People with no address: meeting the nomads of Gujarat

A few weeks ago I went on a solo photography trip to India to shoot a self-assignment about the nomadic communities living in Gujarat. As part of my pre-trip preparation I undertook some research, bouncing ideas around with friends, checking articles and other resources, and learning about the current reality and life conditions of these groups. I knew the two plus weeks I had planned to devote to this trip where going to be tight for such a complex subject matter, but I was more than happy to take the challenge.

With about 4 million members in more than 300 different communities, the nomadic population of the state of Gujarat is quite substantial and diverse. In the past each nomadic community used to provide a specific service to the society: many groups specialised in performing – they were musicians, fire-eaters, snake-charmers, acrobats, whereas other tribes would carry out manual work (e.g. ironsmiths, knife-sharpeners, bamboo artisans). Technology and industrialisation have contributed to the collapse of the demand for such services, leaving these people out of work, threatening the survival of their culture and traditions, and – what’s worse – eroding their livelihood.

The level of literacy among these communities is negligible and therefore it’s hard for nomads to move on to other jobs and pursue alternative, solid sources of income. Plus, they’re often victims of prejudice and discrimination, which makes their lives even harder. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s no record of their existence as individuals in the civil registry, which ultimately means they have no IDs, they can’t vote, and are also unable to apply for government benefits and so on.

During my research I stumbled upon a name – Mittal Patel, a young former journalist from Ahmedabad, who has made the upliftment of the nomadic communities of Gujarat her mission in life. As founding member and managing trustee of Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), an Ahmedabad based NGO, she’s helped thousands of nomads gain access to basic rights and improve their lives. The successful interventions VSSM carried out in the last few years include establishing “informal” schools within settlements, helping some nomad children gain access to public schools, helping adults get IDs and voter cards, and providing financial and bureaucratic help when needed for the construction of homes.

I contacted VSSM before my trip and told them about my interest in nomadic tribes, and asked whether they would be able to help me access some of the settlements they work with. It wasn’t long before I received an email back from them saying they were happy to help me with my project, and asking me to meet them at their office once I was in Ahmedabad.

Mittal Patel (left hand side), and Vimla Thakkar (right), in the VSSM Office in Ahmedabad.

When I finally visited the VSSM office, Vimla, the Chief Administrative Officer , recommended an itinerary and called some of the local coordinators in the districts I was going to visit to confirm they were available to show me the settlements in their area. When everything was sorted out I was excited and ready to go  – fortunately I had my Indian friend Amit with me all the time: once I left Ahmedabad English was no more an option and he had to help me communicate with the outside world. Amit was also the “organizer” of the team, because he was the one picking the phone, booking accommodation and sorting out our transportation.

Harshad in his office in the Dolya girls hostel. Harshad is the VSSM co-ordinator for the Surendra Nagar district. He and his wife also work as guardians for the Dolya hostel which hosts young nomad girls attending a nearby government school. The Dolya girls hostel was established by VSSM and it receives donations from a number of private companies, public organisations and wealthy individuals.
My friend Amit (left hand side) and Harshad in a tent with children from the first nomad community we visited.

When I was on the way to the first settlement with Harshad and Amit, I think I was a bit nervous – I was concerned that people would find it annoying to have someone with a camera around their homes. But as I entered the camp I was welcomed by a number of smiling people. They all knew about my project and were happy to collaborate and have their pictures taken. Now it was all up to me to decide what to shoot and how. My aim was making images that show nomads in their environment and give an idea of how their daily life looks like. I was also interested in photographing success stories and issues related to how these communities are integrating in the mainstream society and document some of the work VSSM is conducting. I’m not yet sure whether I have achieved all I wanted to achieve, but I know that I’ve at least put the basis of a photo documentary project that I will most likely continue shooting in the next future.

A group of women and children from a Salat community in a tent in a settlement in the outskirts of a village in the Surendra Nagar district.
Portrait of a girl from a nomadic tribe in the Surendra Nagar district.
Tribal elder from a Vadee community. Vadee people used to be snake-charmers and worked as performers in villages. The wildlife protection act made snake charming illegal so Vadee people have to resort to other occupations and look for other sources of income.
Nomad woman carrying out her daily chores
Gita posing for a picture with her students at a “bridge” school in a nomad settlement. Gita works as baldost (teacher) in this settlement. As part of their long term strategy VSSM has established these “informal” schools to provide basic education for the new generations and spark the children’s interest towards knowledge and culture. Some of the children who attend bridge schools end up going to government schools thanks to VSSM.
Harshad and a baldost in a bridge school in a nomad settlement.
As we visited settlements we were often invited inside tents and houses. The man on the left hand side was proud of his praying room and wanted it to show it to me. At some stage another man came into the room and they both sat down as if they were praying.
This 75 year old lady told us she takes care of her two sons (sitting beside her) because they’re deaf and dumb and can’t work. She also takes care of their wives and children. She looked like a strong person
A nomad elder and other two members of his family in their tent. The cart in the background is a common sight in huts in these settlements. These carts are used to carry all the family’s possessions when on the move.
A nomad woman by her house
Portrait of a young nomad lady
Portrait of an elderly woman from a nomad settlement
Nomad camps are usually located on the village outskirts; but physical distancing doesn’t remove the fear and prejudice of settled villagers towards them
Portrait of a nomad man by his house
Knife sharpeners are called Saranyias, after “Saran”, their knife sharpening tool (pictured).
An elderly woman sweeping the front of her house with a broom
Potrait of an elderly member of a settlement of bamboo workers
“this man has lived as a nomad for 70 years, please take a picture of him” said our guide during our visit to the last settlement.
A nomad elder
A nomad smoking a pipe
A moment of relax for the children while mum and dad prepare dinner
Preparing dinner at the camp