Professional mourners to street dentists: India's dying professions

  • 18 January 2016
  • From the section India

In India, several professions which were passed on within families from one generation to the next have become redundant in 21st Century modern India. In her new book, The Lost Generation, author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia chronicles the "dying professions" of India.

Scribes of old Delhi

Image copyright Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

Back in the Mughal era, calligraphy was considered a virtuous and pious act and katibs (scribes) were deeply revered by the kings, princes and noblemen.

Calligraphy was considered the pinnacle of divinity, and the artist was uplifted along with it.

Members of the royal family often learnt calligraphy from the finest experts and offered them high positions in their courts.

Wasim Ahmed, a scribe and teacher of Urdu, Persian and Arabic calligraphy, has been practising the art for over 30 years.

He once inscribed books and made hand-drawn posters, both flawless in terms of fine design and flawed in the slight caprices of an artist's hand.

They then went to the printers to be replicated and sold to be hung in the homes and offices of people who believed that the sacred verses would bring them good vibes and luck.

But Mr Ahmed and others like him have long lost the patronage and the benefits that came with calligraphy

Their final death knell came with the introduction of Urdu font on computers which had been difficult to create until now.

Rudaalis, or the professional mourners, of Rajasthan

Image copyright Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

In the Thar desert in the western states of Rajasthan, where women from privileged and upper-caste backgrounds are expected to preserve their dignity by not exhibiting their emotions in front of commoners, the lower-caste rudaalis are called in to mourn for them.

As soon as a man is on his deathbed, the rudaalis are called in for the imminent death rituals.

After death, the rudaalis sitting amidst the women in their black scarves, break into action - crying out aloud, tossing their heads, and wailing to the heavens, beating their chests and slapping the ground in front of them.

"Arrey, tharo toh suhag giyore (Oh, your husband is now dead)," they cry, holding the widow's hands.

"What is the reason for your existence in this world now," they wail, beating their chest.

This performance goes on for 12 days after a death. A longer mourning period better explains the family's affluence, and the more theatrical the act, the more it is spoken about in the homes of the neighbours.

Over the years, with rising literacy rates and migrations, families now prefer sophisticated, quieter funerals and the rudaalis are increasingly losing their relevance, being pushed to the realms of obscurity.

Street dentist of Baroda, Gujarat

Image copyright Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

Amrit Singh's humble office is a tidy, albeit dusty, street shop outside the iconic structure of the MS Baroda University.

Beyond the periphery of its walls, wraith-like domes and minarets, in the looming dusk, Mr Singh squats on a cobbled pavement, his tools arrayed on a cloth - a few dentures, blindingly white and intended to dazzle, are displayed along with jars, bottles and a tin box that holds extra dental tools.

There's no mortar-and-brick structure, no ritzy chairs, no surgical light head.

He won't give you long names for diseases and you can drop in when you pass by the shop; patients just pull up a bamboo stool and Mr Singh will wipe hands on his pants and boot out any pain from their mouth with his corroded set of pliers.

The street dentists in modern India learned their skills mostly from the Hubei community of China, who came looking for work in India in the early 1900s.

Post-independence, regulations in dentistry practices were introduced, rendering street dentistry illegal but they continued to thrive in the dark underbelly of the country, tending to those for whom licensed dental services are still unaffordable.

But the government is anxious to clean up the pavements for the recent plans to develop a world-class tourism industry, where the street dentists are nothing but a source of embarrassment.

Genealogist of Haridwar

Image copyright Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

Haridwar is the Mecca for Hindus - it's a kind of magnificent crematorium and, at the same time, an address for temples and influential gurus with millions of followers.

After a death in the family, male members travel down to Haridwar to cremate their kinfolk by pouring their ashes in the Ganges, the holy river, in a ceremony conducted by the family "panda" - priests who double up as genealogists.

They are also in charge of the family register, of updating the family's genealogical tree with details of marriages, births and deaths.

The reason for their existence has to do with the Hindu belief that the family is everlasting and comprehensive and that each Hindu must "look out" for his ancestors and perform ceremonies for their journey heavenwards and immortalise them by recording their names in the genealogical registers known as "vahis".

Over the years, digitisation of their records and increasing scientific worldview are eating into the pandas' work, raising greater doubts about the value of ritual and religious actions.

Many have dropped out of the profession, finding lucrative options in the growing tourism industry in Haridwar as hotel managers and owners.

But some pandas like Mahendra Kumar continue to work, bound to their clients by inherited religious pledges and for financial reasons.

Ittarwallah, or the perfume man, of Hyderabad

Image copyright Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

Before they bought a box-sized shop, Syed Abdul Gaffar's ancestors sold their wares from a wooden box that hung around their necks, walking the streets with many other hawkers, including bear dancers, rope walkers, mango sellers, carders who buffed cotton in old quilts and pedicurists who cleaned the feet of royal women with rose water.

They moved about the lanes of the old city that were lined with the nouveau riche homes of nobles and relatives of the Nawabs, former rulers of the region.

The ittarwallahs would be invited in and the women would buy their scented wares - a vial of "raat ki rani", a flowery scent reminiscent of breathing the warm night air, or jasmine that would lure their husbands to their beds.

Mr Gaffar now sells the ittar (perfumes) he makes to the few discerning customers who still have a nose for it.

"I have never made synthetic perfumes. It's immoral," he says.

There is an increasing demand for branded synthetic perfumes which are more cost effective.

"But this is all I know," he says. "I can't sit at home with my granddaughters and do nothing but eat and sleep, can I?"

This article contains passages from the book The Lost Generation published by Penguin Random House