Food Stories/ Food Traditions/ Photo Feature

Kalai – the vanishing shine of re-tinning

The house functioned like a well oiled machine in those days with my Ba/Dadi at the helm of it all. Those were the days when the material pleasures weren’t in abundance nonetheless life was filled with immense joy and happiness. Life seem to revolve around school, play and food. The air bustled with one or the other chore related to food we were either stocking oil cans, getting the spices prepped and hand pounded, there were stacks of wheat filled gunny bags almost 1000 kgs of it to feed our clan; wheat that had to be handpicked for impurities and coated with castor oil for year long  storage, 13-14 varieties of pickles were made annually in summers so we were all snacking on raw mangoes, the winters had papad and wadi making sessions, potato wafers happened when new potatoes arrived in the markets. Than there were numerous other jobs like working with saraniya to get the knives sharpened and get the brassware re-tinned. I remember requesting Ba to get the Kalai job done when we were home. Kalai is when we saw the magic happen, the  dark and soiled looking brass pots and pans would magically turn shiny like new.  Ba would always oblige and we would be part of that 2 hours of Kalai show. The workstation was set up under the Chikoo tree in our front yard. The brassware was brought in, price negotiated and Ba would set-up her chair to monitor the entire process. Kalai is the process where brass and copper utensils used for cooking and eating are coated with a metal called kalai. The kalai fades with use and needs to be re-tinned after 6-8 months of usage. Brass and copper tend to react to souring agents in food and thus giving them a kalai lining is a must.

Brass vessels were used for everyday cooking and eating in our family. It was a lot of hassle to  keep them shiny everyday. The ritual involving thorough cleaning was limited to twice-thrice a year when stored rainwater was used to wash the tamarind scrubbed vessels. Each vessel was dried thoroughly and allowed to soak in tender rays of pleasant winter sun.  Summers were never  meant for such tedious works.  Gradually, with time we started stacking the brass ware in lofts and trunks as steel and aluminum made way in the kitchen for the sheer ease it was to clean and maintain these utensils. As  the use of brass decreased the need to call in the kalaiwala also decreased. Little did we realize that such lifestyle changes would drastically impair the livelihoods of our service providers. Once a regular ritual of witnessing the magic of  Kalai was reduced to one every couple of years until it stopped completely. The Kalaiwala like many other traditional professions became a forgotten professional of a vanishing occupation.

The journey of writing this blog gives me the much needed opportunities to visit and understand the fading practices related to our kitchens be it the way we grow food, prepare food, cook food and all the peripheral things associated with food. As the wisdom to go back to the traditional practices prevails I was required to call kalaiwala to re-tin the brass inheritance I possess.

Jagdishbhai is 5th generation Kalaiwala, who has been practicing this craft for more than 45 years. I  prefer to call all these traditional professions crafts because the dextrous skills they require. Jagadishbhai learnt his craft from his father however his children have not taken up this profession hence he  is the last amongst his generation to practice  this craft. Working under the open sky in scorching 45 degrees C is a challenging task but he chose to do it with a smile on his face. The cost of raw materials nausadar (ammonium chloride) and Kalai have both become gone up in recent times. Kalai reaches India from Afghanistan where they have mines of this metal. Although the awareness on the use of brass, copper and Kansa  is on rise the profession is dying a slow death and isn’t enticing the younger generations. Jagdhishbhai talked at length about the pros of using kalaied ware and how optimistic he was about the rise of this occupation in coming times!!

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