Book Review ~ The Lost Generation by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions
Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
It was about four years ago, I received a phone call from an unknown lady. She introduced herself as Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, the assistant editor of Kindle Magazine and wanted some information about the traditional water carriers of Kolkata, the Bhistis. I provide her with what ever information I had.
I met Nidhi, a few months later, during the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Fest (AKLF) at the Lascar Memorial, after that we were completely out of touch apart from a few isolated messages in FB.
Early in 2016 I received a message from Nidhi, inviting me for her book launch in Quest Mall. The book titled The Lost Generation, is a chronicle of India’s dying profession and the bhistis also featured in the list of the vanishing professions of the country.
Apart from the bhistis the books covered ten other vanishing professions covering the length and breadth of the country. Apart from doing extensive field work the author also went through series of books, journals and papers on related topics. The long list of bibliography and notes are first hand proof of Nidhi’s extensive paper works.
Also my name appears in the acknowledgement section of the book, along with a host of other men and women, who have helped Nidhi in the compilation of the stories of the vanishing professions of India.
1. Gonda Artists of Jharkhand
These are the ornaments (gonda or tattoo), our assets. The only thing we take us to heaven
Gonda literally means tattoos and tattoos are integral parts of tribal culture in Jharkhand. The gonda artist or malhar is a low caste wondering tribe of Jharkhand who creates amazing tattoo with very basic tools.
Nidhi braved the Naxal infested jungles of Jharkhand to a remote village to witness a female child’s gonda ceremony. Gonda ceremony is the ceremony, where a girl child is tattooed for the first time. This usually happens when the child is old enough to walk.
What starts at the time of infancy continues for the entire lifetime for the Jharkhand tribals. During his field work Nidhi stubles upon an elderly lady named Nowri Tikri, who had tattoos all over her body.
2. The Rudaalis of Rajasthan
Every time a visitor enters, the rudaalis wail louder in a show of irreplaceable grief and loss. Then, in one of the most striking features of their enactment, the women move their torsos together in circles, beating their chests in a cadence.
From Jaisalmer, Nidhi travels deep inside the deserts of Rajasthan in search of Rudalis the professional mourners. In Rajasthan high cast women don’t cry in front of commoners. Even if there husband die, they need to preserve their dignity. In come the rudaalis, low cast women, who mourns the death in exchange of a few rupees.
Nidhi narrates that the rudaalis belong to two communities, namely Darogi and Mirasi. The first serves the Thakurs directly while the second operates independently. The thakur Nidhi visited had a group of Darogi Rudaali serving under him, but sadly Nidhi was denied permission to meet them.
Fortune always favours the brave and while Nidhi was all set to return, there was a death in the village, providing her the opportunity to witness the rudaalis live in their action.
3. The Genealogists of Haridwar
A list of members of the family running back five generation unfolds, with the dates of their death, the relatives who came to perform the last rites and their respective signatures.
Maintaining genealogical records has never been a regular practice of Hinduism and kudos to Nidhi for digging out her own ancestral records of five generations from the genealogists of Haridwar.
For time immortal the banks of the Ganga, in Haridwar, have been a favourite for the last rites of the Hindus. The pandas, who performed the last rites, have kept every details, including the name of the deceased and the date of death. The records also include the names of relatives, who came for the last rites along with the respective signatures.
Initially the pandas kept the records on bhojpatra (bark of birch tree) these were difficult to preserve and did not survive the test of time. Paper was introduced during Akbar’s reign in 17 century AD. Mahendra Kumarji Panda, whom Nidhi visited, had records dating back to 1799.
Nidhi’s research on genealogical records reminded me of my own work on church records, where baptism, marriage and burial records have been recorded in a systematic way for centuries. Like the church records the genealogical records, maintained by the pandas of Haridwar, needs to be digitized and properly categorized.
4. The Kabootarbaaz of Old Delhi
‘Aao, aao,’ he calls out, a hand imitating the scattering of seeds. Within seconds, birds that were little more than flecks in the sky appear, the soft flapping of their wings soon becoming a thunderous roar. And when the flocks finally flaps down on the rooftop, about twenty of them together, Anil screams, ‘Yes, winner!’
Unlike the other ten profession of Lost Generation, the Kabootarbaazi (Pigeon Flying) , can not be considered as a profession. Although sometime the pigeon flyers do get some cash rewards for winning races and they do sometimes sell their pigeon but it has remained a hobby in the strictest sense.
