The recent Tamil flick ‘Madrasapattanam' highlighted their lives. Inquisitiveness of Chenniites was further triggered with actor Arya playing the lead role — that of a dhobi, aptly.
Unknowingly, the dhobis touch the lives of many among us. The dhobikhanas that throb with activity from dawn to dusk as the washer men and women go about cleaning clothes, present a fascinating picture. There are 14 such facilities in Chennai, some of which have a history dating back to the British Raj. Downtown peeps into some of the oldest and flourishing dhobikhanas in the city and the lives of its denizens.
Established in 1902, the dhobikhana on School Road in Chetpet is the oldest in the city and said to be the second largest in Asia. Standing on a 20-ground area, the facility beams a vast washing, ironing and drying area equipped with machines to squeeze and dry clothes.
According to C.D. Suresh, Secretary of Chennai Rajaka Yuvajana (Salavaiyalar) Sangam at the dhobikhana, over 1,000 persons including women handle over a whooping 20,000 clothes on a daily basis.
“We receive bulk orders from big establishments in the city inclusive of five star hotels and hospitals. Ours is the only facility that receives Metro Water through a pipeline for washing, right from British times,” he says.
The dhobikhana has been part of a few Tamil movies and television serials. But terror struck at the facility last year when a woman was brutally murdered inside. A police investigation is still in progress on the killing.
What began as a small group of people washing clothes on the banks of the Adyar River in Saidapet in the pre-independence era has taken shape into a dhobi colony with 150 families.
The second oldest dhobikhana in the city and the largest in terms of area (four acres), the Saidapet dhobikana on Abdul Razzak Street in Thideer Nagar is bustling from 6 a.m. onwards.
“The area was allotted to us by the former Chief Minister, Kamaraj. We have a 59-year-old Salavaiyalar union which now has 147members,” says V. Pavadairajan of Saidapet Salavaiyalar Sangam who has been in this profession for more than 50 years now.
The Adyar River, turning a sewage dump decades ago, has forced the Saidapet dhobis to switch to Metro Water which is delivered to them free of cost by Corporation of Chennai. However, adequate water remains a problem.
Dhobis here say that business has become dull over the years.
Seventy-six-year old Muniyandi came to Chennai from Virudhunagar 50 years back with his family on a bullock cart to find work and joined a small group of dhobis on Kothandaraman Street in Old Washermenpet. Today, the senior citizen heads one of the oldest dhobi communities in the city with 70 families working under one roof.
“The community came together for work in the mid-1920s and remained here for decades. During the former Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran's rule, 14.5 grounds were allotted to us under the administration of Chennai Corporation. Washermen families for three generations have been living here and working,” says Muniyandi.
The community remains aloof from the rest inside a compound which is bustling with work right from 6 a.m. itself. “People who are not involved in our profession are not permitted to stay inside the compound. The union has certain strict rules and regulations for us,” adds Mayarajan, a member of the Salavai Thozhilalar Sangam here.
Functioning from 1952 under the Chennai Corporation, the Mylapore dhobikhana is a three ground conical-shaped facility near Vivekanada College with more that 80 people working for three generations.
T. Krishnan of Mylapore Salavaiyalar Sangam claims that the dhobikana has celebrity customers including cine stars and top politicians residing nearby. He also laments that the washing facility has no electricity supply for the past nine years and no pipe water supply for the past three decades.
“The 22 washing stones thrive only from two water pumps inside. We have contacted the Corporation and Electricity Board authorities with our grievances. They have promised to help us after the State election,” Krishnan adds.
The well-known Vannanthurai (Washermen's zone) in Adyar is also the work place and home for over 100 dhobis for more than a century. But an organised washing facility under the Chennai Corporation was constructed only two decades ago on three grounds on Ellai Amman Koil Street here. Therefore, it is considered as one of the recent ones among the dhobikhanas in the city. Unlike Chetpet, Saidapet and Old Washermenpet facilities, the Adyar dhobikhana doesn't have lodging arrangements for the workers. Therefore, work begins at 6.30 a.m. and concludes by evening. The dhobis reside around the facility in a colony and have a 36-member union.
There are 14 old and flourishing dhobikhanas in the city.