Moments from the Social Justice Film Festival in Chennai and beyond….


Every screening of Sikkidre Shikari, Ildidre Bhikari (Bird Trapper of Beggar) opens our eyes to multiple realities of nomadic communities who continue to dance dangerously at the margins of mainstream society. The screening at the Social Justice Film Festival on September 14, 2017 in Chennai at the Goethe Institute by Marupakkam and our visit next day to a Nari Korava community in the heart of the city challenged us yet again.

The film and the characters that make it, touched a chord as always with the highly motivated audience that comprised largely of students, artists, academics and film makers who participated enthusiastically in the discussions that followed. The inputs given by Shri Muthukumarswamy, a folklorist, on the lives of the Nari Kuravas, the compatriots of the Hakki Pikkis in Tamil Nadu were particularly enlightening. Starting from talking about how initially there was a confusion in Tamil Nadu caused by the conflation of the Kuruvanji’s (gypsies) with the Nari Kuravas in popular imagination (thanks to the film by MGR!) now it is clear that they are not the same community. An itinerant people who can be seen around the state dressed in their colourful clothes selling colourful beads he spoke about the ineffectual reach of the Nari Kurava Welfare Board that seems to have done little to make any substantial difference to bettering their lives.  He ended with reflecting about the dominant approach of all interventions, both State and non State centred that revolves around mainstreaming this marginalised community…. “Do such communities really need mainstreaming or do we need to rethink our model of development with them at the centre of it?”

Nothing that he spoke or we knew about the Nari Kuravas or the Hakki Pikkis though, prepared Vinod, Kumuda and me for our encounter with the community in the Nari Kurava colony in Kottur, the next day.

Piles of plastic and other degenerating trash overflows from practically every little nook and cranny in the midst of which dwell the Nari Koravas. They look like they themselves have been recycled from the waste that has been carelessly cast aside by an over consumptive city.

Their clothes look like they have been stitched together from the rags that they collect.

Their bodies and faces look wasted, dissipated and despairing.

Outside one ramshackled hut we sit to talk with Godavari, one of the “leaders” who pulls out a swivel chair that obviously has seen better days and creaks and swirls around on it as he talks about the present insecurities that they are facing. An ageing Kannamma, rather resplendent in her crudely patchworked red skirt, blue blouse, yellow dupatta and coloured beads sit around and make conversation before she and her friend, Potato, head out for work – begging.

136 families live in this absolutely devastated colony which has been declared as a slum by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board but where permission has not been given by the Government to construct some decent and dignified dwellings for the community.

And this despite the Anna University, the owners of the land, giving the Slum Clearance Board permission to do so.

As Kumuda from the Hakki Pikki community in Karnataka goes around talking to all the older women and men trying to trace their ancestry and establish familial links she too despairs. “We are much better off in Karnataka than the Nari Kuravas here” she agonises. “We must do something”

She does what she can. Which is give them some sense of dignity that comes from their past as they remember and recount the names of their ancestors and the lineage they each come. The more recent names as always bring some lightness into an unbearably burdened present. Chapathi, Palli/Poochi (twins we are told), Orange and Mithai ( a happily married couple), Cycle, Calcutta, Madras, Rickshabandi, Peacock….

Young men emerge from their drunken stupor and get on to their rickshabandi to ride into the city to come laden back with more waste and garbage; women who still look covered with the dust of the previous day come out on to the roads to go find water to wash off their stupor – the only brightness of their spirit evident in the colourful elaborately beaded anklets they wear.

As we continue to “rummage in the rubble for light and new poetry”  a young woman passes us by nonchalantly blowing rainbow bubbles in the air around her.

A little boy stands and stares at us. He is stark naked. Except for a black thread around his waist with a silver “thayitha”  and a string of coloured beads around his neck. And a large bright blue school bag with “Super Mario” emblazoned in yellow that he has strapped on to his back.

“Are you going to school?” I ask him. He gives me an innocent if blank look. And turns tail and runs.

Wither social justice I wonder despairingly even as Super Mario waves back mockingly 😦


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