20 July 2010

A morning with the dhobis

When we got a washing machine our neighbours asked why we didn’t get the household help to wash our clothes – or send them to the dhobi (washerman). While many households do have washing machines, some still use the services of the dhobi.

Dhobis used to go from door to door with a donkey, collecting dirty laundry from their customers and rolling it up in a huge bundle. With the donkey’s help, the bundle would then be carried to the nearest dhobi ghat. Here the clothes would be washed and ironed before being returned to their owners one or two days later.

Yesterday morning, with a few people from my photography class, I visited one of these dhobi ghats. Every neighbourhood has one. These open-air laundries have rows of sinks with stone slabs and long lines of clothing stretched on clotheslines to dry in the sun.

The dhobis were leaning over their sinks where they soaked the clothes, rubbed them with bars of soap, scrubbed them with a brush, and then whacked the laundry loudly against the stone slabs. Many were making a whistling sound as they slapped the clothes on the stone.

Considered to be a man's job, there were very few women here: only two or three.

This is very physical and tiring work. This may be a trade which is dying out but the dhobis seemed to have a lot of work. I noticed quite a few silk saris lying around, and telltale dry cleaning tags hanging from some hung up to dry – which makes me suspect that the dhobis get a lot of business from the city’s dry cleaners…

Ravi starts his work day at 5am and finishes by 1pm. He works every day, Sunday included. "Don't you have any time off?" I asked him. "I take a day off once in a while if I need to," was his reply.

At 9am, the chai wallah arrived. The dhobis took a short break. Just the time to drink their cup of tea.

Then it was back to work!


9 comments :

DelhiBound said...

Fab photos! Will be tweeting this one ...

Akshata Karanth said...

Yet another interesting topic to write about India :) Wonder if one will give clothes to the Dhobi once they see the ghat. You have mentioned Dhobis used to use donkeys. I have never seen Dhobis using donkeys, though the 2 are always associated with one another. Perhaps a thing of past or out of Blr maybe.

Tracy said...

Loved this post!! The photos are beautiful~

satya said...

I wonder how the clothes are held in place without using any clips.

Scrumps said...

Great pictures! Who do you do your photography class with?

Manisha said...

Such great pictures! I especially loved the action shot (#3)

Jaya Wagle said...

Great clicks Isabel. Another blogger friend just linked this post on FB and I remembered I forgot to comment.

@Satya: If you notice the last pic, the clothes are held in place with the twisted rope.

Anonymous said...

loved the photos and the idea itself is so good, back home in Kenya the hose maid used to wash the clothes exactly like this except it used to be in the house.
awesome!

Isabel said...

Thank you all for the appreciative comments and for reposting to twitter and fb!

Akshata, I think you're too young to remember the dhobi donkeys! Several 'older' people have told me that dhobis used to use donkeys to carry their loads of laundry.

You're right Jaya, no clips needed because the ends are simply tucked into the twisted rope.

Scrumps, please contact me by email if you'd like the details of the photography class. I'd be happy to pass on the details.