A gypsy way of life

Film maker Siva Chithirai Selvan Photo: Special arrangement

Film maker Siva Chithirai Selvan Photo: Special arrangement

Have you noticed the men and women selling beads and trinkets on the roadside? Dressed in colourful clothes, with fascinating pieces of jewellery around their necks, their sun-bleached hair often knotted up, they string beads with a startling sense of colour-coordination. In the eyes of the city-folk, the Narikuravas or gypsies, are people who live on the fringes of society, making a living out of selling beads. But the community nurtures a culture unlike any other.

Filmmaker Siva Chithirai Selvan, who has worked as an assistant cinematographer in movies such as Nadodigal and Porali , has documented the lives of these people in his 58-minute documentary film Gypsy . The movie is the result of Chithirai’s travels with the community for over five years. A student of the Government College of Fine Arts, Egmore, Chithirai was attracted to the Narikuravas’ sense of art. “Their sense of music, language, which has bits of Hindi, Kannada, Marathi and Urdu as a result of their nomadic nature, and traditions are unique,” feels Chithirai.

But much like several indigenous communities, the Narikuravas’ closely-guarded customs and traditions are gradually disappearing. His movie, says Chithirai, is an effort to document the people who are in the cusp of change. “The community’s defining character, their nomadic nature, is changing,” observes Chithirai. “They are choosing to settle in the places that suit them.”

They may not have gone to school or college, but the Narikuravas are extremely intelligent. “They are sensible; I’ve encountered people who can talk politics for hours,” he adds. Gypsy traces the Narikuravas from the time they came into existence. According to oral traditions of the community, they are descendents of Maratha warriors who fled to the forests as a result of Mughal conquests. The documentary shows that this clan took refuge in forests and made a living out of hunting and chose to keep moving from one place to another. From North India, they are believed to have separated into two groups, one of which migrated to Europe and Central Asia and the other to parts of South India.

Chithirai has interviewed several older Narikuravas for his movie. The long-haired, moustachioed Subhramaniayam, the bearded Ellappan… each of them narrates the stories of their past in the singsong style that is unique to the community. His camera records their wedding rituals; their food habits — most dishes are cooked on wood fire; their songs and stories that they share at night in front of a campfire; their take on the world — the men talk about crops that are cultivated with ‘marundhu’ (chemicals) at present as opposed to natural pesticides in the past; and what they expect from the Government — help with caste certificates so that they can educate their children and have access to better jobs.

Although traditional at its core, the community has adapted to the changing times. Parents are naming their children after cinema stars and their language, that has no written form, is fading away since their children are educated under a western system. In certain frames in the documentary, youngsters can be seen engrossed in their mobile phones. And ever since the Government executed laws against hunting, the men were forced to give up their guns, which provided them a livelihood. Some have even taken to collecting and selling scrap.

Chithirai plans to take the documentary to National and International film festivals. He’s presently screening it in schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu.

A peek into their world

* Children are named after gods, ancestors and even the places in which they are born.

* When a marriage in fixed, the groom pays a dowry to the bride’s family for the wedding expenses.

* When hunting was their way of life, the men, as a rule, didn’t hunt animals during the breeding season

* They help farmers to keep rodents at bay by setting up rat traps in agricultural lands.

* Little girls cook and take care of their siblings while their parents go to work.

* Men and women contribute equally to the family. While the men went hunting, the women travelled to villages to make and sell trinkets.

* Narikurava women are credited as the first people to take cosmetics to villages by selling powder, nail polish, kajal, safety pins and such at fairs and temple festivals.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2022 11:41:15 am |