THE FESTIVAL of Ganesh Chaturthi is unimaginable without the beat of the dholaki, a hand-held percussion instrument, used throughout the day and more so during the aartis. As one of the many traditional instruments, it is a familiar character in festivals and joyous occasions across India.
For more than a month, special artisans from across the country move with their families to Kalyan city to make and sell the prized dholakis. The vendors, generally younger men of the families, travel far and wide into Mumbai and its suburbs selling the instruments.
Living in crammed and temporary shanties or unfinished buildings, the artisans spend hours making these instruments, fetching a small profit, all for the sake of keeping a tradition alive. But apathy from the civic administration has led artisans to decide that they will not be coming back to the city from next year.
According to Hamid Shaikh, one of the oldest of the community, the artisans belong to the same gharana. “We all have shared ancestry and for at least six generations, we have been coming here. My family is from Narela, near New Delhi, but other artisans have come from other parts of the country like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat,” says the 60-year-old.
The artisans buy the frame of the instrument, hollow cylinders made of materials ranging from plywood to expensive wood like deodar, from factories in UP. “We pool in money and get the frames delivered here. Armed with our bedding, bare essentials and layers of resinous sheets, we come here by train when the month of Muharram starts,” he says.
This year, some artisans came in early to start working on the instruments, only to be tormented by rain. Living in an under-construction building inside the APMC Market in Kalyan, they were marooned for a day after the region was flooded due to heavy rain on July 26. “The nearby Kolis came to rescue us in their boats. I thought we were going to die when help came at 2 am in the night,” says Asifa Shaikh (32), the wife of one of the artisans Mohammad Irfan (36).
After calculating their losses due to the rain, the artisans say they will make minimum profit from their wares. “Some mandals come to us and buy the dholakis. We also supply our items to several shops and individual customers in Mumbai too. But the numbers are decreasing,” Irfan says.
Living in apalling conditions, the 30-odd families share a common ground behind their building as a “toilet”. With dark clouds of flies hovering above them, women cook right where the men shave, polish and cure the wood in making the dholakis. “Our children have no future, most of them fall ill here. It’s time to question why we come here at all,” says Akbar Shaikh (28), one of the artisans. “It has been a yearly phenomenon since our childhood. When old wadas existed in Kalyan, people respected the artisans and their wares were used not only during puja but also in social events,” says historian Akshay Pagare from Kalyan.
However over the years, the demand for the dholaki makers has decreased, he says. “Earlier they lived in the city square, then they moved to the phool mandi, which is inside the APMC market, and now they have retreated to a far inside corner of the area,” he adds. Earning Rs 500 to Rs 800 per piece for a month, the dholaki makers return to their native places, only to gather near Surat for Navratri. “We make dholakis through the year, that’s the only work we know. But it is far easier to sell near our houses as it saves money on travelling and living elsewhere,” Hamid Shaikh says.
“No one wants to live in filth. If we don’t have even basic necessities, why will we come back? Our children don’t want to join the business anyway,” says Kulsum, Shaikh’s wife. The KDMC officials, unaware of the poor living conditions of the artisans, said they will look into the matter. “We don’t know where these artisans live as they move to the city for a small period. I will look into the matter,” said a senior official from KDMC.