Two months ago, thousands of people from the Northeast working in the city, left for their hometowns in a mass exodus.
Some were frightened by rumours of impending attacks on them, while many others left to be with their families in riot-ravaged villages of Assam and other states.
This week, nearly 200 artisans from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland are in the city to showcase traditional handicrafts of their respective states, at the North East Trade Expo in Valluvar Kottam. Their struggles over the last few months have meant that they have had to work overtime to ensure they earn enough for this year.
“Assam has the best bamboo, tea and cane but we have been facing many problems over the past two years due to either blockages or riots. Now, the rains have affected us badly,” said Khurshu Singh from Barpeta in Assam. Many of the Assamese artists are from Dhemaji, Lakhmpur, Jorhat, Nagaon, Kamrup and Nagaon districts.
A seasoned exporter of handicrafts, Manik Mohan from Assam, says the grim situation of the handicraft industry makes earning a livelihood difficult for artisans. “Since 2008, our occupation is increasingly becoming unfeasible due to a lack of profits. It is difficult to get people to do this work, as they get better pay in other cities,” he says.
The artisans explain that there is a lot of interdependence among the villages of Assam. “Life became paralysed during the riots because there was not much flow of raw materials,” explained Wohari Debhar, another artisan from Kokrajhar, one of the worst-affected places in Assam.
“There were stranded families everywhere and we were haunted by a sense of fear. Many of us left our children in safer places to continue with work in our villages. We did not even finish the load given to us by agents. And while most of the handloom work is done in villages, we need to go to Guwahati to sell the products and this was put on hold for a long time,” he said.
They did have a good word about Chennai though. “We find many people interested in our pottery which is made of natural stones, because many households here still prefer to use traditional pottery,” said Horchamli Yang, from Manipur.
“People are friendly here and they don’t bargain much, or come back to replace used stuff like in many other cities,” she added.
Cane and bamboo craft, bell metal and brass craft, silk and cotton woven products, toys and masks, pottery and terracotta work, wood craft, jewellery and musical instruments are some of the popular products they sell.
Sources estimate nearly 2 lakh people have been displaced in Assam alone, after violence between Bodo tribes and Muslim settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh erupted in July.
Hundreds of people from the Northeast working in cities such as Bangalore, Chennai and Pune had left following threats issued through text messages.
“Two of my brothers who used to work in Bangalore came back home. They have gone to Kolkata to look for jobs now. Running a family on money earned from selling handicrafts doesn’t suffice any longer,” said Ms. Yang.