Following this weeks lecture on Roma culture along the Danube, we thought it would be interesting to profile prominent Roma individuals, who made a difference and inspired others.
Menyhért Lakatos was a famous Hungarian Romani writer, who wrote the critically acclaimed book ‘Füstös képek’. It has been translated into more than half a dozen languages – in English as ‘The Colour of Smoke: An Epic Novel of the Roma’ – and is widely acknowledged as an outstanding work of Roma literature. The novel is semi-autobiographical and set at the time of World War Two and the Roma Holocaust. As Lakatos himself said, although gypsies have already been written about many times, what makes this book original is that it is a gypsy’s view of his own people and lifestyle, rather than an outsider looking down at them.
This issue of representation is the very problem that Annabel Tremlett faced during her time studying Hungarian Roma. As she told us in a lecture earlier this week, she began her research by photographing the communities, but soon realised that her work was biased and she was constantly emphasising their poverty and disadvantages, rather than giving a balanced picture of their everyday life. To solve this issue, she gave them disposable cameras empowering them to represent themselves exactly as they wanted. In writing this novel, Lakatos managed to show his people in a new light, allowing others across the world to have a clearer understanding of his culture – which is in many ways purpose of Tremlett’s research.
Lakatos was president of the Romani Cultural Association, won many awards for his writing and even has a school named after him in Budapest. The segregation and dehumanisation of Roma in Hungary continues to this day, but despite this prejudice, Lakatos managed to make a profound impact on the literary world and make some steps towards a fairer representation of his people.
Lívia Járóka is a politician and anthropologist who was the first Romani woman to become a Member of European Parliament. She was elected for the Fidesz party, serving from 2004-2014 and was particularly active on the issues of Roma education and integration as well as women’s rights and gender equality. She completed her PhD in social anthropology at UCL, studying Roma communities living in Budapest.
Of her decision to become an MEP, despite having a young family and no previous political experience, she said that she “owed it to her people”, showing her clear commitment to take action against the current attitude towards the Roma in Hungary and elsewhere. She points out that they are in fact the largest minority in Europe, numbering around 10-12 million – greater than the population of Austria or Sweden – and that better integration and opportunities would allow gypsies to become more productive members of society. Despite the difficulties, she is positive about the future of Roma integration and believes that attitudes to the group can be changed.
György Cziffra, also known as Georges Cziffra, was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer. He was born in a poor Romani family in Budapest in 1921. He learned how to play the piano by observing and mimicking his sister. As a child, he managed to earn some money by improvising on popular music at a local circus.
Because of his military training during World War II, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war by Russian partisans. After the war, he tried to escape communist Hungary and went to Vienna with his family, where they were warmly received. That is when his career started growing, with concerts all around Europe.
Something notable is that Cziffra always performed with a large leather wristband, to support the ligaments of his wrist which were stretched while being tortured in prison, and also as a memento of his years in labour.
Cziffra is mainly known for his recordings of pieces by Liszt, Chopin and Schumann, as well as for his technically demanding arrangements of several orchestral works for the piano. He is considered to be one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.
Pista Dankó was a bandleader and composer born in Szeged, Hungary, with Romani origin. He first started composing music at the age of 28. He was mainly involved in folk music styles that were popular in Hungary in the 19th century.
He moved to Szatmar, where he met and dated Ilonka Joó, the daughter of Szatmar’s mayor. Since Dankó was a gypsy, the mayor disapproved of the relationship. Thus, the two of them eloped and were together until Pista died from lung disease in 1903.
Pista was also known as “Nótafa”, a Hungarian word meaning “ballad-singer of folk music”. He was part of a musical ensemble named “Hangászsor” that means row of musicians. Most of his works were written in the popular “verbunkos” and “nóta”folk dance music styles, as well as others like marches. Dankó composed music for over 400 poems along folk songs that were popular at their time. He also composed a march named “A magyarok bejövetele” (March of the Hungarians) for the 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian state in 1885, something that signified the peak of his popularity.
It is worth mentioning that Dankó is a rare example of a Roma who was born into poverty, but then managed to obtain some significant fortune and fame. We can say that his popularity comes because his work satisfies the taste of the public. He was further recognised after his death, when people were even more enthusiastic about and accepting of his music. Anyone can now visit the public statue of Dankó in Szeged, on the bank of the Tisza river, or see the film named Dankó Pista based on his life.
-Maria and Amy