Kalaiwalas , craftsmen who used to make a living by shining brassware,are a dwindling community

The silvery shine and polish of brass utensils is fast vanishing from urban Indian kitchens with the rapid intrusion of the pressure cooker, stainless steel and other sophisticated utensil alternatives. Along with it, are disappearing traditional craftsmen whose expertise lay at keeping the brassware and copperware ever shining and usable.

Old-timers still remember kalaiwalas as those who skilfully coated brass and copper utensils amidst pungent ammoniac fumes and the shrill sound of cooling of utensils. In earlier days, copper utensils were the most preferred cooking wares due to their high conductivity. However, copper must be lined since it reacts to acidic foods; without the lining, the copper may discolour the food or impart a bitter taste or even at times lead to food poisoning. So the utensils needed a kalai or retinning job every second month.

The re-tinners or kalaiwalas used to hawk around in the colonies urging women to get their copper utensils tinned. They dug a pit in the ground and prepared a temporary blast furnace, airing it with bellows. They then heated the utensil, blasting it off and on; sprinkled a little nausadar (sal amoniac or ammonium chloride) which gives out deep white smoke and a peculiar ammoniac smell. The powder is then rubbed all over the utensil’s interior to rid the utensil of any grit and make it more abrasive.

Then a piece of virgin grade tin is touched to the blasting hot interior of the utensil; the tin melts and is quickly rubbed into whole of the utensil forming a lining of tin in the interior. The utensil is then dipped into a bucket full of water. The sudden contact of the hot utensil with the water creates a shrill and sharp sound that dims with the utensil recovering its normal temperature.

Eighty-year-old Raamdayal is a kalaiwala by profession and a known face in Ghaziabad’s Kaushambi area. His call bhande kalai kara lo (get your utensils tinned) is not so powerful now as it used to be till a few years ago; yet it is enough to draw attention of a few housewives and in no time some brass utensils and cookware are out for tinning. Raamdayal’s humble shop sits under a peepul tree, set up 50 years ago.

“I am a second generation kalaiwala and have been helping my father for 30 years now. We still have customers who come to us to shine their brass and copper utensils,” says 54-year-old Shankar, Raamdayal’s eldest son. A tinned brass or copper utensil can last up to six to eight months, says Shankar.

Raamdayal, however, is not very optimistic about this profession. Looking towards the sky, he says, “Business prospects are drying up day by day. This art has lost the charm after stainless steel utensils replaced brass and copper utensils in the kitchens.”

Kalaiwalas believe that stainless steel utensils are only good for boiling milk or water but if you want that lingering taste of food in your mouth, you must cook in brass utensils.