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.
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…