Pigeon flying is a common hobby in the old neighborhoods of cities like Delhi, Varanasi and even Kolkata. They stand on open rooftops whistling, tooting, shrieking and mouthing direction to their pet pigeons flying high up in the vast open sky.
The pigeons are specially breed and comes from different parts of the world. Anil Sood, a Kabootarbaaz from old Delhi, whom Nidhi visited had pigeons from India, Russia, Afghanistan and Burma (Mayanmar) and even from countries, which he is not aware off.
Today Kabootarbaazi is loosing its popularity as newer generation is no longer interested in the hobby of pigeon flying, there are even resistance from animal right activists. On the other hand the few remaining practitioners of the art are forming societies to keep alive the age old passion of Kabootarbaazi.
5. The Storyteller of Andhra
The fast – paced dialogues have him switching between multiple characters within seconds – one moment he is a vigilant wise narrator and the next he is mimicking the cagey subtlety of women characters, and an instant later, he becomes the enigmatic, chimerical Lord Shiva
Burrakatha is an oral tradition that employs poetry and music in an all night session of story telling, they are the twentieth century version of the age old tradition of Jangamkatha. Older version was centred around religious message, with separate moral codes of conduct for the different strata of society. on the other hand the newer version burrakatha emphasizes on mythological, historical and sociopolitical issues.
In the recent past during the Andhra – Telamgana divide the burrakatha artists played a important role by establishing a separate identity for Telangana in remote villages. Even in the age of digital media, this was definitely a great boast for the ancient storytellers.
Nidhi had an interesting session with kathakunda 9the chief narrator) Anjalayya and his two troup members and even witnessed one of their live shows in small village in the newly formed Telangana state.
Oral story telling, accompanied by music or even paintings, have been an integral part of ancient culture all over India. Nidhi’s story reminded me of Cherial Scroll Painting from Telangana, where the narrator is accompanied not only by music but also by a set of scroll paintings which is reveled, as the story progress.
6. The Street Dentist of Baroda
(The Dental Council of India) has made street dentistry illegal. But dental street practitioners continue to thrive in the dark underbellies of the country
The street dentistry is the only illegal profession among the 11 professions described by Nidhi in her book Lost Generations. Although the Dental Council of India has declared street dentistry illegal but street dentistry still thrives in most major cities of India.
They carter to mainly economically weaker section of the society, who can’t afford the services of a trained qualified dentist. Most of this patients, being daily wage earners, can not afford the luxury of standing in long queues of government run dental hospital. That is where the street dentist comes in.
Nidhi’s field work was concentrated on Borada street dentist Amrit Singh, which sits next to gate of the MS Borada University. Singh’s services include filling up cavities, extraction and even providing artificial denture but more scientific techniques like root canal are beyond his knowledge.
Being an illegal profession Nidhi was probably not satisfied with interacting with the street dentist only, she went on to interact with a few patients and even with the fakir, who shares the footh path space with Singh dantwala.
7. The Urdu Scribes of Delhi
The letters are intertwined like the threads on a delicate crochet scarf, both flawless in terms of fine deign as well flawed in the sight caprices of the artist’s hand
Depiction of faces and human figure is not permissible in Islam, this lead to the art of writing, known as caligraphy. Katib, is the Arabic word for calligrapher or scribe. A katib is a master of Urdu, Arabic and Persian calligraphy and also doubles up as a teacher of calligraphy.
The advent of the printing press was a big blow to the calligrapher, but it was always difficult to substitute the fluid Arabic, Persian or Urdu text into a movable type, thus initially the Islamic calligraphers survived. With introduction of new techniques the free flowing text was slowly converted into a typesetting. The final nail in the calligraphers coffin came with the introduction of the computer fonts for the three languages.
But still calligraphers survived and framed text from the Koran are regular feature in Muslim households and establishments. Sadly graphic artist are taking over this trade too.
Nidhi visited the Urdu Academy, Delhi, an institute for Urdu language promotion and teaching. They still hold calligraphy classes and Nidhi had an extensive interactive session with the master katib Washim Ahmed.
8. The Boat Makers of Balagarh
Around the monsoons, every canopy lining either side of of this pathway in Balagarh turns int a boat making factory and the 400 year old village of boat makers echoes, with the sounds of their creation
Balagarh a boat making hub on the banks of Hogghly River in Hooghly District for over 400 years and have carved boats of all shapes and sizes and even ocean liners. With the silting up of Hooghly River, the Balagarh boats are no longer in demand. Still a hand full of artisans still practice the age old trade with same old techniques as their ancestors.
