Meet the bamboo product sellers of Tambaram, who have made pavements their home, trade their life.
Amidst the noise on GST road, one man sits hunched over bamboo twigs and weaves them into a pattern. He trades in bamboo products.
For 26-year old D. Murali, it has been a family business for more than 25 years. He is not the only seller here. His family is one among the eight from Andhra, which have found Chennai a comfortable place for trading. An array of wares spread on the pavement such as cages for hens, flower vases, baskets to fix night-lamps, swings, baskets look splendid and charming.
One can’t help but ask whether in this age of sophisticated furniture, roadside bamboo sellers get any patrons.
Murali says the Chennai market is much more profitable than the home turf. If they get Rs.750 to Rs.1,000 a month back in Andhra, here the earnings are more than double. During festivals, the sales are even better. His narration about the process of sourcing material almost sounds like a mini-odyssey; an adventurous journey into the forest.
The raw material for making bamboo basket, much liked by women in Chennai, is ‘eechen kesangu’ (sic), available only in the forests of Andhra Pradesh.
‘Eechen kesangu’ is a variety of grass belonging to the bamboo family. Packing along rice, vegetables, some cash and other items, they set out on their journey. They first hitch a ride on the lorry till the forest, from where they have to travel on foot. They walk for 10 km on unmapped paths infested with snakes, scorpion, insects, mosquitoes and thorny bushes. As a precautionary measure, they carry medicines for snake and other insect bites. As night falls, they sleep on the woody floor without any tent or cover. “Risks are galore; yet the livelihood is vital,” says Murali.
The troubles do not end here. Once back in Chennai, they are harassed by policemen and other road workers whom they have to pay to continue their trade. Most of the times, the policemen ask them not to keep the wares on the road. Another problem is of personal hygiene, an issue most acute for women. They live in a small makeshift tent with no toilet facilities. Though they have made Chennai their own home, sometimes they have a feeling of homesickness; they would go to their native place, once a month or in two months. Asked about the rates of products, Alamelu (33), another seller, says: The basket’s price ranges from Rs.70 to Rs.800. The night lamp baskets from Rs.140 to 500; the hen cages from Rs.250 to 650; flower vases Rs.300 to 600 and swings from Rs.1,800 to 4,500.
Some prospective buyers, Murali says, display shock at the prices, but they do not understand that we are also affected by price inflations. Compared to the price they pay for the trade, the selling price seems quite low. Deterred by none of the worries these artisans go on to create aesthetic pieces out of bamboo. Every product speaks silently of the tears, sweat and blood gone into its making.