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The Lost and Fading Professions of Bengal - Part 2

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

Continuing from Part 1.


NOTE: As I talk about the various lost and fading professions in this series, I would also like to emphasise the fact that many of these professions were not confined to Bengal but were relevant in many parts of India. However, in this blog, I will be mostly presenting facts and aspects mostly relating to Bengal.

 
Professions mentioned in Part - 1
  • 'Dak Harkara' or The Postal Runner (Fading (F))

  • The Professional Mimics or 'Harbola' (F)

  • 'Bhisti' or the Water Carriers (F)

  • The 'Pankha' Pullers (Lost or (L))

  • 'Napitani' or the Lady Barber (L)

  • The 'Bahurupis' (F)

  • The Caller of the Fire Brigade (L)

  • 'Shil Katau Wala' or the Grinding Stone Etcher (F)

 

Professions mentioned in this part (Part- II)

 
In 1780 we are informed that a Captain in garrison required about thirty servants. These included a pipe bearer (the Hukabadar), eight bearers for the palankeen, and a linkboy. -- Rev. W.H. Hart in 'Old Calcutta, Its Places and People a Hundred Years Ago.

The 'Palki' (Palanquin) Bearers
Four 'Palki' bearers, Kolkata 1922. (Source: https://puronokolkata.com/tag/palki-bearers/)

I could not start this part without another Hemanta Mukherjee song, ‘Palkir Gaan’ (the Pallanquin Song) which has immortalized another lost profession - The 'Palki' Bearers. Written by the ‘Wizard of Rhymes’, poet Satyendranath Dutta, this rhythmic poem provides a vivid description of a then (later 1800s-early 1900s) Bengali village along with a description of the ‘Palki’ Bearers.




​Some lines from the poem 'Palkir Gaan' in Bengali

Crude English Translation of the Pallanquin Song

​পাল্কী চলে,

পাল্কী চলে-

দুল্ কি চালে

নৃত্য তালে!

ছয় বেহারা,-

জোয়ান তারা,-

গ্রাম ছাড়িয়ে

আগ্ বাড়িয়ে

নামল মাঠে

তামার টাটে!

​The palanquin moves in rhythmic swaying motion carried by six young sturdy Bearers who descend onto the hot fields (heated by the sun) beneath their feet...

The 'Palki' has been a mode of transport since time immemorial. It finds mention even in the epic Ramayana. The number of palki bearers varied from two to eight depending on the size of the 'Palki'. The smallest 'Palki' was called 'Doli' and bourne by two persons only. In the pre-steamer, pre-rickshaw, and pre-railway era, 'Palki' was a major mode of transport for the babus and the aristocratic people. This mode of transport began to decline in the mid-nineteenth century when steamers, rails, animal carts and carriage transportation started and travel began to improve. However, the Bengali aristocracy continued to use the 'Palki' till the end of the 19th century up to the early 20th century. As 'Palkis' began to decline with the introduction of the rickshaws (in the 1930s), women from conservative families still used them much into the 1960s.

According to telegraphindia.com, Kolkata's (then Calcutta) tryst with strikes started in 1827 when the city's 'Palki' bearers resorted to an indefinite strike against a new set of traffic rules set by the administrators. The administration had set a price cap (of not more than 3 annas/mile) on the rates charged by the 'Palki' bearers prompted by a spate of complaints. They also asked the bearers to carry a numbered metal token, register themselves with the police, and attach numbers to their 'Palkis'. All these did not bode well with the 'Palki' bearers who then decided to go on a strike which lasted for almost a month.

With the city of Kolkata expanding at a fast pace under British rule, the strike led to traffic woes. The saying, 'Necessity is the mother of all inventions', became true when out of necessity, Brownlaw, a Kolkatan of British descent, modified his 'Palki' into a horse-drawn carriage by removing the posts and attaching wheels. He thus created the city's first hackney carriage leading to the formulation of the Hackney Carriage Act in 1869. However, the 'Palki' stayed in use for over a century after that but it was no longer the city's primary mode of transport.


