Devi Prasad Sadan Ghat has managed to exist and battle the innovations of technology that brought washing machines to every household.
Almost hidden and unnoticed by people the biggest dhobi ghat in Delhi is located in CP at the otherwise quiet and serene Hailey lane. Families of 60 washermen, try to sustain themselves by washing and ironing clothes from dawn to dusk. In the absence of a river, the ghat has to make do with bore well water, chilamchis (cement tubs) and tanks or hauds. Each washer man operates on his own and buys his machines and chemicals by taking loans. You can always find these men at the ghat, scrubbing and washing clothes and later running around to deliver their clothes on time.
Ashwani Kumar Kanojiya, a washer man at the ghat feels that Devi Prasad Sadan Ghat is the best one that our country has. “Unlike the open ghats this one has shelters that enable us to continue working irrespective of the weather”, he says. Washermen at Hailey road usually work with hospitals and hotels that pay them around 2 to 3 rupees per cloth.
“I wanted to be a photographer but my father forced me into laundry work. Our families have been in this profession for as far as I can trace our ancestors. Honestly, I don’t mind the hard work but payment hold ups are what bothers me the most”, shares 40 year old Jaichand. A hotel in Paharganj owes Jaichand a heavy amount of 30,000 rupees but has been refusing to pay him citing one reason or another. He cannot complain fearing loss of work in future. His only son has no intentions of joining him. He gives a straight no when questioned if he would want to become a washerman too. “This job does have money, but no respect. So much hard work but no respect”, he says.
Fed up of late payments or not getting paid at all Ashwani Kumar started working with Dhobi.com that regularly provides him with work and most importantly pays on time. Ashwani earns around 30,000 every month and washes more than 200 clothes every day.
Washer men at the Devi Sadan ghat feel that washing machines cannot compete with them in terms of the quality of work. “The major reason behind skin infections is washing of clothes at home. Here at the ghat, we wash clothes in boiling water, use disinfectants and black soap to ensure your clothes are as good as new. Yet no one values us and people get fooled by the fragrances of fancy detergents and fall prey to deadly diseases”, says Rahul, a young washer man.
After their back breaking job in this scorching heat these washer men still find time for celebrating festivals or simply chatting about life and work. With immense pride they invite me to their Ram Leela celebrations which are entirely managed by them on their own. Ashwani Kumar suggests I visit them on 14th of November when he plays the role of Tarka (A demon in Ramayana). He goes on to share other stories and tells me about the small temple situated at the ghat. The temple belongs to their kul devta, Baba Nagarsen Ghatwale.
The houses of these washer men are just across the boundary of the ghat. The houses are small and families have grown in comparison. Not possessing the ownership of the land these washer men constantly live under the fear of eviction. Despite this clothes have been the center of their world. “We treat your clothes like our babies”, says Pramila.
Today the jobs of washermen in India are also being threatened by the growing popularity of community washing machines. Laundromats have opened up in different parts of the cities where one can take their bundle of dirty clothes and clean it in one of the washing machines. These places provide attendants that help people with the cleaning and other essential things like detergents. This concept is being appreciated by college going students living away from their homes, at hostels, bachelors and even housewives who feel that this concept of cleaning is helping reduce their work load.
Despite the uncertainty of their future, the washermen at Devi Prasad Sadan Ghat continue working hard every day to do what they do the best, wash clothes. Innovation and modernity continues to eat up on this traditional way of cleaning, but even then, whenever you pass by a Dhobi Ghat, the vibrant colors, energy and enthusiasm will make you stop and look at these people who turn the mundane act of washing clothes into an art.
This photo essay is an attempt to capture this art and the grace with which these washermen perform it day after day, unappreciated yet hardworking and sincere towards their jobs.
Wamika Singh is a final year student of M.A Convergent Journalism studying in A J Kidwai Mass communication Research centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.