Idolising nomadic life

Known for their rustic charm and varied craft, the nomadic Bawres of the Gulbai Tekra are Ahmedabad’s best-kept secret, writes Manu Shrivastava

VIBRANT A woman of the Bawre tribe poses with idols of Lord Ganesha painted by them during Ganesh Chaturthi. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Kanha, Kanha!” hollers Moni calling out to a six-month-old Indie stray. “Avi ja, avi ja…roti khavanu che (come here and eat your chappatis),” continues Moni, herself all of five, as she runs back to mother Leela calling her in a trademark husky voice, characteristic of the women of Gulbai Tekra. Nestled within Ahmedabad’s costliest zones, Gulbai Tekra is home to the vibrant community called the Bawre or Baori — a nomadic tribal group from Rajasthan.

The British notified the tribe as notorious and criminal under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 before being denotified by the government and categorised as De-Notified Tribes (DNTs) after Independence. In the mid-nineteenth century, some members left their land and migrated to present-day Ahmedabad where they settled on a hillock (tekra).

ARTISTIC A mother and child  duo give finishing touches to  Ganesha idols.
ARTISTIC A mother and child duo give finishing touches to Ganesha idols.

Sheltering

This land belonged to a Parsi woman, Gulabi Bai, who allowed the nomads to stay for a nominal rent. That is how the zone got its name. The area earned the defamatory moniker of ‘Hollywood’ pitched by the more reticent Amdavadi owing to the ‘liberated’ lifestyle of its women known to be fiery and often seen roughing up their ‘drunk’ husbands or men misbehaving with them. Their aggression is perceived as ‘modern’, and rustic charm as ‘glamorous’, throughout the zone, which is why the comparison with Hollywood comes with a disparaging undertone.

The women of all ages are always dressed in traditional attire similar to that worn by the Rajput women — ghagra (long skirt), kurti and kanchali (upper-body clothing) and odhani (long dupatta that covers the head also) — reminiscent of their origins. They wear intricately-designed gold earrings with stone or meena work. The most distinct piece of jewellery is the elaborate nose-ring designed in a way typical to the Bawre community. It is also a sure-shot way of identifying the women from Gulbai Tekra.

HAWK EYE Elderly women of the  tribe are highly protective of their younger lot.
HAWK EYE Elderly women of the tribe are highly protective of their younger lot.

A step inside the slum transports you to the world of the vibrant Bawre. Gulbai Tekra is a labyrinth of narrow, meandering lanes flanked on both sides by small, brick houses with bamboo sticks at the four corners holding up thick plastic sheets that form blue canopies, useful during the rains and cots lying about. Cows, dogs, goats, water barrels, bicycles and motorcycles also form common sights outside most houses. Apart from making and selling clay and PoP idols, most men work as labourers and auto-rickshaw drivers while the women work as domestic help or sell landscape pebbles and stones. Many men are also involved in selling Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) or ganja (marijuana) to regular clientele, all residents of a ‘dry state’ arriving in cars in the dark of the night.

RELIGIOUS Temple priestess Premaben with a Bawre child.
RELIGIOUS Temple priestess Premaben with a Bawre child.

The staples

And, there are scores of temples sprinkled around and between the residential clusters with exquisitely colourful paintings drawn on the walls. The place smells of food, cow dung and an occasional whiff of ganja popularly sold and consumed locally. It is beyond belief how organically the zone has developed. And, there’s a distinct order in the chaos. Premaben is a priestess at the Goddess Kali Temple in Gulbai Tekra. Dressed in a saffron robe, her hair let loose and sporting a vermilion tika on her forehead, she sits to chant her evening prayers. Her energy is contagious, and so is her calm.

“We are simple people. We live in the moment and celebrate life in every form. Every festival is a big occasion for us as it gives us an opportunity to thank the almighty for what we have,” she says explaining the carefree and vibrant lifestyle of the 10,000-odd Bawres living in Gulbai Tekra.

FAMILIAL Moni (in the centre) flanked by her brothers with Sanedo, their camel, and a rabbit.
FAMILIAL Moni (in the centre) flanked by her brothers with Sanedo, their camel, and a rabbit.

Meanwhile, Kanha crawls out of a camel cart tied next to Leela’s make-shift house of four bamboos, a plastic sheet and a dilapidated cot, along the road on the other end of Gulbai Tekra. Handicapped by a congenital foot disorder Ramesh makes a meagre living by selling cigarette and pan masala all on his wheelchair stationed outside his ‘house’ on the road, outside Gulbai Tekra. “Amit, Sunil… kyan cho?,” shouts Leela to call her two sons for dinner cooked on a stove placed on the footpath. They form a pretty picture as they sit to eat, directly from the cooking vessel, sharing whatever little they have. But the sharing doesn’t stop here. “I love to keep animals and birds, they keep me alive” exclaims Ramesh who is slowly losing sight in his left eye. The family has rabbits, mice, goat, poultry birds, Kanha and a young camel named Sanedo — brought from the yatra at Ambaji (near Rajasthan) the family visits every year.

In the entire extended family, Sanedo is missing. “He must be sitting behind in the trees by himself, groaning in grief,” says Leela adding, “he misses his mother,” as she makes the bed for her three children atop the camel cart before retiring for the day.

IN HARMONY For Bawre men, goats, cows and other animals are integral  to their existence.
IN HARMONY For Bawre men, goats, cows and other animals are integral to their existence.

Thrive on art

The Bawre are natural artists. For decades, they have been eking a livelihood by making exquisite idols painted in kitschy colours. Every family and its members including the women and children are part of this thriving industry, also the major income source. They make larger-than-life replicas of Hindu gods, leaders like Sardar Patel, celebrities like Bruce Lee, and even your own life-size statue from PoP, clay or cement. Ganesha idols are now part of the heritage and identity of Gulbai Tekra. People from across India come here to take home idols of Bappa moulded from clay or PoP and in sizes ranging from your palm to size of a truck. The splendour of their art is at full display during Ganesh Chaturthi.

While men do most of the moulding, women, children and the elderly paint the idols in vivid colours patiently. During the festival, every house in Gulbai Tekra becomes a godown of Ganpati idols and the roads adjoining the dwelling are lined with huge idols displayed in full grandeur, ready to be taken home. 

The Bawre have etched a special place in the hearts of millions of people with their art. They offer the world an opportunity to peep into the life, culture and belief of their nomadic existence — untouched and unchanged. 

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