In this body of work we wanted to explore the historical patterns of these professions, what was causing them to disappear and how they are trying to adapt to survive. In documenting these professions we researched the trades historically associated with each of the cities of Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Goa, Chennai and Bangalore. For example in Delhi we researched the calligraphers, miniature painters and jewellers who once flourished under the patronage of kings and courtiers of the Mughal dynasty.
Exploring these cities and towns we also looked at the broader traditional trades that are being marginalized and are vanishing across the urban landscape. The knife grinders, mattress fluffers and coconut pickers whose calls were once a daily song as they walked the streets, shouting out to advertise their services. Increased wealth and cheaper goods from China have brought with them the throw away culture long seen in the West. You just buy a new knife and no one needs the man with strips of plastic on the back of his bicycle one strip to match and melt onto the hole in your bucket.
Many of those we documented across these cities were struggling to adapt, most said their children were not going to follow them into the profession and some have since ceased to be employed. Talking to them it became clear that if no new viable products were found that appeal to the market, the customer would also lose the variety of merchandise. Large conglomerates that seem to offer more choice of cheaper goods will and are replacing them but they want to appeal to the largest slice of the market. It is not cost effective for them to produce the alternative, the handmade or the speciality and so these products will also disappear or become unaffordable to most. What was also clear was as these professions disappear so will the knowledge base of all these artisans and the consumer will lose the direct relationship with the artisan. Instead, replacing them will be staff who have no hand in the making.
These disappearing professions illustrate India’s rapidly changing role within the global economy but they also highlight the physical impact such changes are having on Indian cities.
– Oriole Henry
Bombils are the dried fish used to make the famous Bombay duck. They are an odd slug like fish that legend says was the only fish not to help Rama build the bridge across to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita. Rama, angry with this, grabbed the bombil and crushed it in his hand, breaking all its bones. This, they say, is the reason for its soft, boneless appearance.
Mrs Jaimala Bartake is 87 years old, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She is small and sprightly, and full of wry humour. On the outside of her house in Porvorim are large letters that read ‘World Princess’. I asked her why and she said, with a smile, “why not”.
Inside on the walls of her home are a faded poster of a leopard cub, two large reliefs of coconut trees she made, “little by little” because one day she was bored and couldn’t sleep and a portrait of her handsome husband who passed away twenty years ago. Her husband was from Pune, and she from Madhya Pradesh, they came to Goa in 1962. She had been a model in Calcutta but when she came to Goa she wanted to be busy so she started making shell craft. She has now been doing this for forty years. She makes her own designs of lamps, boxes and bead curtains (amongst other products) for the government emporiums.
Her children have not followed her into this profession and she will not continue much longer. “I had three heart attacks recently.” she told me, “The doctor was very surprised, as it is unusual for three clots to come at the same time but I said that is because god had answered my prayers. I said please whatever it is make it quick, I don’t want people to have to help me, feed me, no.”
Several members of the family work together in a small red laterite workshop producing hand pinched pots as well as thrown pots on what looked like a modified bullock-cart wheel. Duza Siguiera was making pots to sell to those celebrating St Mary’s feast. As he worked, his niece, Lea Rodriguez, told me “the market has become less as everyone is using plastic and stainless steel.” She doesn’t understand this as, “it is good for the health [to use terracotta to cook],” and then cupping her hands into an imaginary bowl and raising it to her lips she said, “and it is delicious to eat from them. No?”
There is an eerie joke about the marble sculptors’ area in Jaipur, where people turn out to be statues and statues turn out to be people covered in the fine white dust of their work. Walking into the courtyard of Vishwa Samrat Moorti Kala Mandir felt like we had slipped into Narnia. In the centre was a tree so coated in white marble dust it looked like it was covered with snow and all around were lions.
Sanganer, a town 15kms from Jaipur, is traditionally known for its block printing. In 2010 this ancient art was awarded the Geographical Indication, protecting its uniqueness. Block printing is, however, under threat from cheaper and mass produced screen-printing. Sakshi, a block-printing firm, has set up a training facility because the owner Mr Hemant Doraya told me, “The number of people are reducing… Now in this town there are like 1300 units but 1150 factories use screen or machine printing. Only 150 units are left who are doing the block printing. It is dying out for sure but since we have been doing this for many years it has been our duty to carry on this craft.” When I asked him how many generations in his family had been doing this he laughed and said, “Forever.”
