Once in the Service of Kings

Story and Photography by Rhett Kleine

Dotted throughout Bangalore are dhobi ghats. Forests of sheets, shirts and pants. Row upon row nestled amongst Bangalore’s suburbia. Hiding among the flowing linen are detergent stained pools where the madiwala or dhobis go about their business. ‘Madiwala’ in Kannada means washermen. Traditionally the laundry men of Maharajas, the madiwala now service the laundry needs of hospitals, hotels and whoever else comes to them with bundles of washing in arm. 

Within the confines of these linen forests, the madiwala bustle about with chaotic precision; an orchestra of movement as they wash the clothing in their care. 

Nanaskimaraju, an elderly man with curly slicked back hair and a stubbly beard, remembers when once the chorus of the madiwala at work could be heard throughout Bangalore.  

He has lived his whole life in the suburb of Madiwala – a corner of Bangalore named for after the laundries it is home to. He remembers when the hum of the washermen slapping cloth against stone could be heard five kilometres away. That was long before the symphony of car horns Bangalore now performs for those who wander her streets. 

But the Madiwala dhobi ghat is running out of water. 

It gets its water from an open well just outside of its gates. Now you could fit a van inside the well without it getting wet. 

“When I was a child, I could scoop the water from the well with my hands.” Nanaskimaraju recalls. 

To a sub-caste with its roots in a profession that relies on water, the possibility of a dry well is an uneasy prospect. Dhobi ghats don’t advertise for workers. For generations sons have followed in their father’s footsteps. But Hanumanthu, a dhobi all his life, is seeing the younger generation break this cycle. His children are going off to university in the hopes of becoming doctors or lawyers he says. As water dries up and future workforce abandons ship, the future looks bleak for the madiwala.

To the south, Ulsoor dhobi ghat is moving in the opposite direction as water shortages ravage Bangalore. Ulsoor, like many dhobi ghats, was built on a bore well, and with a constant supply of water, not only are they able to continue the daily washing operations, they also allow local residents to share in their abundance. Krishna, a dhobi from the Ulsoor dhobi ghat says they allow up to twenty families to take water from their bore well, sparing them from forking out thousands of rupees to call in water tankers. 

But while water is plentiful for these washerfolk, they like their fellow dhobis across India are starting to feel the health effects of spending hours every day in detergent filled waters. Chemicals like formaldehyde, sodium lauryl sulphate and phosphates are common in modern detergents and can cause serious health and ecological problems.

At the Madiwala dhobi ghat, Bangalore’s oldest and largest washing pools, 60,000 litres of water a year is used to wash clothes. Once used, this water becomes a free-flowing environmental nightmare. The detergent laced water that is sent down Bangalore’s waste water system run offs and with the local sewerage treatment plant currently out of action, it drains into Bangalore’s lakes and waterways which are already struggling to survive.

Chemical confusion

Putta Ranga, the owner of the dhobi ghat in Malleshwarram, claims his operation changed its preferred detergent and now only uses ‘good chemicals’. He says they get their new cleaning agents predominantly from Refnol Resins and Chemicals, whose yearly report states “Adherence to environmental and pollution control norms as per Gujarat Pollution Control guidelines is of high concern to the Company.” 

However, the guidelines do not, under either textile or chemical clauses, rule out the use of any chemical, let alone formaldehyde, sodium lauryl sulphate or phosphate. When contacted about the chemicals used in their emulsifiers, softeners and detergents, Refnol, despite advertising a commitment to openness about the chemical composition of their products, failed to respond.

Putta also told us he started using different chemicals to stop the chronic skin problems that are common among dhobi workers. 

“After ‘95 I am the leader, earlier our peoples were standing in the pools. We are using some chemicals… and after fifteen to twenty years they become illness. After this (referring to himself coming into ownership of the laundromat) they are healthy.”

However, a 2012 report by the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media on dermatological problems amongst the dhobi workers – including workers from the Madiwala dhobi ghat – contradicts Ranga’s claims. 

However, when we tried to talk to the workers at the pools, they were reluctant to speak up.

Not so water wise

Aside from the environmental and health concerns, the sheer volume of water used by mains-water dhobi ghats is a problem.

After conceding his dhobi ghat’s high annual water use, Ranga quickly claimed he had plans in place to start harvesting rainwater, but when pressed for details he responded by claiming there was “not enough support from the government.” 

His claims sounded a little hollow however when he proudly pointed out his building full of industrial washing machines which “use a little more water” and the fact they were paid for by the same government.  

The short sightedness of the Dhobi business, if this trajectory is sustained, may ultimately lead to their demise.

While a burgeoning social conscience in some Dhobi Ghats is encouraging, the real problem is how as a business they are using their water and how they are dealing with their waste. 

Businesses like the Dhobi Ghats need to develop a genuine environmental conscience. However, the allure of profits has and most likely will continue to trump the need for a sustainable use of water and environmentally friendly cleaning products.

The question now stands, will the Madiwala stand to account for their workers and the environment? Or will they continue on the path they’re on, emboldened by a lack of accountability? One thing is for certain, the Madiwala have fallen far from the grandeur of washing the linen of kings.

Rhett is a third year Documentary Photography student. He has documented stories across India for the Water Story project. These stories have ranged from the effect that contemporary Hindu festivals have had on Bangalore’s waterways in the south, to the Koli, further north, who are stone-age fishermen indigenous to the Maharashtra coast. Then to the Changpa Nomad’s in India’s northern peaks. Recently Rhett has covered how lockdown exacerbated Australia’s already high rates of domestic violence. His work ultimately aims to strike a deeper chord with audiences in how we understand the human condition and how we relate to the environment around us. See Instagram @rhettdoesphoto

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