Vanishing Tradesmen & Tools of Urban India

Sparks A-Fly: Knife Sharpener Man on his Custom-Made Bicycle in Delhi
Notice How he Peddles to Rotate the Blades on the Handle-Bar, Which in Turn Sharpens the Knife

Nostalgia is a wonderful state of being to get back to time and again. It’s not nearly as disorienting as Deja Vu, and I for one, don’t sulk over the past, thinking how glorious it was!

And so, I revisit scenes of my childhood today, recollecting with fondness and surprise those people who were regulars on the coastline of my daily routine. I no longer see them as often, and worry about their disappearance – a disappearance which has nothing to do with being forgotten and everything to do with necessity. These misntrel vendors are no longer seen as necessary in the modern scheme of things.

I am talking about the local tradesmen and women of my city Mumbai, people who plied their ware and would walk miles together in a day, waiting to be of service to folks living in multi-storey apartments and houses. This was way back in the early to mid 1990s, a time of plenty for the country, especially for small time laborers and traders and business folks. Migrants all of them, the city gave them plenty of opportunities to play their wares and services and ease the life of the harrowed housewife!

Women Who Barter Utensils for Clothes
The bartanwalli , literally, utensil woman, would carry large, round, straw baskets filled to the hilt with neatly arranged stainless steel and copper-bottomed vessels and sometimes, even plastic items, in exchange for clothes and money.

Gaddewala or Bed Stuffer with the Guitar-like Instrument that Twanged
Once, every four to five years, we middle class citizens would wait for the gaddewala to call out to us, accompanied by his twangy instrument resembling a triangular, elongated guitar with sturdy nylon wires as chords. The bed needed to be beaten and re-stuffed with fresh cotton and a new cover perhaps. Now, rubber, foam and our Curl On Mattresses keep us in comfort.

The Snake Charmer Uses the Pungi or Been to Charm the Snake
Snake Charmers would be invited to Hindu festivals such as the nagapanchami, where the snakes would be worshipped and blessings would be sought. In other times, the snakes would be the center of a public spectacle – as entertainers.

Bread Seller in Delhi, a Sight That is Really Rare Given the Abundance of Bakeries
Roadside Tailor: A Sewing Machine and Spools of Century Thread Will Suffice for a Day's Earning

Delight of a Cold Kulfi and Juicy Falooda: Kulfiwala in Delhi
Kulfi is a form of ice cream made from milk and cream with dollops of pistachios coating each cone-shaped concoction. The kulfiwala is still found wandering residential areas and beaches today, enticing kids and adults to savor the cool, thick and milky kulfi that was a staple for generations of Indians well before the 1990s. Today, ice cream parlors, dessert chains, Italian brands and supermarket variety of ice cream tubs have outrun the home-churned kulfi.

Hand Cranked Car-a-Merry-Go-Round
I still spot a hand-operated merry-go-round in my locality, with children as young as three, four and five queuing up for their turn. And at Rs 5 per ride, it’s surely a treat, huh? The machinery has wheels at its base, helping the man to push it easily on concrete roads.

Savoury Snacks: Sev Puri Walas Used to Travel With Only a Small Basket for Company
Sev Puri, Bhel Puri and Pani Puri – these were the only three savoury snacks that the chaatwala would conjure from the innards of his conical basket. With tiny satchels of tamarind chutney, mint chutney and spicy chilly chutney, he would flavor the snack as per your preference. Today, well-built glass encased shops, hotels and restaurants, and even the pushcart vendors have driven the one-man show to the sidelines.

One Man Show: Ready to Pump Air into Punctured Tyres
This bicycle repair man would cheerfully pray for all cycle tyres to go flat! His daily wages could be anywhere from Rs 3 for filling air in two tyres to Rs 50, for changing the rubbers on old ones.

Soft White Moons: Idli Seller on Bicycle
Idli and Vadas: A Squirt of Coconut Chutney and You Are Good to Go!

Shiny, Glass Bangles Stacked in an Array of Colors by the Choodiwali

Sweetened to Perfection: A Sweet Seller at Lucknow
I remember a time in my childhood when hard-boiled candy would be sold by the mithaiwala – sweets man – as he called door to door, with his stash of 100 flavoured candies, milk toffees, chikkis (peanuts coated in jaggery) and mithais (traditional Indian sweets made from flour, milk and/or semolina and gram flour). Today, I make it a point to buy only packaged and fully wrapped chocolates. In India, Cadbury’s has become synonymous with the word – chocolate.

And I have more sweet notes for you…

Pink, Fluffy, Gooey and Sticky - Cotton Candy Seller in Chennai, South India
It’s not just in carnivals and fun fairs do we find the un-embarassingly happy to carry pink man – the cotton candy guy, what we term as buddhe ka baal, literally, old man’s hair! Corny, I know, but totally irresistible!

Burst of Yellow: A Flower Seller with Marigolds
Flower sellers walking your lanes and calling out “phool lelo, phool” (phool – flowers, lelo -buy in Hindi) is surely a rarity these days. They have all set shop outside railway stations, existing on the fringes of vegetable and fruit markets, or, to go with the mall culture, import exotic flowers encased within air-conditioned boutiques. You want to devote flowers to your Gods at home, make a trip to the local market.

How Bookworms Rejoiced: Mobile or Circulating Library
This tradition is all but dead in big cities, and surprisingly is still in demand in Tier III cities of India such as Kanpur, Lucknow, Cochin, Chandigarh and Pune. It was a magical experience to wait for the familiar bus to stop at our place every fortnight and then rummage through the stack of books inside the converted bus. Enid Blyton, Sidney Shelton, Danielle Steel and Hardy Boys, were all found here, along with educational books, magazines and regional language literature.

These services and trade have undergone rapid transformation in the last two decades, since the 90s. Vanishing or dying are rather severe terms, and I would say, they have adapted and evolved to go with the times they live in. Many of these single-service tradesmen have now taken up multiple side services. For e.g. A flower vendor would be selling flowers by the market during the day and take to selling incense sticks alongside or in the evenings, going door to door. The bread seller would also carry along packaged chips or biscuits to go with his main selling item. This is just to supplement their daily wages and well, it’s also in the spirit of innovation right?

Although I do miss the personalized services of the guy who sold bedsheets and pillowcases direct to my doorstep, I cannot but admit that seeing 100 designs on display in a showroom helps me make a better choice and gives me value for money as I compare the prices of products at multiple shops.

I am sure, however, that I have left out scores of professions, trades and services prevalent in the early 90s and evolved into something else now. Help me out, dear readers, with your recollections of these men and women in the urban regions of India, and I shall put them up here. Photos would be most welcome 🙂

By Nilofar Ansher
Trail of Papercuts


5 thoughts on “Vanishing Tradesmen & Tools of Urban India

    1. Thanks Manohar sir! May be MCF could get one of the students to take up this topic as the final project? 🙂 Chennai is definitely seeing lots of urban professions vanishing forever!

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