Another Poem 'Palanquin Bearers' written by Sarojini Naidu talks about a newly wedded bride being carried by the bearers to her husband's home from the Palanquin Bearers' narrative.


"Lightly, O lightly we bear her along,

She sways like a flower in the wind of our song;

She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream,

She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream.

Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing,

We bear her along like a pearl on a string."

--- Palanquin Bearers by Sarojini Naidu


The Pipe Bearers or 'Hookahburdars'
A 'Hookahburdar' with his master.

The 'Hookah' is a device used to smoke tobacco filtered through water. To make the smoke more palatable, the tobacco is often flavoured or sweetened with honey. It is thought that the 'Hookah' originated in India during Mughal emperor Akbar's reign. However, it gained aristocratic status during the reign of Shah Jahan (Akbar's grandson) when it developed its own ritual and protocol. It was at this time the job of the 'Hookahburdar', a dedicated servant who prepared the 'Hookah' for smoking and attended to his master's needs during the smoking ritual, was defined.

In the 18th century, as the British started to colonize India, they started to adopt certain royal practices to win the patronage of the Indian royalty among which the 'Hookah' smoking ritual was one of them. Also, according to historian T. Spear, since the hookah was more expensive than the pipe and required a 'Hookahburdar', smoking a 'Hookah' meant an ostentatious display of wealth.

And thus, 'Hookah' soon became an indispensable part of colonial life and social gatherings. According to the book, 'Echoes from Old Calcutta', by H.E. Busteed,

In the letters of a gentleman who visited Calcutta in 1779 is given a copy of a card of invitation in which Mr. and Mrs. Hastings "request the favour of his company to a concert and supper at Mrs. Hastings' house in town - a postscript requests him to bring only his "huccabadar". This introduces us to a custom happily passed away. So indispensable was the hooka that at parties it was admitted to the supper rooms and card rooms - even to the boxes in the theatres, and between the pillars and walls of the assembly rooms.

The 'Hookahburdar' would accompany his master to all social gatherings and even when the master is travelling or riding. He would carry the 'Hookah', the 'Hookah' mat, and all other ingredients needed to prepare the 'Hookah' for smoking.

However, by the end of the 19th century, the craze for 'Hookah' died as it was too expensive to maintain and along with it, the 'Hookahburdars' were also lost into obscurity. It required an additional cost of maintenance of the 'Hookaburdar' along with the 'Hookah' and the tobacco. Moreover, the cheroot or cigar which came into existence by then was an easier and cheaper habit to maintain.


'Abdar' or Cool Water Bearer
Painting of an 'Abdar' cooling bottles. (Source: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O427613/one-of-eighteen-paintings-of-painting-unknown/)

The tropical heat of India was unbearable to the Britishers and they tried every possible means to make themselves comfortable in the summers. From fleeing to cooler regions to building their bungalows (with high ceilings and thick walls) in compounds with shady trees to installing 'Pankhas', tatties (mats) made of 'Khus khus' grass over the windows (which were kept constantly moist by the 'Bhistis') to sleeping in water-drenched garments on the open terrace at night to cooling their drinks, the Company people exhausted every possibility they could find to tame the cauterizing summer heat. However, unlike today, cooled water was not easily accessible then. Household refrigerators were not invented before 1913. Thus, chilled water or ice for cooling drinks was not a readily available commodity. So the British resorted to manufacturing ice in the plains which was a labour-intensive process (which we will not be discussing here).

[If you are interested in the ice-making process, you can read it here.]

Before the introduction of ice, the sahibs appointed 'Abdars' and entrusted them with the job of cooling their drinks.

'Abdar' is a Persian word that came from 'aab' meaning water and 'dar' meaning bearer. 'Abdars' were servants whose sole purpose was to cool the water, wine, beer, and other table delicacies. He was like a walking refrigerator who went with his master to every dinner party for cooling the master's wine.

