I had been recently asked to translate the lines from an 18th century Tamil poem, written in the lingo of the Koravas or Narikoravas, an itinerant tribe often termed the 'Gypsies of South India'.As I researched verse after verse, I found some very interesting essays and commentaries about their history and traditions.
Today Kurava people in the area are officially prohibited from even going into the mountains to collect materials for basketry and broom-making, an occupation that provides a large portion of their meager income. Did the differential literary portrayals, in works like Kutrala Kuravanji, of Kurava people and of wealthy, powerful landowners and little kings factor into justifications for dispossessing real people from their ancestral homes? Literature and entertainment styles and forms from other times and places have clearly played such a role in justifying dispossession. Might Kavirayar’s portrayals have served the expansionist needs of little kings and big landowners by painting Kurava people as so markedly different from those powerful people, indeed painting them as untamed, independent, and silly, that they might seem perhaps unworthy of ownership rights?
Here is a more recent article about their current status as a protected tribal group.
Many hundreds of years ago, they claimed hunting-gathering rights in the hills of what are now Tamil Nadu,Kerala, and Karnataka states, awarding the rights over the hills to the various clans in their tribes, a fact frequently referred to in the poem, as well.
Now, they have in general, been banned from those very hills, as practitioners of slash-and-burn style agriculture and inveterate hunting, detrimental to the beauty of the forests, never mind that their numbers are too small to cause significant damage.
Many in this group have been cut off from their nomadic ways, and lead more settled lives, but at the cost of taming the wanderlust which still holds a strong sway over them.
I still remember the harshly musical "Kallukothanundo, ammikal kothanundo, aattukal kuthanundo" (Do you have grinding stones to be resurfaced?)that the korava woman used to call out, walking the streets of the neighborhood in her swinging skirts, baby with sun-browned hair peering out of the sling on her back. Despite the life of dire poverty, there was always a gracious beauty to these women, going house to house selling small trinkets or resurfacing granite grindstones with their little iron awls and mallets, watched over with an eagle eye by the housewives, who mistrusted their reputation for 'light fingers'. Work done, they would haggle over the price, finally settling for whatever they could extract, milking whatever pity they could muster for their runny-nosed little ones.
They were soothsayers too.
I vividly recall the time
when I visited Thiruchendur, a seaside temple, with my parents. We were
enjoying the bracing sea breeze one evening when a kurathi came up and
insisted on reading my mother's palm. I was about 13 years old at the
time. She took a look at my mother's palm and had us close to
collapsing in laughter when she predicted that my mother would have
"Look at her," my mother said, pointing to me. "That's my child, and my only one." I was taller than her at this age. "Are you saying that I will have another after all these years?" We were incredulous.
"Amma, I have never made false predictions in my life. You will see. You will be back here in two years to look for me and thank me."
Two years later, we were there... for my baby sister's first birthday ritual hair offering. We looked for the kurathi, but never did find her. She must have moved with the wind, in the manner of her people.