A hidden treasure

Tirthankar Das
Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Tucked away in a small lane, Kolkata’s century-old South Dhobikhana has a colonial legacy and is undoubtedly, one of the best ‘human-powered washing machines’

If one searches ‘Dhobi Ghat’ on Google, the results are most likely to show Sanjay Dutt-starrer Munnabhai MBBS which had shots of Mumbai’s famous Dhobi Ghat or Aamir Khan’s film, which was the directorial debut of his wife Kiran Rao. But not many are aware of Kolkata’s own dhobi ghat. Even many Kolkatans don’t know about this large open air laundry. 

Hidden in the heart of the City of Joy, you will come across this dhobi ghat, or human-powered washing machine in modern-day lingo,  tucked away in an insignificant lane if you take the route from Ballygunge Circular Road to Ritchie Road/ Hazra. Upon entering the lane, you will find an old gate with a board reading ‘South Dhobikhana’. 

Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, was the capital city of colonial India and that’s why the British in 1902 set up this Dhobikhana with 200 washing blocks that are still regularly used by the dhobis. The water in the Dhobikhana was supplied by Tala Tank of Calcutta Corporation. The 117-year-old Dhobikhana has 210 small wells, better known as choubachha. 

This colonial legacy sees scores of dhobis washing heaps of clothes from dawn to night. “I am working for the last five to six years at the Dhobikhana and I have seen a few changes. Also, I would like to add that not only celebrities but big laundries too send their clothes to us for washing,” said a dhobi, who requested anonymity.  

South Dhobikhana has one secretary who is selected by the committee members. The unique selling point of this huge public launderette is the quality of service it provides at cheap rates. “If your local washerman charges you Rs 20 for a bed sheet, we charge only Rs 10. Rest assured the job is of superior quality,” said another dhobi.

Dhobikhana has been provided with low voltage electricity and thus the use of electronic iron is restricted. So steam coal irons are used. 

“Some of us earn a monthly salary while a few others earn livelihood by counting the number of clothes they wash a day,” said another washerman. 

The 200 open-air concrete wash blocks are divided into 10 rows, each row having 20 blocks where dhobis wash the clothes. “There are around 108 bhattis (coal stoves) to boil the clothes in hot water. Earlier, there were 180 bhattis but the number has come down to only 100 odd nowadays,” informed Rabi Das, a dhobi.

The Hoj has an attached oven for cleaning greased clothes with hot water. The oven is coal driven and cleans clothes through the steam created by heating the water. This was the process of dry cleaning that has changed over the years. The process would take around 12 hours. Ram Choudhary, 80, has been preparing coal for the ovens and steam irons for the past 65 years. 

Panchu Lal Das, 74, too has been working at the Dhobikhana for almost 50 years and nothing deters him from going to work, not the scorching summer heat when the temperatures hover around 40 degrees nor the winter chill when it is around 10 degrees. 

Sharing his experience, Chalitra Singh, a dhobi from Bihar who has been working for the past 50 years, says, “I came here in 1962 and I am still working. Back in the day, we used to get water four times a day — morning, afternoon, evening and night. Later, Tala Tank reduced the frequency of water supply to twice a day. That was one of the factors why Dhobikhana started losing its business. The problem arose during the Bengal flood of 1973-1974. Back then, Jyoti Basu was the Chief Minister of West Bengal and we approached both the Central and State governments with our concerns but they did not get involved.” 

South Dhobikhana has a rich legacy but it may soon become a thing of the past because the younger generation of washermen is not interested in this traditional job anymore and look for more lucrative careers.

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