The 'Abdars' cooled the drinks by dissolving saltpetre (potassium nitrate) in a vessel made of lead.

The process involved is quite simple. A wide vessel/basin (made of lead) is filled with water and the bottle (of beer, wine) or another smaller vessel containing water that needs to be cooled is set inside the wider vessel so that the water surrounds the beverage that needs to be cooled. Saltpetre is then gradually added to water in the wider vessel. As the saltpetre dissolves it cools the water in the wider basin which in turn cools the container containing the beverage.

[While the saltpetre dissolves in water, the energy required to break the bonds of the salt is acquired by pulling the heat from the surrounding water thus cooling the water in the process.]

It is said that,

A bottle of claret is made cold as ice by only five turns, in a vessel for the purpose made of lead, in which, while the salt-petre is dissolving, the bottle is turned. None but professed 'Abdars' can cool wine in this way. -- A narrative of the Operations of Captain Little's Detachment, and of the Mahratta Army, Commanded by Purseram Bhow. by Edward Moor (Lt. of the Bombay Establishment).

It was in 1833, American ice was introduced in Kolkata by a Bostonian entrepreneur, Frederic Tudor, which ended the legacy of the 'Abdars' and other Indian labour-intensive ice-making processes.


Street Gas Lamp Lighters
An Old Cast Iron Gas Light Stand manufactured by Messenger and Sons in Birmingham. (Source: Twitter @ArchaeoNomad)

'গ্যাস আলোকে কলিকাতা যেনো আভা মাখা' (Calcutta glows from the light of Gas Lamps) -- Dinabandhu Mitra.


Long before electricity was accessible to people, gas lamps used to glow after sunset in many thoroughfares of Kolkata.

Street Gas Lamps began to be used in Kolkata in the year 1857 when the Oriental Gas Company began its operations of providing gas as fuel to the street lamps. These lamps needed a manual lamp lighter every evening. The lamplighter would carry a long pole with a flame at the end of it and go on lighting the lamps across the streets. He would also return at dawn to extinguish the lamps. Also, he would clean the lamps of soot at regular intervals.

Gas lamps were popular in Kolkata up till the 1940s and so were its lighters. Though electricity came to the streets of Kolkata around 1897, because of the steep tariff, it was supplied to very limited areas and in some places, it was provided on a trial basis. It was only in 1937, the tariff was reduced considerably and gradually electric lighting took over.


'Masalchi' or the torchbearer or Linkboy

The 'Masalchi' or torchbearer or linkboy was responsible for lighting up the place. He would carry a 'Masal' or torch composed of coarse rags wrapped around a rod in his left hand. In the right hand, the 'Masalchi' holds a brass vessel containing the oil with which he feeds the flame as the occasion requires. The 'Masalchi' would run alongside the 'Palki' bearers during night travel or assist the babus during night hunts; they would at times run alongside the Postal runners.

Even in the early 20th century when kerosene lamps were used, the 'Masalchis' were given the maintenance and lighting of the lamps in aristocratic families, boarding houses or schools, and the like.

There was no electricity in those days, and a 'masalchi' was in charge of the kerosine lamps, and was fully engaged all day in cleaning, trimming and oiling the hanging lamps, hurricane lamps and big glass table lamps used for study. -- Project Canterbury, Bishop's College Calcutta 1820-1970.

With time, as communication and power supply improved, the work of 'Masalchi' became more and more unwanted.


'Chobdars' or Mace-Bearers
A 'chobdar' (Source: alamy.com)

'Chob' is a Persian word meaning wood or staff or club.

'Chobdars' or Mace-bearers are persons who carry a ceremonial mace (an ornamented staff of metal or wood overlaid with silver) before a sovereign or other high officials in administrative offices or civic ceremonies. Maces in colonial India were used as symbols of power and authority.