Historically the royal army used the elephants in Jaipur. Now they take tourists for rides at Amber Fort. Shabir Ali, whose father and grandfather worked with elephants, has been told by the government to move his elephant, Lucky, out of the old city. All the others have gone to the elephant village the government built. Shabir Ali and Lucky will also shortly go although Shabir Ali told us he didn’t understand why when they have the proper place within the old city.
In a beautiful art deco studio the television crew, each with their own station for sound, lights, cameras, sat in islands between rivers of wires under eternal painted sunsets.
We found several shops with signs above the doors of the ‘Calcutta Wig House’, ‘Bengal Wig House’ and ‘National Wig House’. However, due to the change in fashion and subsequent loss of custom, the Oriental Art Gallery was the only store still selling wigs. The others sold white yak hair flywhisks used in religious ceremonies.
Formerly known as the Albert Hall, The Coffee House was built in 1890 to commemorate the Prince Consort’s visit to Kolkata. It became a hotbed of political meetings during the nationalist period and then a meeting place for the city’s intelligentsia after it became a coffeehouse in 1944. The employees have since taken it over and it is now run as a co-operative. This kind of establishment, with its history and independence, is increasingly being replaced in India by chains of coffeehouses.
An increasingly dwindling profession as stainless steel and plastic replaces the traditional brass vessels people used in their homes.
Drycleaners established in 1936. The owner, Mr C.M. Wong, spoke quietly but his voice somehow cut through the noise of the machines and customers. He told me he was eighty-seven years old and continues to work as he has done since he was a boy of eleven. He was born in a village in China and left after his father died because he said, “It was a very hard life”.
He came from China on a ship with the merchant navy. “There were forty-two people on the boat. A Norwegian captain, a chief officer and the rest of us were Chinese.” They were just off the coast of South Africa when a German U-boat suddenly surfaced next to them. They were ordered off into a lifeboat and the Germans then sank the ship. “We were lucky, but forty-two people in one boat for six days…We had so little water our tongues swelled and we couldn’t speak.”
When they finally saw land, Africa, three of the crew jumped into the water and swam towards it in their excitement. They were weak from days of rationed water and food and were swept away. “I said to myself just sit and wait,” Mr Wong said; imitating the position he must have been in, head down, so the call of land wouldn’t tempt him.
Once ashore the company put him on another ship and on “the 10/10/1942 I reached India”. His brother was already in India and “he told me to come and work for him at his drycleaners. I was 17 years old at the time.” In 1946 his brother and all his friends left. Mr Wong didn’t speak any Indian language or English. “I was alone.”
He only had one suit after the ship sank. A brown suit with stripes. He still has it.
Unani Hakim (physician) and dispensary. Ram Jain told us this traditional medicine, with Greek and Arabic origins, is made from cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, extract of sulphur, mercury, glass, extract of iron and extract of mica. Unani pharmacies are increasingly vanishing as the practice moves into hospitals.
Copper is one of the best metals for conducting an even heat and so was often used in cooking vessels. It can, however, react with acidic foods causing toxins so in workshops like these the pots are tinned on the inside. This profession is now vanishing due to the introduction of cheaper stainless steel vessels.
Clare Arni is a photographer based in Bangalore, India. Her work encompasses architecture, travel, social documentary and cultural heritage. She has been published by leading British book publishers Phaidon, Thames and Hudson and Dorling Kindersley. She has also contributed work to magazines like Abitare (Italy) Tatler, Conde Nast (UK) Wallpaper, The Wall street journal and Harvard Design magazine as well as many Indian magazines.
Arni’s solo photographic books document the history of the architecture of Banaras, Palaces of the Deccan, the recent excavations of Hampi, the capital of the Vijaynagar Empire and a four month journey along the course of the river Kaveri. Her recent exhibitions documented the lives of marginalized communities in some of the most remote regions of India and the disappearing trades of urban India. Her work has been exhibited Internationally at the Essl Museum, Vienna Austria, Grosvenor Vadehra, London, Bose Pacia, New York, Berkeley art museum, California and is in the permanent collection of the Saatchi Gallery, London, and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.