Nidhi did an extensive field work with this boat makers like Mohak Chandok, which provided her with first hand information about the art and trade of boat making. She has also been through rigorous library work. Nidhi mentions about some of the important events, like the migration of Raghunandan Mitra Mustafi from Ula Birnagar to Balagarh in 1707, which gave a huge boost to the boat making industry in Balagarh.
The story of Balgarh boat makers would have been incomplete with out the mention of Swarup Bhattacharya, a common friend of Nidhi and me and an authority on boats. No wonder, his name appears in the acknowledgement section of The LostGeneration.
Sharing my blog post on Balagarh.
9. The Ittar Wallahs of Hyderabad
The thick liquid encapsulates the golden goodness of the sunlight in which it glows and then seeps deep into the skin, morphing into the body and, in a short while, becoming a part of you
Men in skull cap with long flowing beard, with a wooden box studded with crystal glass boxes hanging around their necks are a common sight near a mosque any where in India. These are the ittar wallahas, the seller of home made organic fragrance. The bottles are fitted with glass corks. Uncorking them revels the rich fragrance of jasmine, rose, henna, rose and many more.
Nidhi visits the ittar shop of Syed Abdul Gaffar, located next to the Charminar, the icon of Hyderabad. As a serious researcher Nidhi also went on to visit his perfumatory, which resembles more of a alchemist’s laboratory.
Nidhi has documented the process of ittar making in extensive details, even providing information on the type of wood need for heating and the container in which the liquid is heated.
Nidhi even narrates the story of Syed developing a ittar of his very own from the leaves of holy basil (tulsi) plant. He christened it the Nagma, a warm, nostalgic and slightly spicy perfume.
Today the ittar wallas greatest threat is the cheap synthetic perfumes which probably comes in with every possible fragrance. To cope up with the growing demand of these new perfumes, Syed has started synthetic perfumes along with his age old home made ittars. Definately a serious thret to the age old profession of ittar making.
10. The Bhisti Wallahas of Calcutta
They were a familiar sight in the Park Circus areas as they filled up buckets and tubs in the bathrooms of crumbling buildings occupied by Anglo – Indians and Chinese…… Miles away, they operates in pockets in central Kolkata. Bow Barracks is one such area where the bhistis are still seen with their goat skin bags
Bhisti or Bhisti wallahas are traditional water carriers carrying water in their goatskin bags, mashq. They deliver water to the houses, with infrequent or no water supply in Bow Barracks, New Market, Tiretta Bazarand Park Circus area.
Nidhi has worked extensively with the few remaining Bhisti wallahas like Nawazuddin, who operates in the bow barrack areas. Nidhi even went on to explore the process of mashq making. The article also stretches back to the days of the Mughal Empire and narrates the tale of Nizam Saqqa, the bhisti who saved the second Mughal emperor (then disposed by Sher Shah) Humayun from drowning.
Nidhi also elaborated on the role of bhistis during the wars, that the Britishers fought in India and abroad. Sadly Rudward Kipling’s legendary bhisti Gunga Din has been left out, may be because it was a work of fiction.
Sharing my blog post on Bhistis.
11. The Letter Writers of Bombay
He would lend a ear to a largely illiterate India, penning letters on their behalf to be dropped in the red letter box
With the recent developments in communication technology letter writing has almost lost its significance and the professional letter writers, who wrote letters for the illiterate is now a vanishing or dying profession. Even a decade ago these professional letter writers were seen in large numbers next to the general post office of any large city in India.
Nidhi encounters one such letter writer, Dilip Pandy, just outside the Bombay GPO. With the Bombay GPO being declared a heritage property these letter writers, who once operated within the complex are forced outside and operates from a makeshift tent.
Today they hardly land up with any work and have diversified into packing of parcels. During Nidhi’s interaction with Pandey, a gentleman turned up to get some books parceled. These were text book meant for his son and a man wanted Pandey to write a good luck letter for his son.
This provided Nidhi to witness, what was probably one the last letters written by the letter writers of Bombay.
My Conclusion: No book on the dying professions, of a country as vast as India, can be exhaustive. I professions would like to add is Rangrez, a Muslim Marwari community who dyes for a living. They operates in many areas across the country including Kolkata.
Also a few more photographs could have made the book more attractive but also increase the price, which is Rs350. Buy now…
About the Author: Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, is a young jourmalist based in Kolkata. She has done her MA from City University, London. She has written for news papers like The Hindu and The Times of India and magazine like Kindle and Open on topics of society, sub culture and cultural oddities. This is her first book.