The English in the middle of eighteenth century craved for honors, for their own sake as well as for their functional significance. -- Honor and honors in Great Britain and India by Bernerd S. Cohn

Mace bearers were allocated to dignitaries like the governor-general, the Judge, Army Captains, and other officers holding high offices. However, this tradition went to oblivion gradually in most places, including Bengal, with societal changes and professional redundancy. Madras high court still has mace bearers and most recently it got its first woman mace bearer. The last silver mace in the West Bengal Assembly was shifted to the museum in 2002.


Mobile Street Vendors

'Amittiiiii" (Imarti) the sweet vendor used to shout out on the road while balancing four large Aluminum topes at both ends of a thick bamboo rod supported on one of his shoulders. On hearing this we would often run to our grandmother begging her to buy some sweets. It's not that she always obliged, but at times she did and we loved her even more then. We loved his 'Amitti' and 'Chhanar Jilipi'. His four topes contained four different types of sweets - 'Amitti', 'Channar Jilipi', 'Mihidana', and 'Ledikeni'. He would pass the road in front of our house calling out 'Amittiiiii' every day when we were kids.

I don't hear him or see him anymore..


I don't hear the 'Kuo Jhalaiwalas' (the well-cleaners), the 'Chhuri Dhar walas' (the knife sharpeners), or the 'Dhunuris' (the cotton carders) as frequently as before.

Like the ones mentioned above, the 'Sapure' (the snake charmers), the street typists, the mobile pastry sellers, the mobile 'Kulfi' sellers, the 'Bioscopewalas', the 'Burir Chul' (cotton candy) sellers, the 'Kabuliwalas' (people from Kabul) who used to sell spices, dry fruits, 'hing' (asafoetida), etc., the doll makers (refer to my previous blog), the bangle sellers, the Chandigarh chair weavers/repairers - these people who once, along with meeting the needs of the households also made the streets and the community lives colourful, are slowly vanishing from our lives.

Globalization and fast growth in every aspect wrought a massive change in society in a very short time leading to the perishing of old ways of life in India and moving into a world of tech power and instant gratification, especially in the urban centres. As a result, countless Indians, like the 'Amitti' walas (sweet sellers), are finding themselves struggling to make a living in their niche professions, the only ones they've known all their lives.



There are many such professions (viz. the carriage coachmen, 'tana' rickshaw (hand-pulled rickshaws), the street side 'Mochis' (shoe repairers), the street side barbers (the 'italian' (pun intended)** salons) and many more) which are already lost or are slowly vanishing from the fabric of society due to changing needs, outlooks, technological advancements, and lifestyles. While technological advancements may have saved the hazards associated with many jobs, these fading professions provide insights into the lives and livelihoods of people of an era our ancestors enjoyed or we had enjoyed as children. They also show the evolution of our society and the transient nature of things, which we often fail to realise as we race through life.

 

** Brick is referred to as 'eet' or 'it' in Bengali. The street-side barbers often used to sit on bricks themselves or made the customers sit on bricks while carrying out their jobs. Hence they were jokingly called 'italian' salons.




References

2 Comments


Kaushal Pandey
Kaushal Pandey
Nov 09, 2022

I had a different understanding of Masalchi. I don't know why I understood it as a clown person. Thanks for clarifying and enlightening.


This saltpeter thing is so fascinating. I am going to find a way to do this experiment myself.


Technology and its resultant equipments have made our lives so less directly dependent upon people.


Can't imagine a person traversing streets after streets lighting lamps.


But sadly the new era is so much more consumption centric. I really feel bad that these days no one wants to get repaired anything; everything is replaced, be it equipments or people.

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Brishti
Brishti
Nov 09, 2022
Replying to

Yessss.... Do tell me about the saltpetre if you try it... Yes I also feel bad about just replacing broken stuff instead of repairing it..... So much of waste is generated through that ... We have become such a consumeristic society...

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