Date of interview: 17/2/2012, afternoon, Ajrakhpur
Babubhai has washed plain and dyed cloths for Dr. Ismail Khatri for around twenty-five to thirty years. The coloured cloths that he washes have many different colour combinations. The washing tanks are structured in tiers; a main tank is flanked by two smaller tanks on each side, totalling five tanks in all. The process of washing starts at the first level, where the cloth is soaked and rinsed (vechervu). Here, the fabric is folded three times, and washed on both sides. It is banged against the cement sides of the tank multiple times, a process known as jinkvuin Gujarati. This requires a great deal of strength. After this, the cloth is soaked in the main tank for between an hour and ninety minutes before it is boiled using a traditional copper heater called a charu.
Babubhai explained to us the fundamental role of washing to the dyeing process. Firstly, it allows any excess colour on the cloth to be removed. Boiling also fixes the dye in the fabric, and allows all the hidden colours of a design to sparkle to the surface. Several herbal colours are mixed together, including padvas and alijar, to aid this process during boiling.
Babubhai feels strongly that the washers shoulder a large amount of responsibility in the craft: the cloth may be spoiled if the washing process is not followed correctly, their jobs are also fraught with risk, and there are numerous safety issues involved in the washing process. Walking between the tanks, Babubhai and his fellow colleagues stand in water throughout the day and wear just a raincoat or a locally made plastic garment for protection. They still regularly suffer from fevers and colds from working in the water for long periods. Boiling the cloth also has significant risks. Burns are common, although Babubhai told us he has burnt his foot only once. Fortunately for Babubhai too, his sheth (boss) pays his medical fees.
Babubhai works from eight in the morning to five in the evening and his daily wages can reach up to 180 rupees. He thus manages to earn between 5,000 to 5,500 rupees each month, but the figure largely depends on the amount of work he completes per day. His daily earnings are also reduced if his work isn’t completed on time. He would then be subject to a fine known as a dandki. The washers have very little job security.
As a senior washer, Babubhai has also trained around ten to fifteen others. He believes that an apprentice should take around one month’s time to learn the washing process. He told us that since he did not study much himself, working as a labourer was one of his only alternatives. His son is currently in eighth standard however; Babubhai’s future depends greatly on how he progresses in his education.