One overcast evening, in a corner of North Mada Street, Mylapore, I meet Kanniamma who tells me she has just returned from Delhi. “I buy all the materials for these necklaces from the North,” she says, pointing to colourful strings of beads hanging from the steel-frame of her pavement-shop.

“People told me that stones and beads are very good there; so for the past 10-15 years, I have packed food, take a train and travelled there to bring back plenty of beads.”

Beads costs Rs. 500 per kg wholesale, and Kanniamma can make about a dozen necklaces from it. “But there’s no big profit in this; I sell the necklaces for Rs. 50 or Rs. 60,” she says, adding that her son and daughter are also in the same trade. “But they also collect paper and plastic, to earn a little extra.” .

Born into a family of bead-sellers, Kanniamma learnt a good many bead patterns from her parents when she was a little girl. “You need exceptionally good eyesight to string the tiny beads. You also need to keep changing the designs and beads, otherwise you can hardly make any money.”

Adjusting her dress — Kanniamma’s usual attire is a handmade long-skirt and blouse, with a dhavani — she attends to a customer who is looking for navaratna malais. When the customer leaves, a disappointed Kanniamma wonders aloud if hers is only a sightseeing shop. “Business is bad today,” she says, because although several people, on the way to the Kapaleeswarar temple, stop by to look at her wares, no sale is made. “I haven’t even earned even Rs.100; on days like this, there’s no money to eat.”

Sitting down next to her husband — with whom she converses in their language (“It has no script; it’s only a spoken tongue”) — Kanniamma tells me that their lives revolve round their shop. “We are from Tiruvanmiyur; but for the past 15 years, I have been selling beads near the temple. We sleep here, use the public conveniences, and buy food and eat.” The festival season is a little kinder to Kanniamma. “Everybody here knows me; during Navarathri, I even get orders for necklaces. But I’m careful never to undersell my stuff. This is very demanding work; my neck hurts, as I constantly bend over to string the tiny beads,” she says, pointing out to some new designs, made with tiny blue-green beads, and a transparent glass necklace, tasselled with orange.

As we speak, the wind tugs at the bead necklaces and the evening sky darkens; slokams can be heard from the Kapaleeswarar temple, while Kanniamma’s radio plays old MGR songs. “I like MGR and Chiranjeevi songs; I can understand Telugu too,” she tells me with a smile. When Kanniamma travels to source beads, her grand daughter — among the few in the family who is educated — helps out with the shop. “But she dropped out in the 7th Std when her friends stopped going to school.” And then Kanniamma attends to a small girl looking for pink beads.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)