair and hazelnut eyes. He wears a turban around his head and totes a ravanhatha, a traditional instrument made from a hollowed coconut and a stalk of bamboo. It is somewhat like a primitive violin, and, as he plays, he fingers steel strings with a horse hair bow adorned with little bells whose jingling keeps time. When we first meet him and he plays for us on the shore of Lake Pichola, the sound is magical carrying out across the water and back again. He taps his pointy toed slippers and his wife, Shipya, holds one of their babies, while their seven-year-old son hops up and down the steps leading toward the lake.
We found this Bhopa family after a day of wandering the winding lanes of the Udaipur. We came here specifically to find the Bhopa, but when we actually did, it was by accident. In fact, I had almost given up on finding one, as all my leads had some to dead ends. But then, Chris and I wandered down to the water to wait for sunset, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the red Turban.
"Chris," I whispered, "Is that a Bhopa?"
After meeting the Bhopa and listening to him play for a while, Naru told us in broken English about other tourists he was friends with. There was a musician who bought a ravanhatha from him and learned how to play it. (I tried a little and it sounded like I was killing a cat.) He also showed us a picture of himself next to a beautiful portrait of him and proudly told us that the artist he had sat for sold the painting for thousands of dollars. Finally he showed us pictures of is children, all dark with hazel eyes and wild, black hair. We were sad to learn that Naru and his wife do not send their children to school, even though primary school is now free in India and provides children with a free midday meal. Naru said he sees no point in it.
We arranged to meet Naru in the same place two days later. He promised to bring his phad and to tell us some of the story of Pabuji. When the appointed time came, it was pouring rain. It was, after all, monsoon season. But we made our way to the water anyway and ran into Naru and Shipya halfway there. He had asked a friend who owns a shop to store his phad, which makes sense considering that not only was it the rainy season, but Naru lived in a tent. In fact, he told us that the day before heavy rain had torn the plastic roof off of his makeshift home.
In the end, we bought his phad and he gave us a CD of he and Shipya playing music together. We walked down to the water afterward for one more song. Along the way, Naru happily used his recent riches to buy a pocketful of beedies, small hand-rolled cigarettes commonly smoked all over India. Hopefully, he bought a new roof for his tent too.
Early morning bathers on the steps to Lake Pichola below our hotel window.
A monkey checking out the view from the roof of our hotel.