Axe mum;The Big Picture;Features amp; Arts

12th November 1999 at 00:00
(Photograph) - You would be hard pushed to find a woman brickie in Britain, where building is still regarded as a man's job, too strenuous and rough for the fairer sex. Women still find it hard to break the stereotype.

They have no such problems in Rajasthan, where the airy tune made by the bangles on a woman's arm is often followed by the thud of her pickaxe or heavy mace into the ground as she repairs the roads.

Here, women share the same tasks as men - from digging and breaking boulders to quarrying and carrying mounds of rubble on their heads - but their brilliantly coloured clothes, tie-dye skirts, scarves and cholis (blouses) are anything but masculine.

Rajasthan, an Indian desert state bordering Pakistan, is rich in mineral ores, semi-precious stones and spices. But the women aren't keeping the fires burning at home; they have to work from dawn to dusk in baking heat to boost their family's meagre income.

Unlike Europe there are no cr ches or nurseries to look after their children; instead they are forced to take them to work. But they have one thing in common with many British women: after a day's hard labour they still have to get the dinner ready. Walking home barefooted, they will collect fire wood to light their chula (stove), to cook their family meal of chapathi (an unleavened bread) and curry.

It is a hard life, usually nomadic - historians believe Rajasthan is where the Romany gypsies came from - as the people have to go where the work is. They live in juggis - makeshift sheds - made from waste materials and have few possessions. To women here this juggling act of work and home will sound familiar, but the physical demands on Rajasthani women are greater. They have to be up early in the morning to collect fresh water from the nearest pump, to make breakfast and packed lunches. All the usual things expected of women the world over.

Picture by Jeremy Horner. Words by Sangeeta Haindl.

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