Thursday, November 06, 2008

Narikuravars: Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1 – An introduction

Five settlements visited and it was obvious. Here is a tribal group, scattered over a ‘progressive’ state. But progress has left them in the lurch, struggling to find a strong foothold.

But first, a tint of their enchanting history.

They are part of the well-known ‘Romas’ or Gypsies of the world and are referred to as the Gypsies of south India. “Their origin seems to be from Rajasthan. The movement into southern India seems to be based largely on their need for food.

Many many years ago, recount the elders, ...our grandfathers spoke of living in caves and in leaf huts and wandered right upto the seven hills of Tirupati in search of game. There were deer and boar and many of our people.

Ancient hunters far away, down in the foothills, where the river Kortallayar, flows towards the Bay of Bengal, the land was occupied for thousands and thousands of years by stone tool making prehistoric tribes which are now called kuravas. Tools of these long-dead hunter-gatherers, lie buried deep within ancient red soils and scattered on the river bed and hilly mounds.” (

Now push the fast forward button, to come back to their harsh present.

It’s an old story - a tribal group, whose nomadic nature makes it easier for the government to ignore its fundamental rights. Years after they gave up their ‘problematic’ (for the government) traditional lifestyle of hunting foxes and traveling around, basic amenities like housing, water and power supply are still a rarity in most settlements.

In some cases, ‘pattas’ have been granted. But these are temporary land leases and the government can kick them out whenever and however… no questions asked. It has happened. In the case of the 1991 Gypsy school which was to be shut down to accommodate Anna University’s expansion of its premises.

And so they continue to ‘salvage’ a living by rag picking and bead making and subsist in an urban jungle they are still trying to understand and break into.

Oddly enough, only in Tamil Nadu they are not recognized as a tribe…. Their counterparts in Karnataka, the ‘Hakki Pikkis’, enjoy Schedule Tribe (ST) status.

Welcome to the world of the Narekoravas in Chennai.

While doing the Key Issues project, Group D stumbled upon the range of problems facing this group and their daily battles to feed themselves. Struck by the dispassion with which we pass these people by, everyday, without a second glance, we spent our July and September weekends visiting three Narikurava settlements in Thiruvanmiyur, Kottur and Avadi.

After our presentation was dismissed, due to what I argue, was a tangential remark; I promised myself I wouldn’t let this key issue die that easily. It was not just another project and with another deadline.

I bumped into them occasionally in Mamallapuram and suffered a barrage of pleas to buy their beads. These brief meetings never let them out of my wandering mind.

Tight schedules and a massive effort on the Investigative project diverted my attention from their needs for almost five months. The scattered settlements in distant areas of Chennai furthered the distance. With the deadline for this dissertation looming, I pondered the folly of taking up such a huge issue, with the limited time and expertise I had to offer.

But something an environmental expert, Dr. Swaminathan said, revived my drive. He said that it didn’t matter, however inadequate or inconclusive a research is. Not only will it act as a starting point for further investigation, but it also helps communicate the issue to different people. Who knows? Maybe, hopefully, someone will read this project and develop an interest in the gypsies.

So I finalized the topic for my dissertation – Education as a means of empowerment among the Narikuravas/ gypsies in Chennai. Finding little solace in the fact that I had kept my promise to myself and to the gypsies, I revived my fieldwork. Months after my first visits to the settlements, I found two others in Injambakkam and Poonjeri, in far worse shape. Growing despair…

My initial surprise at finding mention of the Narikuravas was replaced with anger, when the articles repeatedly covered the arrests of various gypsies who were caught poaching. After speaking to just a few gypsies I realized that these communications were yielding few new leads. The issue was obvious after the first presentation we had made. Their situation hadn’t changed… much… Frustration.

The Thiruvanmiyur leader and missionary, B.M Rajkumar hired web developer who was very quick to come and collect copies of all my gypsy photographs. More than three months later, the website is nowhere to be found on the information highway.

Even my attempts to communicate with the authorities failed. All dead ends and no responses. There’s no turning back.

This project is an attempt to help the reader understand the Narikuravas, with perhaps a bit more sensitivity. Their inherently ostentatious nature intimidates the unwarned visitor. Still, their spirit is admirable and in my eye, I can’t help but behold these people as beautiful and a little special, especially after they captured my imagination, five months ago.

Here is a brief synopsis of my dissertation on these deserted people.

The first chapter talks about their status, both legal and social. The discrimination they face and why they continue to struggle to achieve Schedule Tribe (ST) status.

The second is on the gypsy occupations, ranging from the traditional, to the transitional. It aims to suggest that the gypsies have yet to be reconciled into our society.

The third is an insight into their lifestyle, the problems it poses and their living conditions.

The fourth chapter seeks to find possible solutions to their problems. It also brings into question, the old contention of whether or not to mainstream tribal education.

The fifth chapter contains newspaper clippings that covered various Narikurava interactions with the government and other organizations that were fruitful and benefited them.

The epilogue is to ground the information in the previous chapters in the context of what’s been happening more recently and in other parts in Tamil Nadu.

Happy reading.