On discovering an unlikely El Dorado in the city’s sprawling shanty town


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Bhola sets gold in a plaster of paris mould

Bengali Kharigar gold plating a silver coin

Tamil Kharigar fixing golden threads together

Eight-year-old Gopal grins, holding a freshly set gold chain up against the light of a welding flame setting another. His eyes gleam from the shimmer of gold reflected in them. Originally from Bengal, he joined Kanai’s gold workshop at Sakinabai Chawl as a handy boy a year ago. The workshop has five people working and living in a five by five foot loft. Under a low wattage bulb these karigars are
melting gold ingots on a primitive coal stove beneath a chimney, pouring the molten gold into plaster of Paris moulds shaped as per jewellery design, and using a machine to pull the gold out into glimmering threads. Kanai, who now has his own workshop, started off as a worker himself 15 years ago. He employs only men known to him or his family from villages around his hometown.
Each of the 500 odd workshops in Sakinabai Chawl, one of Dharavi’s oldest, follow the same rules of trade. All are headed by ex-karigars, who get those known to them to live and work with them. This springs an ethnic mix from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, who can mostly talk only in their mother tongue. Tamil karigars, who’ve been here since 60 years form 80 per cent of the workers. The Bengalis, who came in 15 years ago come second in number. Each karigar excels in traditional jewellery from his region, but has learned to adapt to new trends too. “While newer designs can be executed easily on machines, traditional ones can only be done by hand,” Ram Chandran, a goldsmith from Tamil Nadu, explains.
The fact that almost everyone in the chawl is a goldsmith leads to security, prompting most workshops to leave doors open to let in light (some don’t have doors), with a minimum of Rs 2,00,000 worth of gold inside. A walk down the narrow lanes brings forth a surrealist’s El Dorado. In dingy rooms, men in lungis and vests fold golden threads (as women would a sari) or melt gold on a fireplace or polish a heap of jewellery in a stained plastic basin.
All the jewellery made is as per job work commissioned by the 100 odd jewellery stores lined outside Dharavi Main Road. “Gold is the primary investment of the poor, who don’t know about
mutual funds and cannot afford diamonds or property,” a shopkeeper says. So many of the shops have shifted focus from the heavy expensive South Indian jewellery earlier made to suit the slum’s Tamil population to lighter cheaper North Indian ware — affordable to Dharavi’s poor, or rather its elite.
“I have given two interviews before this,” Bholanath, another Bengali goldsmith, says. And many a media person and writer have exclaimed over Sakinabai Chawl as being exemplary of the Dharavi’s entrepreneurship, the gold in itself a metaphor for prosperity. Others have decried the unsafe and inhuman working conditions, adding child labour for effect. But unsafe working conditions and child labour is a present state
of affairs which cannot be addressed without an eye on the future. It is admirable that the population accumulated here have capitalised on two of the world’s oldest constants of value – gold and property. Yet labour as a resource still has a long way to go; this is, after all, Dharavi. The uneducated artisans of Sakinabai Chawl accept the pittance they receive as payment (around Rs 4,000 profit per workshop per month) for being unable to market their skills anywhere beyond the Dharavi Main Road stores. A training programme incorporating languages and marketing, beyond the simplistic vocational training touted by NGOs might change this. Just as education might grant many a bright child like Gopal, a worker here, a direction to shine in.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Be dazzled

Zardosi workmen of Indira Qureishi Nagar weave their way into the city’s wardrobes


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Zardosi design

A10-minute walk away from Sion station leads to Indira Qureishi Nagar. A climb up an iron ladder here culminates in a 20 by 10 feet room with faded walls lined intermittently with hooks, each holding a dusty, dull shirt, kurta or trouser. The owners of this line of clothing sit around large frames in fives or sixes, stitching onto a common cloth the curves of a unified design, with gold or silver coloured threads, beads and mirrors. The style is ari zardosi, lighter than actual zardosi, which uses far heavier material. The former sells far more than the latter because it’s more wearable in hot, humid weather and is less expensive. In and around Indira Qureishi Nagar, every second house has its upper floor converted into such a workshop, making it one of Mumbai’s largest centres for ari zardosi work.

