Long time ago in the year 1902 the British had launched the concept of open air dhobi ghat in Kolkata being inspired by Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi dhobi ghat which was built in 1880. It was the same date as independence that is 15th of August but over a century later. Now after around one hundred and sixteen years, there are around 700 washerman including 235 licensed ones and 450 assistants who have kept the dhobi ghat alive in the south dhobi khana in Kolkata.
The Ballygunge operational dhobi ghat has many washermen who have been here for generations now. The authorities are now failing to look after the place well and are failing to provide good facilities. In todays world the youngsters are not keen to continuing the traditional profession on.
The Ritchie road dhobi khana was set up as an emergency service and not to earn revenue out of the service. In the year 1913-14 the monthly rent was around INR 2 for each stone pen and with an added licence fee of INR 1. The annual loss that year was calculated as sixteen thousand but no questions were raised as because it was not set up for earning money.
Fascinating it is, to watch the washermen at work.They use 108 stone pens in turns throughout the entire day. The dirty clothes are dipped in soapy water over the night. The whites are bleached to get more clean and stain free clothes. They are washed and run through clean water. The pens are known as Hoj by the local people. They have cisterns for storing water underneath these pens.
The day starts early in the morning even before the sun rises. The washermen start as early by 4am and work throughout the day till all the clothes are not cleaned, dried and ironed. On some days they do work till the midnight in order to finish the days assignment. There is a constant music created by the sound of the clothes being battered against the stones by the washermen. On an average a washerman takes care of 200 articles on a daily basis while earning an income of around INR25000 per month.
This is the way we Wash the clothes…..
Once cleaned the clothes are put into a hydro dryer. This is a manually operated machine which helps in wringing out the water from clothes. The machine has a large steel drum which is spun by hand rollers. One batch takes around an hours time before it is set to dry in the sunlight. The monsoon season makes it difficult for them to dry the clothes and finish their work on time.
The Hoj has an attached oven for cleaning greased clothes with hot water. The oven is coal driven and cleaned clothes through the steam created by heating the water. This was the process of dry cleaning that has changed in the recent times. The process would take around twelve hours.
Ram Choudhary, age 80 years have been preparing coal for the ovens as well as steam irons for past 65 years. Panchu Lal Das, age 74 years has been working for around 50 years even in the heated summers with temperature more than 44 degree and in winters below 4-5 degrees.
Dhobi khana has been provided with low voltage electricity and thus the use of electronic iron is restricted. They uses steam iron and they are operated through coal. The local body trying to get the increased water supply FROM THE Kolkata Municipal Corporation for them along with high voltage electricity in the near future for a better and swift performance.
the delivery of the cleaned and dried clothes are done by motorbikes or even hand pulled rickshaws. Despite these services are labour intensive yet they are almost half the price of the modern laundry service.
The services are good and used by many people. They are cheap as compared to the other laundry but the washermen are not sure about the consistency in their working since the younger generations are not interested in traditional working. They demand a more lucrative profession.