Driving by Mumbai’s seaside Dhobi Ghat community in Colaba brings the hairs on the back of my neck upright. Weathered denim is strung from rooftop to rooftop by the hundreds, like gleaming christmas lights, drying to a crisp in the unrelenting heat of the midday sun. It’s the laundry district, run by the Dhobi people who pass their craft down from generation to generation by bloodline: being a Dhobi is a hereditary occupation like many other trades in India.
Laundry is a very special craft indeed, and the process here in the Dhobi Ghat is an intricate dance of many steps and indeed a collaborative process from dirty to clean. In fact if you thought the professional laundering process is just a matter of transforming dirty linen to clean in one single step, let this be a reminder that many things in life are not achieved by the click of a button. Let me invite you on the journey of a single pair of jeans, through the open air laundry process. It’s here you’ll understand why you can find some of the most beautifully worn-in denim in the world.
Stepping into the open air laundry is an overwhelming sensory experience that will have your head bombarded with the sudsy perfume of recycled laundry water, dust, and cotton fibres that circulate around this heavily alkali microcosm. The wash vicinity is gated by countless pieces of bed linen, denim, traditional workwear, saris, and fabric hanging out to dry on chaotic looking laundry lines. In India, beauty, order, and logic is brewed from the visual chaos that confronts you all around. The Dhobi Ghat is truly no exception to this rule.
The central life force of a Dhobi Ghat is a series of cement wash cubicles, each manned by its own Dhobi washerman who is knee deep in wastewater for 10 hours of the day. He is responsible for his own clients spanning from domestic to industrial use. Many fabric mills and garment factories still use the Dhobi Ghats to launder their fabrics and finished garments thanks to this people-powered, age old system that is proudly trusted by the nation. Man power is certainly abundant amongst India’s 1.25 billion, but there is a special sense of pride that drives each to their own livelihood.
Dhobi washermen who work in organised groups of laundry outlets, are given very specific jobs thanks to the structure of their employing body. These Dhobis are salaried, with in-house accommodation, leave, health services, and given advanced equipment like washing machines to get the job done. In this case, each is given his own task from sorting, checking for stains or damage, washing, brushing individual stains, dipping into different solvents, drying, ironing, sorting, and the final packaging of laundered garments. In this case, a pair of jeans would be delivered to the laundry, tagged, and sorted before it is scanned for stains or damage. It is then soaked in high vats of detergent laced water and loaded into industrial machines or washed in the iconic cement cubicles. Tough stains are scrubbed off individually and dipped in chemical solvents then rinsed and spun dried with centrifugal force in giant hand operated drums. They are finished off in the sun where they crisp up in the dry air, pressed with coal heated irons, folded and packaged for delivery.
Otherwise, Dhobis who run their own businesses from shopfronts or houses are responsible for every step of the laundering process from start to finish. They do each of these steps manually without the aid of machinery or expensive branded detergents, and have a relatively smaller customer base. In this case they will start their day from 4.30am at a natural water source like a riverbank to wash the clothes that they have soaked overnight. This is where the garments are scrubbed with jute brushes where they are stained, then washed thoroughly and smacked hypnotically onto stones in great grandeur before they’re carried back to the home-front for hang-drying and folding.
These laundry systems are monuments to inherited knowledge, history, and the emergence of order that we find in nature. They are a testament to the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts indeed, and poetry for anyone who finds romance in the process of decay – denim heads, don’t say I didn’t warn you about how beautiful the Dhoby Ghat truly is.
Written and photographed by Lauren Yates.