The workmen say they procure all the material — beads, threads, mirrors, needles — from the area itself because it’s cheapest here. “Even the cutting chai here costs Rs 2 instead of Rs 2.50,” the chaiwaala complains. “If I raise the price, they’ll stop buying.” And so on for other basic necessities, which makes the average zardosi worker’s income of Rs 5,000 a month (including overtime) barely sufficient to keep body and soul together. Many claim a dhani, or owner of these workshops can earn upto Rs 25,000 monthly going by the business around: “Even the needle makers who make specialised needle for ari zardosi work have a daily turnover of Rs 1,500.” The finished ari zardosi work is supplied to con
sumers cutting across class barrior, from stores in Ghatkopar and exclusive showrooms in town, to designers in Europe and the US. The workers embroider their designs on the material provided, ranging from cotton and silk, to even denim, as per marked outlines, but don’t cut or shape the final product.
Twenty-six-year-old Mudassir has been a worker for seven years. Attracted by the craftsmanship from a young age, he gave up school, after his matriculation exams for this profession,
wanting to earn soon. “I learnt zardosi work here itself, but worked in Madanpura for a while before shifting back three years ago,” he says. Mudassir is very savvy and as adventurous as he is ambitious. He introduces us to Waseem Akhtar, an 18-year-old, who owns and manages one of the area’s oldest workshops. “My father shifted to Kolkata recently, with the family because my grandparents were there, leaving me in charge,” he explains. Waseem is studying for his BSc degree hoping to do a course in fashion designing thereafter, to take his business to greater heights.
This settlement, originated over 30 years ago with people from UP. Few workshops consisted, and still do, of Bengali workmen. But recently there’s been a large influx of workers from Bihar, who today make up nearly half the population. Why did hundreds of workshops spring up here? Some put it down to people belonging to the same profession living and working together, so as to pose a united front against extortion and rioting. Some to the connectivity and cheap availability of raw material in the area. But the truth to the mushrooming of this settlement of diverse migrants stitching similar threads, lies in the story of any family tree, as much as in the story of Mumbai: One unit employed 10 men, most of whom saved and started their own units, and so on. In a time when everyone accuses poor migrants of leeching into productive areas, the productivity of this erstwhile marshland stands apart as having grown from the enterprise of migrants, spurring the government to provide connectivity so that cheap craftsmanship, among other services, could meet the city’s demand. To continue doing so, the migrants, in turn, ensure that the effect of rupee appreciation on exports is less felt by them — by beating down the prices of their raw materials, and their chai.

A Zardosi worker

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Let the inks flow

The dying art of Arabic calligraphy finds a new breath of life, thanks to the efforts of its custodians in the city


Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Arabic calligraphy - Sulu style

The medium is the message
— Marshall McLuhan
So said the metaphysician of media as he wrote in his Gutenberg Galaxy how the spreading of the written word meant communication among humans, a race earlier used to oral communication. The written form, in turn, reduced or elevated the alphabet to an “abstract visual code”. The visual idiom of “word” has been utilized since long before McLuhan by statesmen, artists and scientists. None, however, exploit its hynotic power as calligraphers do. But the numbers of this ancient tribe dwindle by the day. Urdu and Arabic calligraphers in Mumbai, once a force of 250 a decade ago, now stand at merely eight in such times.

