Forget dancers who balance pots on their heads. Have you seen the brick man go about his daily grind
On a construction site where bricks are carefully stacked, I saw a brick man who was tidying them up even further, beautifully symmetrical layering , reminding me of the time when we gave our children wooden blocks to play with, and make houses. One of the early domestic workers who worked with us used to call the play things murgi ghar.
Then to my sheer amazement this lean man with a sleeveless banyan, and a kind of short pants with a towel around it, like the kerala style of wearing a dhoti, put a flat piece of old rusted metal on his head, over a turban made of a dirty towel and balancing himself like a kuchipudi dancer, took two bricks at a time with his two arms, held wide open, and did an extraordinary pile on the tray on his head – two inside and then two outside. Then another two inside, and then with two arms taking up two on either side, another set. Like this it went on till he had four layers of four bricks each and then finally balancing himself and always with head erect, he took two more and carefully raising his arms put them on top of the 16 – like a mantapam on his head, all the while straight backed, with only knees bending and arms totally in balance.
In perfect balance
Then he walked across the road, in delicate perfect balance, and climbed up several steps created out of bamboo to the third floor of this house under construction, put them down and came back again for more.
He could have been one of the dancers whom we see in Rajasthan with six or seven pots balanced on their head swinging to the amazement and applause of tourists. Or the kuchipudi dancers who balance pots and also dance with their feet in large thalis. An achievement of balance, we would think! We would then pay to watch the dancers and their skills. The brick man had no such audience. Watching him and his extraordinary balancing act were four ‘supervisor’ type men sitting on plastic chairs talking to each other.
My brick man would be a perfect candidate for being included in the Kalakshetra dancing school, where balance is the fundamental principle, back straight, a straight line from the back of the head to the back of the feet, is the ultimate as the famous dancer and teacher, Prof Chandrasekhar explained during one of his lectures at Rabindra Bhavan. I could almost see him move in graceful natya, balancing two diyas on outstretched palms, with a pot on his head - totally relaxed. Alas, no such luck for my brick man…
I presumed, knowing a little about wage fixation, that he would be paid per square metre of the bricks that he carried and not by the number of trips that he made, like the best of dancers. This is of course, not ‘breaking news’ in countries like India – we have seen similar scenarios in Africa, unrecognised physically punishing labour with gross inequality and lack of recognition of value. We also know that the option of mechanising that task, or upgrading its physical punishment, by let us say, giving him a wheelbarrow to pile his bricks, or a donkey with two packs on its back would probably deprive him of his wage, as someone else would be willing to do that, displacing this ‘lowest of the low’ worker of his livelihood. The dilemma is deeply entrenched in countries like ours, where wage led, employment-led growth is not the mantra and where poverty and inequality and unemployment rage. I continue to watch my elegant delicate brick man, helplessly, from my balcony as he dances across the street.