Eighteen-year-old Leela Bagaria lives a life of constant struggle. Every day, when dawn breaks, Leela queues up near the tap along with other women of her community to fetch drinking water. On her return, she prepares breakfast for her family on a traditional chulha with firewood that she collects beforehand. Later, she joins her family in making brooms.
Originally from Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh, Leela, lives in a jhuggi (makeshift tent) made of black coloured tattered tarpaulin, pitched along the national highway in Anantnag district of south Kashmir.
“We earn Rs 100-200 per day,” Leela says. “We don’t rely on government and their fake schemes for poor families. We have never received anything from them. Our only concern always remains how to earn a few hundred rupees and fill our stomach.”
Leela’s cracked hands with palm lines filled with dust, and her sunbaked skin are proof of her hard work. “We start our work of making brooms at 8 am and call it a day at 5 pm,” says Leela. “Whether it is rain or snow, we never stop our work. We have adopted this lifestyle now.”
Every year – as Leela – hundreds of families from Rajasthan travel around 780 kilometres and set up jhuggies across Kashmir, including in Handwara, Sopore, Srinagar, Pampore and Anantnag. They come to the Valley to make and sell brooms.
These families, who know only their local language, belong to the Bagaria community, a schedule caste tribe in Rajasthan. They first came to Kashmir in 2007 and soon became the chief broom suppliers there.
“Our ancestors were associated with this profession. As a part of the legacy, we stepped into our ancestor’s shoes and rose to become broom makers,” 37-year-old Chotu Lal Bagaria says. “Broom-making is our only source of income.”
Chotu Lal is married with three children. He came to Kashmir to try his luck and in a short time earned enough money to feed his family.
“When the demand for brooms diminished outside the Valley,” Chotu Lal says, “We came to Kashmir.” He adds: “Besides the demand for brooms, it is the stunning beauty of Kashmir and hospitality among people that attracts us to the Valley every year.”
Except houses made of mud, broom makers say they don’t have any other property in Rajasthan.
In summer, these broom makers can be seen working under the scorching heat of the sun and in winter time, they wrap their bodies with tattered blankets. But the work doesn’t stop. Each family works outside their makeshift shelter, while a few members supply brooms to shopkeepers and travel to nearby villages and towns to sell brooms.
Young children from the community can be seen either roaming around their tents or sitting before elders to learn the art of making brooms. For them, schools are for the privileged only.
“I have never been to school. During childhood we learn broom making from our elders and remain associated with this line of work,” says Leela. “Things like education, good job, concrete houses and cars are not meant for people like us.”
Like other women of this community, Leela’s life is filled with hard lessons. Two years ago, she married a young man from within her own community. Added workload places a higher degree of burden on the women from this community. Walk around their establishment and you will see women working shoulder to shoulder with men to earn a livelihood.
“Besides doing household chores and feeding the children,” Leela says, “Women of our community are skilful in making brooms. We even sometimes go to the market to supply or sell brooms. We make a deal with the shopkeepers.”
Process of making brooms
In Kashmir, brooms made from palm leaves are high in demand. As Rajasthan is rich in date palms, these families bring palm leaves in trucks with them. They carve out around 20-25 brooms from the leaves of one palm tree and earn a profit of Rs 5-10 on each broom.
“In Rajasthan, we buy the material from the owners and bring it with us to Kashmir. Our main concern throughout the year remains that we have to finish off the material before returning to Rajasthan,” says Chotu Lal. “We came here in March and will return to Rajasthan in November.”
Alongside palm leaves, the other handmade equipment used in making brooms is cheena. Broom-makers drive around 10-12 nails with sharp tips into a flat piece of wood to make what they call in their local language cheena.
Making a single broom is tiring and needs a lot of skill. “The process causes calluses and cuts on hands,” says Leela.
All photos by Aamir Ali Bhat.