Migrants are a presence on the city’s roadsides not just as unskilled labourers but also for their handcrafted goods. ESTHER ELIAS tracks their stories
On National Highway 47, sandwiched between an active railway track and a growing Metro line, sits 20-year-old Bablu from Rajasthan. Between the din of thick traffic and construction chaos, it’s easy to miss him if you’re hurrying past. What you will catch though, are his long rows of drum-shaped mudhas (stools) in varying sizes, bamboo verandah chairs and white, painted ceramic pots — spots of bright colour in an otherwise dreary landscape. Behind this merchandise, hidden under a makeshift tent, is Bablu. He’s one among the handful of this city’s migrants, who’ve come from places across the country, and are now making and selling handicrafts of other lands on Kochi’s roadsides.
“In 20 days, it will be a year since I’ve come to Kochi,” says Bablu. He hails from a village in Bharatpur, where generations have been involved in the cane, rope and bamboo craft. “All our menfolk are spread out over India selling our wares.” Before Kochi, Bablu spent a short while in Bangalore where movements against hawkers caused him to leave. His brother tested the waters in Kochi before him, found them satisfactory and hence Bablu moved here; other members of his family trade in Thrissur and Kannur in Kerala. While his ceramic pots are bought from craftsmen in Rajasthan and re-sold in Kochi, Bablu makes the mudhas himself here. “Each mudha takes about half a day to make, if I work continuously,” says Bablu. They’re born from a fascinating rhythm of interweaving, braiding and knotting rope over a bamboo frame.
Down the road from Bablu, at Muttom, is a family of eight who’ve been shifting homes around Kochi for 18 years now. Large garden pots, flower vases, wind chimes, idols and more, all shaped from clay, litter the front of their shanty. While the family is from Nangloi in West Delhi, their goods are from potters in Andhra Pradesh, whose products they’ve been selling for decades. “My parents were in business in Gandhipuram, Coimbatore, for several years before they moved to Kochi when I was born,” says 18-year-old Govind in Malayalam. His mother Draupadi speaks a smattering too, mixed with Hindi mostly. Three children have been born to the family since; two of them study in the local Government school and one is a toddler running among the pots.
Their wares come moulded from Andhra, but they are strung together, painted with patterns and black-Japan varnished by the family in Kochi. Prices range from Rs. 150 for wall hangings to Rs. 5,000 for five-foot tall, large pots. Both Bablu and Govind’s primary customers are those who stop momentarily on the highway, on sighting them. The Metro work, though, has considerably reduced their earnings. “We make up for that with wholesale orders from Kottayam, Alappuzha and Thrissur. We custom-make pots too,” says Govind. While Bablu lives alone in his tent, Govind’s family keeps mostly to themselves. “There aren’t many other migrants in the area. When we’re not busy with business, we have to cook, clean and wash clothes,” says Draupadi. Work begins at 7 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. All their wares must be covered and tied up at night under tarpaulin sheets to brave rain and thieves.
Journey further south and you will find entire communities of flute sellers from Bihar along Marine Drive and Subhash Park, as well as jewellery, drums and block print designs peddled by Rajasthanis, congregated often in Fort Kochi along the Chinese fishing nets. Mohammad Raja, 22, and his brother Mohammad Raju, 20 have spent the last decade of their lives here with their father. They walk the length of Marine Drive all day piping popular Hindi tunes; they stop for an hour in the afternoon for lunch and a catnap on the pavement. “There are about 20 of us on this stretch alone,” says Raja. “We all live close to each other in Kaloor too.” Their flutes are bought from Delhi as and when stocks recede and the community returns to Bihar every Holi for two weeks.
While the Bihari migrants comprise mostly men, the Rajasthanis have moved as full families. Mukesh Khanna, who lives with his sisters in Kalamassery where there is a large community of Rajasthanis, says, “Most of us have migrated because there is very little work in our villages. Here, there are many tourists who buy the chains, bracelets and bangles we make. Business is good here.” Nevertheless, life is tough too, with frequent anti-encroachment raids in both Marine Drive and Fort Kochi. Prem, who has been trading alongside dozens of other stalls in Fort Kochi for a decade, now has her daughter Anita with her granddaughter too for company. She puts it best when she says, “Over the years, Kochi has become a part of me, and I of Kochi.”