Live Work Play at Dhobi Ghat
-Tejas Gosavi, Atharva Vaidya
Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai (Source: Dennis Jarvis, Wikicommons)
One of the most iconic images of Mumbai has been the reams of colourful, wet fabric at the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat. In a series of water-logged cubicles, hundreds of dhobis washermen and women wash the dirty linen of an entire city. This 162-year-old human powered washing machine is a community where people live and work in the same area. Many live here with their families and some reside alone and visit their families a few times a year. Each cubicle in the Dhobi Ghat is owned by a single dhobi, and there are 692 such cubicles. When the cubical is not in use, they're rented to other dhobis. As of today (2020), up to 7500 people live in this area. It's estimated that each day half a million pieces of clothing are washed, dried and ironed.
The Dhobi Ghat uses 78,000 liters of water per day for washing clothes. While not organized into a formal union, the dhobis ‘work in a cooperative way’, bulk buying supplies to reduce costs. The community is close-knit, with many being inhabitants of Mumbai since generations, but also now accommodating a rising number of migrants from various parts of India.
The Mumbai Municipal Corporation officially owns the land and charges dhobis for rent and maintenance; they also retain the right to evict dhobis who are late in their payments with little notice. The Mahalaxmi Ghat was developed by the British East India Co. in 1858, to serve as a mass laundry for the British Military.
Post-independence, the Dhobi Ghat was authorized as an urban working community and the land was handed over to the Dhobi Ghat Association, a residents’ group, responsible for maintenance and management of the Ghat. Later, around 1993, as per the revised Development Control Regulations of Mumbai, the site was designated under industrial reservation as DG (Dhobi Ghat) intended to protect it from private commercial redevelopment.
A typical day at the Dhobi Ghat starts at 5.30-6 a.m., when the dhobis begin collecting clothes from their customers, ranging from individual households to large organizations such as cloth mills, hospitals, railways and hotels. On their return, they start scrubbing the collected clothes. As you enter the Dhobi Ghat, one can see sequences of repetitive actions - people beating the dirt out of clothes, water splashing in all directions as clothes are slapped on the slab, brushes scrubbing, spin dryers rotating, and yards of saris hung to dry. Water forms innumerable tapestries across this menial landscape, in some places it is contained in cubicles, in others it flows in channels. In some places it is sudsy, in other places it is clean, and the whole area shimmers with percolated moisture.
Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai (Source: Wikicommons)
The daily life of the residents is largely limited to the Ghat itself. The whole dhobi community works like a machine throughout the day with only a few hours of sleep during the night. It is surprising that the invention of washing machine hasn’t reduced their importance yet, and that their customers still rely on them for this job. Inside the Dhobi Ghat, they still continue to work manually since they find the clothes are better cleaned when done by hand. The job is also done by the use of washing machines and driers wherever necessary. However, the laborious manual work is invariably more affordable.
“There are many washing machines and driers but the dhobis still continue to work with conventional washing methods. I remember the time when Dhobi Ghat wasn’t that crowded and the payment we received used to be sufficient for us, but now, it is hard to make ends meet”, said Santosh Dhobi, a resident and worker at Dhobi Ghat. The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown might further exacerbate the situation. “The lockdown has led to slowing down of our work and pandemic precautions might change our way of working,” he says, fearfully.
Water for them is a blessing and a boon. They earn their living washing clothes with their legs continuously dipped in water. Long hours of working inside water mixed with other chemicals has led to a lot of diseases. The wet clothes are a combination of water, detergent and soda which potentially impacts the health of dhobis. Unhygienic working conditions, long hours of work in dirty water and smoke from furnaces has led to severe cases of tuberculosis and leprosy. It is a direct result of boiling clothes in enclosed furnaces and working for over 12 hours continuously in water. But in a colonial hangover, Dhobi Ghat continues to function in a mélange of colourful fabric and splashing water, whitewashing back breaking human labour into a photographer’s iconic image.
Artist depiction by Tejas Gosavi and Atharva Vaidya
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Atharva Vaidya (21) and Tejas Gosavi (20) are both students of the IES College of Architecture