Wires, tin boxes, needles, pins, hooks, broken plastic dolls, huge polythene bags and greyish-brown rags – it is amidst this mess on a pavement, that a pair of hands meticulously string together colourful beads to make bracelets, long chains, ear rings, rings, chokers and anklets. Velliammal is a gypsy who has made this pavement in Besant Nagar her workplace for the last three decades.
She and her husband Dhanpal are part of the Narikuravar community, some of whom make beaded jewellery to earn a living. Crammed in a single room which is shaded by a rusted metallic sheet, their families comprising eight people live together. These government-constructed houses also include a basic kitchen and toilet facility.
She says that the government has made hollow promises to the people of the Narikuravar community for more than forty years. The Narikuruvars, meaning the fox and jackal hunters, are an indigenous tribe from Tamil Nadu. Being branded as criminals since the British rule, they became victims of unspeakable atrocities even after independence. They were treated as ‘untouchables’ as per the varna system. They have not yet been recognised as a Scheduled Tribe community. Protests and petitions by the community have brought to light their problems. But loopholes in the law have prevented any significant change from taking place.
Faced with constant discrimination and eviction, Velliammal fights an unceasing battle with policemen, government officials and corporation workers to keep her business going.
“Every day is a struggle for us. Most of the time corporation workers laying the roads threaten us to wind up our shop”, she says.
The lack of a big brand name like Fabindia or Westside brings with it another set of problems. When a customer visits her cart, she is as excited as a child. She enthusiastically shows them her colourful spread of anklets, earrings, long chains, bracelets and brass pendants according to their tastes. But the smile across her paan-stained teeth slowly fades away when the customer refuses to make the purchase unless she reduces the price.
“All my items are priced between Rs. 10 and Rs. 150. I make a profit of Rs. 5 to Rs. 30 on them. But I am forced to reduce the prices by another twenty rupees, otherwise I won’t get any customer”, she says.
Somehow she manages to overcome all these problems so that she can take back at least four hundred rupees at the end of the day.
Occasionally, some companies place bulk orders with her and her husband. Unfortunately, these companies always settled for a cheap rate before finalising the deal. Dhanpal says that it is in college fairs and carnivals that they make a good profit of nearly three thousand rupees over two days.
City colleges like Loyola and Stella Maris used to provide them a space to set up a rent-free stall at their fairs. But for the last five years, no one has approached them. Social discrimination makes it difficult for them to approach these college authorities themselves.
Velliammal says that business is better during Navratri, the 9-day Hindu festival celebrated across India. During Diwali and the harvest festival of Pongal, she travels to Waltair and Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh because at the time, the rainy season begins in Chennai. By tailoring her designs to suit the needs of locals in Andhra, she just about earns a four-digit income per day.
But this is barely enough to support her family. They live on a day-to-day basis. After spending on food, education, healthcare and repaying loans, she is left with no savings. She recalls that her parents were cowherds and a few years after their death, she and her brothers sold the cows because they earned a pittance. Her brothers are now rag pickers and sweepers.
While her grandchildren go to a corporation school, her children weren’t so lucky. Her sons work as street cleaners in Exnora and her daughters help her make trinkets. They add a meagre 200-300 rupees a day to the family’s piggybank.
They hardly have enough to purchase clothes. She reveals that the orange and red printed half-saree – traditionally known as daawani, consisting of an ankle-length skirt, a blouse and a dupatta – she was wearing, was bought off a pavement in Pallavaram. Apparently, these are second-hand clothes sold at Rs. 150 for a set.
The monsoon rains bring with them nothing but misery. Velliammal and her husband cannot set up their shops and are solely dependent on informal moneylenders for their meals. Their problems increase exponentially as they live in very unhygienic conditions, on the narrow streets of Kotturpuram and Adyar.
“Our houses are flooded for days. The strong winds blow all the garbage from the street into our house. But we have nowhere else to go”, laments Jamuna, another gypsy selling beaded jewellery.
Velliammal says that the government has done little to help them. Every year they take loans from local moneylenders for their business.
Once a year, they undertake a 1787 kilometre-long train journey from Chennai to Delhi and from Delhi to Mathura to buy their raw materials comprising small and big plastic beads of red, blue yellow, green, orange, purple and pink, elastics and hooks. Sometimes they visit Parrys in Chennai if there is a slight shortage. Their yearly expenditure on supplies and travel amounts to nearly fifty thousand rupees.
Despite all this, it is the passion for this craft that keeps her going, she says. She learnt about it from pilgrims heading to the famous Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. Her trips to Mathura began after she realised that the city is famed for the Tulasi mala – a long beaded garland made from tulasi wood – which the devotees wore.
Entrepreneurs of a different kind, Velliammal and Dhanpal are self-taught designers who create novel designs and patterns which are popular among youngsters. Adding circular and triangular brass pendants to necklaces, carved wooden beads to earrings and anklets with beads in a number of colours are some of their specialities. They have received compliments from foreigners, north Indians and local residents. Their products stand out among the conventional designs that clutter branded showrooms.
Zaina Niyaz, a final year student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai (NIFT) says that she prefers their trinkets because they are reasonably priced and have a raw, rugged look to which she can add her own personal touch.
But Velliammal’s tight hairdo reveals the anxious lines on her forehead. She knows that her future is far from bright. She suddenly shifts from Tamil to fluent Vaghriboli – a language which borrows from Hindi, Urdu and Marwari – and explains that eventually her grandchildren will join the business since she won’t be able to fund their education – which will become more expensive as they enter college – after a few years.
Unsurprisingly, the glittering gold and diamond studs on her ears, the silver anklets on her feet and the four tattoos on her arms are a slight indication of where a part of her savings gets spent.
Living a life of complete uncertainty, Velliammal and Dhanpal do not know if their cart made of scrap metal and used flex sheets will be there at 10 a.m. the next day or if they’ll earn enough to enjoy a meal that evening. They just live in the present, taking on each day as it comes.
Details of their life are experiential. Factual details have been quoted from internet websites.