Sajind Yadav’s village, Gandhigram in Madhya Pradesh, turns near-desolate for nine months of the year, as his nomadic Gawli community travels around India, returning home only during the rains. Moving from hamlet to hamlet in prosperous states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Goa, the 400 migrants perform the only work they’ve known for decades – repairing harmoniums.

In early June, on a parched russet-coloured land on the outskirts of Koparde village in Kolhapur distrct, a group of nine families waited uneasily for defective harmoniums. Outside their makeshift homes, there was no refuge from the heat.

“For the past seven days, we have been to at least 15 villages in the area [near Kolhapur city], but couldn’t find a single instrument to repair,” lamented Sajind Yadav’s 22-year-old son Afsan Yadav. “People aren’t willing to pay enough. We barely make Rs 3,000 a month. Many times, people get their harmoniums fixed and pay us a meager Rs 100. Our community has been doing the same work for years now. How will this come to an end if none of us gets education and settle down?”

The harmonium, today synonymous with Indian music, was born in the West. The shift toward the East began around the year 1875, when Dwarkanath Ghose, an instrument maker in Calcutta, modified the traditional French hand-pumped harmonium to make a less expensive, more durable model that was easy to repair. Over a period of years, the European manufacturing of harmoniums reduced and India began manufacturing the instrument based on Ghose’s model.

In his research paper That Ban(e) of Indian Music: Hearing Politics in The Harmonium, Matt Rahaim, associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota, writes: “By 1913, India had become the richest market in the world for harmoniums – for church services, for missionaries in the field, for accompaniment of urban musical dramas, and, increasingly, playing in Indian classical.”

A century later, that demand is dwindling, as the traditional instrument gets replaced by electronic counterparts.

For Sajind Yadav and other migrant families from Gandhigram, finding harmonium players in the countryside is a backbreaking task. “In the villages, not many [young] people use a harmonium now,” said Khimulal Yadav, a repairer who has been migrating for 18 years. “It’s only the old people who still play it.”

Tatu Mistri, 76, from Madhkol village in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district, has been handcrafting harmoniums for more than five decades. He agreed with the migrants – “Not many people in rural areas buy a harmonium these days. The demand for other electronic musical instruments has increased.”

Another reason behind the drop in demand for these migrants is the presence of shops in urban areas that use machines to detect the technical issues of harmoniums.

No fixed address

The community’s problems are not restricted to the dying occupation alone. Finding a place to stay is also difficult, and they put up decrepit makeshift tents, covered with tattered sarees along roads and highways or on the outskirts of villages. The families say they pay Rs 20 daily for water from a nearby borewell and even charging a mobile phone costs them Rs 10.

Sajind Yadav was busy repairing harmoniums hundreds of kilometres away from home when he heard about his mother’s death. A few years later, his father died. Both deaths took place in rickety roadside tents a decade back in Jabalpur’s Saliwara village. “My parents couldn’t even die with dignity,” said a wistful Sajind Yadav. “That is how our tribesmen die.”

And then there are other issues that most poor migrants face – suspected and shunned for their nomadic life, they find themselves frequently harassed by local people and the police. “We arrived at Dodamarg [in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district] amid heavy rainfall one evening at around 5 pm,” said Sajind Yadav. “As soon as we found a place to stay on the roadside, the local people asked us to leave. They threatened to call the police. It was already evening, but we were forced to leave in heavy rain. Even children remained hungry that night.”

“A month ago, we were in Mapusa town [in Goa],” said Khimulal Yadav. “The locals asked us to leave as we were defecating in the open. And another time in a village near Belgaum in Karnataka, a case of robbery was reported. Immediately, a few policemen came to our tents and asked us to leave. We couldn’t question their order and had to move. A few months back, we were in Tarle Kasaba village [Radhanagari block, district Kolhapur]. The police ordered us to submit the photocopies of our Aadhar cards or else we would have had to migrate immediately.”

According to the 2011 census, 51 million Indians are forced to migrate from their villages and towns to different parts of the country in search of work. Another source, the National Sample Survey report, says that nearly 55.4 % of rural migrants are illiterate, while just 1.9 % of them are college graduates.

The women of the Gandhigram community, who do not wish to be identified by name, spoke about the difficulties of staying at unknown places – “We’ve to stay in the scorching heat and take care of children. It’s not safe because a lot of people have troubled us in the past for our nomadic lifestyle.”

Bigger problem

Deepak Mishra, professor of economics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, puts the vulnerability and poverty of migrants in its social perspective. “The vulnerable sections of migrants face lower wages, poor working and living conditions, employment insecurities, harassment and sexual exploitation, and denial of access to basic rights available to other citizens,” he said. “A section of migrant workers also experiences various degrees of bondage and lack of freedom because they are tied through debt-bondage. The long-term implications of such dependence are chronic poverty, denial of basic health and education to the children of the migrant families. Cheap labour of migrant workers is used by a number of sectors to cut costs. Thus, there are powerful sections of society that tend to gain by keeping migrant workers vulnerable.”

“For several generations, only men have been doing this occupation, but we migrate with our family,” said Khimulal Yadav. The group he is a part of had nearly 20 children with them and some are just about a year old. Anju Yadav, 17, lost his mother in Jalgaon, Maharashtra when he was 13. “My mother passed away because of health issues,” he said. “My alcoholic father married another woman after my mother’s death and abandoned all the children except one. I have eight siblings, four of the elder sisters are married, and the four of us are left to the mercy of god.”

Even when these migrants return to their homes during the rains, their fellow villagers do not cooperate. “We don’t have patta [a government revenue document stating ownership of land] for our mud houses,” said 32-year-old Surekha Yadav, Khimulal’s wife. “If we raise an issue, the sarpanch ridicules us by saying that since we migrate to several states, we must have a lot of money. He has never helped us and never will.”

Surekha Yadav’s uncle, Harilal Yadav, 56, said that he is tired of being a nomad. “I am an old man now and even if I want to stop, I can’t because I will be left all alone in a village where we are not treated as human beings,” he said. “I have given up my hopes of ache din [good days].”

All images by Sanket Jain.