It rained very heavily in Thanjavur one evening in August 2013. I was visiting two of the greatest poikkal kuthirai (dummy horse) dancers in Tamil Nadu: Nadi Rao and Kamachi. They were telling me about their involvement in this art form, how it had fared over the decades (not very well), the awards Rao had received (but, he asked me sharply, can you eat them?). When the rain began, Kamachi was the first to race upstairs. Her husband and two sons (both folk dancers) followed. She was tired when she came back, but happy they had saved the sacks of paddy they had just harvested from their fields. She didn’t have much time to rest. Early the next morning, they were leaving for a performance to Sivagangai, about three hours away. Their gear was packed and waiting.

Kamachi was over 60 then, a wife, mother, grandmother, farmer, cook and wonderful host. She had been a dancer for over 50 years. But who cares, she asked. Organisers want young, pretty, fair performers. And Kamachi, who still danced vigorously on wooden stilts, asked me why her sons should remain folk dancers, continuing their hereditary occupation, when their skill was neither respected nor rewarded adequately.

In every house and workplace I visited between 2013 and 2018, the practitioners of Tamil Nadu’s traditional livelihoods asked the same question. They didn’t have a choice, they pointed out; their children do. I was there to document vanishing livelihoods for the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), founded by journalist P Sainath. The reports became a part of a series, and with additional reporting and exclusive stories, the book Nine Rupees an Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil Nadu took shape.


Nine Rupees An Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil NaduAparna KarthikeyanWestlandNon-fiction₹399


Of the hundreds of fascinating livelihoods in Tamil Nadu, I picked 10 for the book. Of these, five were practised by women. The story on the all-male, all-night folk theatre Kattaikuttu features the first two women who performed in it. Then there’s the woman bull-keeper, perhaps the only one in Tamil Nadu to raise over half a dozen fierce Kangayam breed of stud bulls. Three women farmers spoke up for thousands of their invisibilised sisters; while mat weavers explained how social constraints placed on women from their community and the lack of other acceptable opportunities ironically ensures their craft’s survival. A woman folk dancer and a male classical dancer presented counterpoints, nadaswaram and veenai makers debated the value of geographical indication (GI) tags. A sickle maker, a palm tree climber and a silk sari designer spoke about their travails, including the stigma attached to the work, the absence of formal credit, and the talent, patience and innovation that go unrecognised. From Kathasamipalayam, Rayappapuram, Kovalam and Narasingampettai, I heard stories of loss and longing, but also hope, joy and small triumphs.

A farmer couple, Jeyabal and Podhumani, told me their beautiful love story. Of harvesting paddy in neighbouring fields, seeing and liking each other. Young Jeyabal sending little boys to find out Podhumani’s height (there was talk that she could be taller than him)! She wasn’t, they were married, and their son laughed and laughed when they told me this story one afternoon in their house in Nadumudalaikulam, and Podhumani was giggling too hard to tell him off.

What was harder to find was real numbers. Historical records, census data and official reports provided some. But not all. How much would a couple earn as profit if they farmed an acre of paddy? We wrote down their input costs, and several women from their street pitched in with figures; we calculated the earnings and it came to ₹200 a day, per person. That took care of their wages. Where was the profit? There were no answers. Tamil proverbs were offered as explanations. ‘ Uzhudavan kanakku paathanna uzhakku kooda minjaadhu ’. If a farmer counts all his costs, he will not be left with even his measuring cup.


Disappearing act: A Kattaikuttu artiste performs in Chennai - M Karunakaran


Veenai and nadaswaram makers don’t see much profit either. There was little information about their annual earnings. Likewise, it was nearly impossible to find out income averages in practising arts such as Kattaikuttu and Bharatanatyam. Where is the data? Only the practitioners know.

There were a few other things common to most of these livelihoods: They were ancient and complex, called for great skill and sophistication, and, yet, not all were flourishing. Cultivators, cattle breeders, craftspersons and artists told me how caste and gender influenced their income. Typically, the pay is higher for men or those from a higher caste. The others are treated as unskilled labourers, and paid accordingly.

Why else would the women who weave the exquisite pathamadai mats earn no more than ₹9 an hour?

The conversations raised important questions: Who defines what is skilled or unskilled work, whether something is a craft or an art, or its monetary worth? Commentary and context came from interviews with a few experts — the journalist Sainath, musician TM Krishna, writer Bama, Justice Prabha Sridevan, among others.

Krishnamoorthy, a silk sari designer, spoke from lived experience. He sits up late every night hand-drawing parrots and peacocks, buttas (motifs) and borders, and locks up the sheaves with 10,000 of his original patterns. Mobile phone cameras have made it terribly easy to copy them. One afternoon, in Kancheepuram, he asked me, softly: Why would a young man weave saris for a pittance, when he can get ₹500 serving food in a wedding?

And that’s how most of the practitioners are rewarded — with jobs that pay them better, but require none of their extraordinary skills.

Aparna Karthikeyan is an independent journalist