Mehmood Ahmed Shaikh

Mehmood Ahmed Shaikh and Iqtedar Husain, whose offices lie close to one another on Tandel Street Dongri, are two of these eight. They came into the profession in very different ways, and work differently today. Shaikh, was prompted to become a calligrapher because his father was one. He began with a course in Anjuman Islam College, to work for a host of Urdu newspapers, learn further from renowned Ustads, teach in Maharashtra College and work for ten years in Saudi Arabia. His feathers include three Quran
Sharifs and an array of poetry. A knee problem has disabled him from transcribing on the floor in the traditional way, and after a year’s practice, he’s gotten used to a chair and table.
Husain sits on the floor. He claims, “It takes three years for a calligrapher to just learn ‘how to sit’.” The only family he had in the field was a distant cousin, who taught him after he expressed his interest. Then came a variety of Urdu newspapers and magazines, before branching out on his own.
The tools of these artists comprise calligraphic nibs or a piece of bamboo, both cut to shape. Inks range from Camel to water colour paint to the German Rotring. Arabic styles consist of Sulus, Naskh (further divided into the Indian, Egyptian and Arabic Naskh), Kufi, Riq’a and Diwani. Urdu is penned only in
Nastaliq. In Arabic, while Naskh is the most popular and used for scribing religious texts, Sulus is every calligrapher’s favourite. “With Sulus, one has the liberty of giving ‘shape to the beauty’,” Shaikh says, displaying a leaf of his work. A religious phrase is written so it shapes into a religious structure. The beginning of the phrase is a minaret, the name of the prophet is emphasized in the dome, and the rest of the phrase forms its base. Even, for plain writing, Sulus allows the calligrapher far more scope for improvisation.
The future of this art is symbolized in an old lithographic machine lying junked in Husain’s room. When the Urdu papers did not possess computerized font, such machines were used daily to convert the calligrapher’s work into print. Today these surviving calligraphers continue to get work that cannot be done on the computer. But for such work only an experienced hand is required, and so while they manage, youngsters in the field, bereft of a liveli
hood once provided by the newspapers have shifted professions. Yet both calligraphers point out, that no breakthrough in any art can occur on the computer, which means that with their generation’s end Indian calligraphic innovation in Urdu and Arabic will stagnate. Besides, patronage akin to that provided by governments in the Middle East (or by Hindu and Jain foundations here for Sanskrit calligraphy) remains absent. Even the meagre Rs 5000 cash prizes once handed by the Urdu Academy have been revoked. Already, in the distinct style which marks Shaikh finishing another tower in Sulus, one sees another Babel, unfinished.

Calligrapher's ink...

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

On Day 2, the madness continues


ON JANUARY 27, thousands of people thronged to Big Bazaar, Phoenix Mills, to avail of discounts ranging from 80 to 100 per cent. Class barriers collapsed as long queues of a diverse crowd inched towards discounted products ranging from Pepsi bottles and basmati rice to microwave ovens and plasma TVs.
Graphic designing student Viraj Velinkar had been standing in queue for one and a half hours and expected to be in it for “three hours more”. “I’ve wanted to buy my jeans and tshirts for a long time, but was always too lazy to do it. When I heard of the prices being quoted I got over my laziness,” he said.
For many, the Bazaar was a family affair. “There’s only a 50 per cent chance of the quality of what we buy being good. But they have on offer household utilities we’ve been wanting to buy for a long time,” said Mahendra Mandli, standing in line for hours with his wife and uncle. “Now we can buy all of it at one shot.”
“There is such a crowd perhaps because yesterday was Republic Day and tomorrow again is a Saturday,” said B Cyclewalla. Many shoppers stayed back even though there were loud speaker announcements that they would not reach the shop before its clo
sure. “This attitude is scary,” said Rishi Batra, who was there to shop with his sister. “So many people refusing to leave was what caused the chaotic incidents yesterday.”
Ignoring his observation were many people walking past a large ‘Shop Closed’ sign, at the Phoenix Mills Compound gate, right into the shopping area. One exclaimed “This is madness” in frustration and went right ahead to join the queue himself. Police constable S P Rathore echoed Batra’s observation – “The crowd was in control till now, but it was day time. Now it’s evening, and the crowd is thickening to as much as it was yesterday, if not more!”
While shoppers like banker Faisal Merchant were cynical about whether new product brands like ‘Pigeon’ would “last even their warranty period”, they were tempted by prices like Rs 17,000 for a TV with a DVD player and Rs 8,000 for 12 kgs of Basmati rice, to be taken in instalments via coupons every month.
Some ‘shoppers’, however, came only to see what “this Big Bazaar” was. Auto driver Vikram Marathe said, “My wife and I are curious to see what this sale is like because we’ve heard so much about it. If we find something cheap, we will pick it up.”


