Ishwar Bari, 55, hails from Odisha’s Puri district. He came to Calcutta with his brothers 30 years ago to earn a livelihood. Ishwar was taught a few tricks of the trade by a masseur. Since then, he has been earning his bread by offering massage to ‘babus’ of Calcutta. Ishwar and 12 others—the last of the group of traditional masseurs—do not work in parlours; rather, they work at Babu Ghat and nearby Rashmoni Ghat on river Hooghly, near BBD Bag, the business district of the city.
At a time when daily lives hewed to traditional Indian modes of leisure and work, babus of north Calcutta and traders regularly used to patronise masseurs. Winter, summer or autumn, bathers would throng the ghats for their early morning dip in the river. Ishwar and his fellow masseurs would give them an old-style body massage— generous blobs of mustard oil would aid the slithering lubricity, an aid to the kneading, cupping and slapping. With Rs 300 an hour and four-five clients a day, five days a week, and no social security, the masseurs cannot afford to bring their family here.
In Calcutta’s riverbank ghats the masseurs, through their networks of kinship, are all from Odisha, and live with their other migrant brethren (many of them plumbers) in Bhawanipore. The incursion of a globalised consumerism means the new generation have no use for massages. That has hit the masseurs badly, with their progeny—more are getting an education—seeking better avenues. Ishwar is convinced that they are the last of the masseurs. The masseurs of Babughat, a familiar, enduring scene, will exist only in memory, print and the moving picture.
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