Laundry is hardly ever on anyone’s mind. It’s a perfunctory task—an item on the to-do list—performed weekly, some times every two-three days, and needs no thinking. Scrub, crinkle, rinse, repeat. Scrub, crinkle, rinse, repeat.
But for the thousands of workers in Mumbai’s famous Dhobi Ghat, keeping clothes clean is always a running thought.
At this open-air laundromat smack in the middle of Mahalaxmi and Parel, thousands of pieces of garments are washed and dried every day. Families work and stay in the area, making its confused chaos both garb and gab in this suburban locality since the British era.
Its visually striking nature has, over the years, made it a photographer’s soft focus dream, as they bend and manoeuvre their way around the washing lines, slabs of stone, and of course, buckets and buckets of water. There are also several tours that take, more often, foreigners to the area to observe the process.
This place has actually won a Guinness World Record, for the most people hand-washing clothes simultaneously at a single location. The number, which was last counted as 496 (and has probably only increased since) was achieved by the apex body that represents the washerfolk, Dhobi Kalyan and Audyogik Vikas Cooperative Society, in 2011. The society estimates that the annual turnover of the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat could be around Rs 100 crore.
TThis more than 140-year-old business also has a viewing gallery now which was added for visitors to look over at the washer-people doing their jobs, but from a bird’s eye view. This semi-circular glass gallery that is accessible from Mahalaxmi station allows visitors a peek into the process, without them getting in the way of the workers. Nothing less than a paradise for street photographers, the gallery can take up to 30 visitors at a time.
The industry reportedly rakes in crores every year, but to wash and press each shirt costs around Rs 10. Gives a fair idea of the volume of work put in, doesn’t it?
There are plans to revamp this grade III heritage area. Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) plans to restore and give it a makeover and also introduce washing machines and mechanised drying areas.
Where: 1, Anandilal P Marg, Dhobi Ghat, Shanti Nagar, Lower Parel, Mumbai
Note: The pandemic has handed a blow to the washerfolk here and many have had to shut shop at what is known to be the biggest open-air laundry in the world. The place has been eerily quiet.