Posted On Saturday, May 12, 2012 at 08:21:05 AM
I saw them first a little over a decade ago on a pavement in the vicinity of Tulsi Baug with their wares spread out on small rectangular spaces that they had marked off with coloured cloth.
There were displays of trinkets made from beads along with other items of adornment.
Alongside, were agates and several other types of stones believed to have unusual powers…and of course there were bowls and bottles filled to the brim with a variety of medicinal roots, seeds, bulbs and herbs.
And along with the wares there were men, women and children — unkempt according to urban perception but with a natural style all of their own. Some passersby ignored them but others stopped and bought their wares.
It was only a few years later that I came to know that they belonged to the Nari Kurava gypsy community that has down the ages been among the most misunderstood and shunned community on the Indian sub-continent.
Ages ago, people from this community traversed the entire region first as hunter gatherers and later as transporters and travelling salespeople, hawking their wares in towns, villages and remote human habitations. Because of their constant movement, they never settled down anywhere and were regarded as unreliable and in some cases even dangerous.
They were seen to be thieves and swindlers. During the time of the Raj, they were rounded up in great numbers and put in guarded camps supposedly to prevent them from committing criminal acts. Deprived of their right to move freely, they perished in large numbers.
When they were finally set free, they went out into a world that had become unfamiliar to them. The freedom of open spaces where they could roam was cut up into territories that presented borders everywhere. They were forced to change so they began setting up camps in places where they could sell their wares.
They were also forced to develop new ways of earning a livelihood. And so, apart from everything else, they developed the unique ability to recycle discarded materials from dustbins and roadside garbage dumps, creating out of them unforgettably beautiful items of adornment and use.
I had the good fortune of meeting groups of them in their temporary settlements in Goa, Mammlapuram, the environs of Chennai and places along the East Coast of our country. In fact in Palavaram, I befriended a number of Nari Kuravas in a unique temporary settlement made entirely from recycled plastic bags and other materials. The warmth of their fellowship was both amazing and endearing.
Not long ago, I went in search of the group near Tulsi Baug and was disheartened to find only a single Nari Kurava sitting amongst his shrunken range of wares. Raju, that’s what he said his name was, sat there with his unwashed hair protruding in all directions and smelling like rancid butter but with a smile that was disarming.
He had baby Laalia dressed only in coloured beads in his arms, Chinkia on his back and Bulbul in his lap, singing to them softly everytime he stopped talking to me. ‘Where’s their mother?’ I asked. ‘She’s gone to do her own work. She is not neglecting them. You see, we are like sparrows, even the men folk take care of their children. We respect each other. But there’s no respect here in this city.
We Nari Kuravas always felt that this city was better than all the others. When my ancestors came they called it the Village Of The Gentle People. But now, look around you. What do you see? They’ve made it so difficult for us here and all our people have moved on. We are leaving too. There’s no place for us here anymore. Others will come but they’ll discover the truth about this place and leave.’
‘But where will you go?’ I asked. ‘Somewhere, we Narikuravas have always found somewhere to go.’
After an embarrassed silence, I walked away, down the crowded street, looking around me at the chaos of traffic and fumes and noise. ‘Gentle Village, where are you now?’ I asked.