They have a fascinating sense of colour. Meet the narikuravar women who sell accessories made with beads on the city’s pavements

Noinoinu kelvi kaettutae irukkae?” bursts out Kanniamma. “Why do you keep asking questions?” She strings shiny white beads by the roadside in Mylapore as she chews betel leaves. Her collection of bead strands, glass bangles, and earrings gleams on a steel bench in front of her. “My neck hurts when I look up every time to answer you.” It’s when she flicks open her cash box that you realise she has had a bad day — it’s almost empty.

Kanniamma is from the narikuravar community, a people once involved in hunting for a living. As times changed, they took to other ways of generating income — they stocked a variety of knick-knacks, from hairpins and safety pins, to sticker bindis, travelling from one place to another to sell them. This business has now evolved with the narikuravars setting up roadside stalls where they sell beautifully colour-coordinated handmade accessories. They can be seen in places such as Mylapore, Besant Nagar, T. Nagar, and Mahabalipuram.

“We go to Delhi once a year to buy the beads in bulk,” explains Pushpa who has spread her wares on a pavement in Besant Nagar. This trip is an annual event she looks forward to. “I like travelling by train. We have a jolly time.” The beads are packed in jute sacks and sent by lorry to their destination.

Priya has an amazing collection of beads — they come in all shapes and colours. She has a keen eye for colour, an art she picked up from her mother. Glass bangles tinkle on her wrists as she makes a pair of hook-drop earrings with white-tinged green beads. She can make earrings in the colour of your choice. “Pick one,” she smiles. “One pair is Rs.20.”

No narikuravar girl can be seen without a wrist full of glass bangles and beads around her neck. These women exude a certain grace. Dressed in colourful cotton half-saris, with brownish-black hair, sun-tanned cheeks, and big kohl-rimmed eyes, they have a guileless arrogance about them. The married women wear strands of tiny black beads around their necks. “This is our thaali,” explains Pushpa.

“My mother has gone to Delhi to buy beads. It’s been almost 10 days since she left,” says Priya who is looking after her parents’ stall in Besant Nagar. “I’ve heard that my forefathers hunted birds. But we’ve all changed now. Earlier, our people slept on pavements…now we have our own house in Kottur. The Government has allotted it for us. It is an ottu veedu (tiled house),” she adds. There is a sing-song quality to her Tamil. Priya says it is Marathi but Raakkamma, who has a stall a few blocks away from her, says it’s “our language. I don’t know what it’s called.” Her seven-year-old daughter Preethi is helping her stick studs on their fasteners. The little one goes to school; she wants to become a doctor. “Tell her she has to go regularly. She keeps coming here to sit with me,” complains Raakkamma.

Raakkamma’s favourite colour is red. “Sokka irukkum,” she says, of red-coloured beads. Given a choice between a gold necklace and a strand of beads, what would she choose? Raakkamma pauses to smile. “The gold one, of course!” But as an afterthought she adds, “No, I would pick the beads. Adhu daan soru podudhu — they provide me a livelihood.”