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The Financial Express

Hawkers rule the Dhaka lanes


Hawkers rule the Dhaka lanes

The unbearable loneliness of Charulata, heroine of Rabindranath Tagore's story 'NoshtoNeerh', used to reach its height at languid summer noon. Except walking from one part of the house to another with none to talk to, her only means of passing time was seeing thehawkers pass by her husband's palatial mansion in Kolkata. Standing at the two-storey building's windows, she enjoyed the plaintive note in the vendors' tired voice. The story's movie version made by Satyajit Ray gives a visually rich portrait of Charu viewing from the first floor the summer-beaten vendors plodding along the deserted road below. The vendors' shouts for selling their products are recorded poignantly in the film; Ray caught the typical style the hawkers used in their vending.

The above paragraph's focus is not on the immortality of Tagore's short story 'NoshtoNeerh', nor the cinematic excellence of the Ray masterpiece titled 'Charulata'. The two have been picked to elaborate on the street vendors' typical hawking technique with vocal modulations. In the period starting from the 1930s to the early `80s, the residential neighbourhoods of Dhaka remained accustomed to the typical 'Dhakaiya' style of hawking in the streets. They were different from Kolkata's. But the part-musical vocal technique used by Dhaka's street-based hawkers moving on foot from one area to another resembled that of Kolkata. That phase of hawking varieties of products has started disappearing with the fall in the population of professionalstreet vendors.

These people were said to have been imparted training on voice modulating style used in musical canvassing. Moreover, the floating street-hawkers' expertise in winning over the easily gullible segments in Dhaka 'muhallas', especially the womenfolk, they would choose the noon. It was the time when the male family heads would remain out of the house.

The list of canvassed items included saris, glass bangles, trinkets, fancy clothing, cheap imported cosmetics and many herbal beauty products. The list also included fancy food items comprising 'koolfimalai', an improvised ice-cream, 'hawai mithai' (today's candy floss), pickles, 'kotkoti' (pieces of sweetmeat, made of boiled and later hard-pressed molasses, multicolour ice-lolly etc. The last few items used to attract children, and adults who couldn't come out of their childhood. Of all these light food items, the one that enjoyed an indisputably dominant place was 'Bakarkhani'. The hawkers would carry a glass-covered boxtied to their neck filled with 'bakarkhani' and dry sweetmeats, or 'ghoogni'. The persons selling these items would visit the typical urban Dhaka neighbourhoods in the morning. They sold these items as a favourite breakfast dish.

Many would love to call the mobile canvassers selling their light merchandise in the city areas using their attractive style part of a rich Dhaka tradition. It is unique to the city of Dhaka. Artist Poritosh Sen, later Kolkata-based, was so moved by the hawking culture of Dhaka town back in the thirties, that he published an illustrated book on the subject containing sketches and a list of the 'Dhakaiya' styles of canvassing. Over the following decades, many facets of Dhaka's hawking tradition have petered out thanks to the assaults of new-wave canvassing. The old-time products have also changed radically.

The fancy snacks, and the funs of 'box cinema', 'monkey dance' etc had to bow out to make spaces for heavier items. Vans selling vegetables, fishes, onions etc are common sights. Instead of their melodious voices inviting the neighbourhood clients, the mobile hawkers continue to break the peace of normally quiet areas by using bullhorns to attract the clients' attention. This unbridled practice has emerged as a dreadto heart patients, and the elderly people habituated to brief siestas.People continue to suffer. The crowds of bullhorn-wielding vendors keep on blocking the narrow alleys. They know that few have the courage to ask them to leave the place.

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