Craft from the streets

ATTRACTIVE Hard to miss Photo:R.M.Rajarathinam  

It is hard to miss the geometric pattern of painted pots near a traffic island right in the heart of the city. The cheery reds and yellows painted by Riaz and friends are enough to brighten up even the most despondent of commuters pausing at the traffic signal.

Jayaprakash and his clinically neat arrangement of super-soft stuffed bears in pristine pastels shades are always near the Iyyappan Temple in Cantonment.

Saroja's terracotta bells add music to the winds, while Bola's cane creations in K.K. Nagar, close to the Tiruchi-Madurai highway, compel you to stand and stare.

Families of the streets

It is not just the helmets that have mushroomed overnight on our roadsides. The wares of these craftsmen and traders are adding colour to our city, and behind them are the tales of families on the street.

All migrants from other states, they have made the streets their home and their premise for daily bread. “We do everything here,” says Riaz matter-of-factly.

“We eat, sleep, work and relax here.” They hardly know the local language, but their artistry, aesthetic sense and tactful salesmanship have helped them strike a rapport with customers.

It is in search of employment opportunities that vendors like Saroja landed here. “I used to work in a factory but was out of a job after I suffered a back injury. I had to do something to earn my living,” she says, washing tomatoes and beans while she displays figurines of horses and tall carved terracotta vases.

“These are from Andhra and they are purchased by ‘big houses' for their gardens and homes.” A makeshift tent and a cot with a floral-patterned bedsheet are perhaps her only property. “I had willed my house to my grand-daughter and now I am here on the streets,” she says, her face a mask. “I don't know when we will be asked to leave — it may be today, tomorrow or anytime.”

A family of five next to Saroja has lived on the road for eight years. The land being owned by the army, it is not often the encroachers are asked to vacate. The workshed where they mould cane into chairs, tables and settees has buttered their bread. “Our son has been going to school for a year. It is an English medium school,” says Bola's wife proudly.

“The wood comes from Andaman, Malaysia and Assam,” says Bola. “We buy material worth Rs. 40,000 in bulk that lasts us for four months. We have little to spare in the name of profit, for whatever we earn goes towards buying the next batch of materials.”

He customizes cane furniture to the taste of locals — tea tables, child-size chairs and chairs that double as swings. “You can't get handmade furniture with this kind of finish at our price in showrooms.” He supplies to city stores, and his wife knits baskets for city flower shops.

Gambling with safety

These vendors can't count on safety. Their survival is guaranteed by regular payments to the policeman on the beat. “It is a necessity to survive,” says Bola.

“Sometimes a group of drunk men come by at night and demand we sell them our stuff for half the price. We are obliged to do so to ensure our safety.”

Riaz and friends from Uttar Pradesh, who mix and mould cement into pots and tubs of various sizes with ribbed designs, have made more profit in towns in Tamil Nadu than back home. They've lived here five years and the lot can converse in Tamil. “We camp at one city for a year,” says Riaz.

“We make the pots with plastic moulds and set them out for a day to dry.” With one bag of cement costing Rs. 315, they churn out around 40 mid-size pots.

Jayaprakash is counting on Valentine's Day to see a spurt in sales. Geared up for the day with heart-shaped pillows and ‘I love you' teddies, he usually finds clients among children who find the toys irresistibly beckoning from pavements.

“I am returning home in a couple of months,” says Jayaprakash, “as sales are not as good as I expected. I never compromise on quality and my toys are much cheaper than big stores. Yet I am often compelled to sell for a low profit margin.” He is keen on trying his luck in Mumbai.

With only coarse canvas for his seat and a bit of shade overhead, Jayaprakash keeps his wares strikingly clean despite threatening weather. But it is the police and not the weather that sometimes sends him running. “If we don't pay they threaten to throw the toys into the gutter beyond,” he explains.

For these homeless migrants, survival rests on their own shrewdness and a gamble with fate.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:29:12 AM |

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