IF THE country-wide Big Bazaar sale showed one thing, it is this: we live in a time when the compulsive shopper is the king. And that happiness is the next purchase away.
Studies in the US have shown that compulsive shopping has affected anywhere between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of the population, and experts believe that the disorder is only on the rise. Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Varkha Chaulani points to a deepseated disease in the making. She cites the example of one of her clients who prided in giving away gifts to people, unmindful of the fact that she was actually suffering from low-self esteem. Another would siphon money by lying to her husband, sometimes resorting to stealing from her children’s school fees.
Says Chaulani, “You see people who buy all these latest gadgets and gizmos… they are not “techno-savvy” as we like to call them. These are all buying fads. People believe that by possession their self-worth or position
can be lifted. What they do not realise is that it is temporary.”
The middle class does not take kindly to deprivation. The change in mindset, she observes, has occurred in the last five years.
She believes that although shopping is a pleasurable experience, one must know where to stop.


  • Are you really going to use it? Or are you just buying it to be accepted by your peer group or neighbours. Or because you do not want to feel inferior.
  • Buying things you can’t afford.
  • Incurring significant debt and other financial problems because of shopping.
  • Feeling a need to shop rather than a desire to shop.
  • Having a sense of exhilaration during shopping; feeling guilty after shopping.
  • Dealing with anger from family members about the purchasing and debt incurred.
  • Not feeling right when not shopping.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


From Vijay Mallya to Ravi Shastri, this small shop in Lakda Market boasts of an enviable celebrity register, finds Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

lakda craft - opening doors...

Business nowadays is slow because people aren’t going for ‘recyled wood’. They want ‘custom made’,” sighs a timber mart manager while offloading a stack of large broken wooden door, window and closet pieces from a truck. Welcome to Mohammadi Timber Market, alias ‘lakda’ market – a colony of near-ancient timber shops off M S Ali Road. They scrape, chop and chisel wooden doors and windows from demolished buildings to sell them as new. “Rs 200 per square foot.” “What about Rs 150?” “Not one rupee less than 200, and you’ll pay for transport.” Meet Girish Rai, alias ‘Girish Bhai’ bargaining in his antique teakwood canopied cabin set amidst endless woodwork and raw wood in the 95-year-old Om Timber Mart. In an otherwise
floundering market, Rai makes an enviable profit providing doors, windows and staircases to some of Mumbai, Alibaug and Lonavla’s best known bungalows. How? The buildings he demolishes have “antique fittings”. “Making a Burma Teak masterpiece like I provide, will coast you Rs 600 per square feet, hai na?” Girish Bhai parades his inimitable Gujarati business sense in his inimitable Gujarati accent. “But I’ll give it to you for Rs 300 per square feet!” Saru Che…
The idea struck him when an Irish decorator bought an entire container load of French and Georgian windows. “I then contacted the Mumbai decorators and architects I knew who were doing ‘reech’ homes and sold them the idea.” His break came with Neelam Kothari’s Lonavla home. And then: “The ‘rich and famous’
move in a fixed set, hai na? So anyone who saw my stuff in another’s house, asked for it!” And since, this dingy ‘lakda’ store has furnished the homes of “Admiral Ramnath, Vijay Mallya, Ravi Shastri, Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Alisha Chinai, Leslie Lewis, Anjali Menon… and many more. Main kitna bataoon.” The demand for such antiques that Rai claims he started, now centers around delicately curved French windows with motifs, Georgian doors and windows with arched tops, traditional Rajasthani and Gujarati house gates and Swiss spiral staircases. “We first clean them, scraping the old paint off. Then smoothen them before handing them over to an architect or interior designer,” smiles Rai proudly, caressing a white Georgian door as a child would his favourite doll, even his booming voice drops to a murmur. “And I have some of the best decorators and architects on my client list.” Indeed, for liaisons with such was this machiavellian wood seller’s next move. “Hai na?” Rai laughs in agreement. “There is Niti Merchant, Shimul Zaveri, Daras Rafat, Hafeez Contractor.” Small wonder then, that his supplies to distant Delhi and Uttaranchal grew as he got to know designers in these cities.
Enter Rai’s son Amit: “My father handled the business before me. And now Amit is already 10 years in it!” he smiles, using Amit’s help to stand up. “You see, since this accident, I can’t walk – else I’d move my stuff myself!” And what’s Amit’s most precious lesson from his father? “Frankness. Tell people who you do business with, everything you expect and know. It always saves losses,” he answers. Hai na?

a shop worker

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

Put this in your and smoke it…

An inconspicuous little shop in Fort vies for anonymity, but is a tobacconist’s treasure trove, finds Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

empire tobacco co.

