Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gaduliya Lohars - the countryside craftsmen

Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu. 

All of six Vir Singh in his tattered clothes sits on a pile of concrete bricks outside a construction site at Eraiyur in Villupuram District. He deftly opens a sachet of tobacco, crushes it and puts it inside his mouth, revealing a row of stained teeth. He is surrounded by elders but none of them could care less.
Babulal Bhai, who seems like the eldest of the troupe, has nothing but this to say on Vir Singh’s habit, “He must be eating. What to do?”
These petty issues like a child eating tobacco or a wailing half-naked baby or schooling do not bother the Gaduliya Lohars, the nomadic Rajput iron smiths from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Once the weapon makers for the Rajputs at Chittorgarh, they were reduced to vagabonds after the fall of the Rajputs of Mewar.
At the moment the construction site seems to be their home. With metal trunks hidden behind a sack, soot-covered aluminium vessels lying next to a forge and an anvil, vibrantly coloured skirts, blouses and dupattas hanging on poles, gunny bags laid out as carpets on the side of the road and a few iron implements like spades, hammers and pick axes on display - the space between the construction site and the tarmac road does seem like a dwelling of sorts. This group of forty people – ten of them children – travel for almost seven months in a year selling hand-crafted iron agricultural implements.
Young or old the Lohars hit the road once Raksha Bandhan (August) is over and are back in their villages post Sankranti (January). “Seven months work, five months relaxation,” smiles one of them.
“Only a pregnant women and her husband stay back,” says the twenty year-old Meera Bai, Vir Singh's sister. She is married to her younger brother’s namesake who now travels with her. 
Meera Bai is just in her early twenties. 
She has always lived a nomadic life and has 
never seen the inside of a school. 
One of the kids. 

Vir Singh Sr like all others in the group is proud to be a Lohar when asked if he would ever want to settle down he smirks and says, “We don’t know anything else. We are Lohar’s and we know only that.” He complains that mechanisation of agriculture and urbanisation has ruined their sales in central India and hence they have move south. Factories in Madhya Pradesh, he says, consider the Lohar’s “unskilled”.

The income generated through this is not much but over the years most people have built a house back home, some have vehicles and some even have small land holdings. Vir Singh Sr has a mobile which he charges whenever someone lets him use a plug point.
Their trade route has been the same for decades now. Take a train from Bhopal, alight at Hyderabad and maunder across Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. It has been two years since these Hindi-Marwari speaking wayfarers added Tamil Nadu to their itinerary. But language seems to be the last barrier for them.
Meera Bai explains, “We ask any Muslim person who can fairly converse in Hindi. If we need anything gestures are enough. And when we are selling the goods there is never a problem.” Money is after all a common language throughout the country.
Everyone quickly assembles to demonstrate how they forge iron implements. As one woman lights the embers, another takes hold of a sledge hammer, one of the men places the scrap iron on the anvil and the rhythmic pounding begins.

 Mambai looks on as Vir Singh and other men
 demonstrate their skill and Meera Bai 
busies herself with the packing. 

Mambai with her child in the 
foreground. Next to her is
Gaduliya Lohar teenager, 
and behind them  iron implements 
crafted by the Lohars and a customer. 

All girls are young and strong, and all of them are married. The Lohars prefer not to travel with spinsters. “Girls are married off once they cross their mid teens. It is risky to travel with young girls, they at least have their husbands to keep them safe after their marriage,” Phoolchand explains.
Mambai, a twenty-five year old mother of two has been ill for a week now. She asks, “What do you call kishmish in tamil?” Raisins apparently are a cure to most things according to them. Only if someone is critically ill, they are taken to the nearest hospital of which ever town they are in. 
A tiff breaks out between the kids who have returned with arms full of sugarcane from a nearby field. Just so no one suspects them of stealing, one of the kids declares, “We asked the people there and then took it!” Then he unabashedly adds, “Why don’t you give me some money for sweets and tea? You clicked my pictures right.”
It is difficult to fathom a Gaduliya Lohar’s sense of pride.
Mambai then speaks of cyclone Thane, “everything started falling! We were here, staying at that construction site. Nothing happened to us.”
She says that it is not always certain that they would get a roof over their heads, but most of the time it is not difficult. She then joins the other women who are washing vessels with coal. It turns out that it is pack up time. Their business at Eraiyur is done. They are moving base to another village.
“I am not sure of its name,” Vir Singh Sr says, explaining that he does know that it’s just a few kilometres away.
In half-hour everything is packed into trunks which are loaded onto tempos, kids – still naked – cling on to their mother’s arms and an older woman argues with a final customer. She gets furious when the man, hiding the crumpled notes in his fist, refuses to pay the desired price. The woman swiftly grabs the man’s hand and retrieves the notes, leaving him speechless. Clearly, Gaduliya Lohars are not to be messed with. Even as they demand some money for a final time the tempo driver, who has charged them three hundred rupees, starts the engine and the Lohars vanish.
 Only to re appear in Villupuram town the next day.
Around the peninsula in 7 months:
A customer and Gaduliya Lohar's bargain with each other,
just as they are about to leave the town for a new destination. 

Photographs and article by Mahima A Jain

I came across the Gaduliya Lohar's in Jan 2012 at Villupuram, Tamil Nadu. The trip was a part of my Postgraduate programme at ACJ, Chennai. 

Read Gaduliya Lohar on National Geographic by John Lancaster

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