Tucked away unobtrusively amid many other shops along the Fountain area, in Fort, reads a pale sign: One Man Show — Empire Tobacco Company. The ‘one man’ has now become family business. But the members fight shy of recognition: “It’s not right to seek fame.” When they do, they don’t divulge their name for publication: “It’s not right to publicly boast about what you’re doing.” No pictures either: “It’s not right — it’s against our religion.” Yet they possess among their wares some of the best pipes, hookahs, cigars, cigarette paper and tobacco from across the world.
The Empire Tobacco Company plays the Mumbai tobacco connoisseur’s magic genie in a non-descript bottle.
“Cigarette papers? Rizla, Smoking and Zig Zag — there’s thick paper, hemp paper and rice paper — depending on how fast you want it to

burn,” outlines our unnamed host. “People who come here know what they want.” However, if you have a request, all you have to do is ask, and it will be acquired for you. The cigarette tobacco favourites are Samson, Drum and Golden Virginia. But who rolls their cigarette in this day and age? “You’ll be surprised. Most of my clients are youngsters,” he mutters. One visitor to the shop started rolling his smokes on an Antwerp trip, where he learnt that if he couldn’t choose his own tobacco and paper, he wasn’t a ‘man of taste’!

the goodies - ramadoss... empire strikes back...
“The only way to break a bad habit was to replace it with a better one,” said actor Jack Nicholson about switching from cigarettes to cigars.
Resting in Empire’s wood and glass cabinets are some of the world’s finest and most exclusive varieties. “Monte Cristo and Romeo And Julietta among the Cubans,” he begins rattling the choicest names. The Cubans, although the owner refuses to name the price, go over many hundreds of dollars for a box.
“We also stock Villigers, a Swiss brand, Dominican Davidoffs and Henry Winterman Café Cremes from Holland,” he continues. And then of course are the Indian varieties, with western names —”Churchill Special, La Corona, London Calling, Black Tiger — most of these are manufactured in South India,” he adds. Predictably, however, most of his cus
tomers go for the foreign cigars. Who might these wealthy buyers be? “Party goers and the corporate crowd. Every person has a specific cigar they get attached to.”
And then there is the other collection —pipes. “All these pipes are made of Briarwood,” the un-named wonder emphasises. Naturally, since many of them come from brands like Savinelli and Plum. Savinelli, which makes pipes from optimum grades of Sardinian and Corsican Briar, has been in business since the early 1800s. Its USP is simple: “To own a Savinelli pipe is to possess a treasure.” Delicious pipe tobacco choices include Captain Black, Amphora and Borkumriff. “Pipes are a totally different smoking experience,”
he underlines. So does Albert Einstein incidentally: “I believe pipe smoking contributes to a calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”
But the voyage into this tobacconist’s heart doesn’t end here. Cigar cutters, cigarette rollers, cigarette holders and filters, pipe scrappers, tobacco pouches, lighters and pipe lighters (bent, to suit the lighting style). Add to that a catalogue of nearly every possible kind of Zippo lighter, ordered on demand. And then there are 16, 24 and 30 inch hookahs made from steel, wood or glass —both imported and Indian. “Earlier, we had a catalogue for a lot of these things, now we have 90 per cent of what was in the catalogue!”
And how did they choose such exclusivity? “Through the customer. We have the most discerning customers — they’ve played our guides.” And constant guides they must be for: “To cease smoking is the easiest thing. I ought to know. I’ve done it a thousand times.” Courtesy, Mark Twain…

pipe up

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: