Last Qalaiwalas of Old Delhi

Mohammed Faisal heating utensils for Qalai. Photo: Sneha Richhariya & Sejal Patel

Sneha Richhariya & Sejal Patel

On the front-end of Gate Number 1 of the Jama Masjid, the bustling street houses some of the oldest food shops in Delhi. Amidst these sterling delicacies, there lies an unnoticed shop. Except that it draws attention with its shining vessels, in the 9×20 ft. black-walled shop, sit two craftsmen — the Qalaiwalas. 

Mohammad Faisal and Mohammad Faizan are probably the last generations of Qalaigars. Qalai is the process of coating an alloy surface such as copper or brass by deposition of metal tin on it. Copper production dates back to Mughal times. Eating in copper utensils could be poisonous without re-tinning (Qalai) it as and when it loses shine. Haji Qalaiwala’s Irfan manages the shop No. 1132 at Matiya Mahal Bazar.

Photo: Sneha Richhariya & Sejal Patel

The shop has three ‘naand’ or pits full of water in which the utensils are immersed slowly, soon after the hot tin foil is rubbed on them. After the wash, the shine turns out to be exemplary. 

“The coming generation doesn’t want to enter into this work because it visually looks bad. People see us with contempt,” says Mohammad Faisal as he rubs tin over a small metal plate. There aren’t many Qalaigars these days, but the sale of copper utensils continue. It is believed that copper can treat Arthritis and Inflamed Joints. Drinking water in copper utensils is believed to be good for health.

“People who previously used Copper utensils, still do it,” says Mohammad Faizan. “Now that people are realising the health benefits of it, it is becoming a trend again,” he adds. Copper or brass utensils if used regularly, require re-tinning every 6 months, the rarely used utensils can be kept up to 1-2 years without re-tining.

Photo: Sneha Richhariya & Sejal Patel

The copper utensils are completely handmade and the labourers are paid less. They have no other option but to leave practising this skill, which marks an end to this age-old practice.

Mohammed Irfan charges R. 20 to Rs. 1200 depending on the diameter and weight of the vessel. Qalai or re-tinning is an ancestral profession of Irfan’s family. But he doesn’t wish to pass on this craft and tradition to his peers as the cost of labour, risk and investment put into the business are getting expensive. Inflation has an adverse impact on this.

An outside view of the shop at Jama Masjid street. Photo: Sneha Richhariya & Sejal Patel

He says “The metal or Malaysian tin foil that earlier used to cost rs 7, is now available for Rs. 3550 per kg, we get wood to coal for rs.50 which rose from Rs. 3 and rs 35 in a period of 10 years”.

The lockdown that was imposed after the first and second wave of the pandemic had left their business on halt. “We are constantly exposed to fumes and heat as the work demands good immunity and energy, during COVID, not just our business but even our lives were at high risk”, adds Faizan.

The shop remained closed for about 2-3 months twice in two years. The Haji family ran on their savings as the readymade shops of their sons also stood close. “We lost many of our regular customers as, during the lockdown, many families shifted to aluminium utensils, but we are catering to many customers from Noida to Gurgaon after the lockdown was lifted,” says Irfan spawling a copper plate.

Photo: Sneha Richhariya & Sejal Patel

The city nevertheless has some Qalaigars. A couple of them are Pheriwalas who visit door to door; a few have fixed stores at Uncha Charagh and Kala Mahal; at the same time as one sits at the footpath at Chandni Mahal.

The shop is 150 years old but Irfan’s family have been in the business of Qalai for about 90 

years now. On being asked about the fast-paced technological advancements possibly hijacking their craft, Irfan says “Technology can’t be compatible with the thickness and shape of each utensil, how many machines can be invented for that?” Apart from the five-star hotels using brass and copper utensils for flaunting the “Indian touch”, these utensils are widely used by the Muslim Punjabis or Sadagars from Pakistan; most of whom live in Old Delhi.

Sneha Richhariya is a student of Convergent Journalism at Jamia Millia Islamia. She is interested in development based issues. Sejal is a student of Convergent Journalism at Jamia Millia Islamia. She seeks to bring Rural Journalism to mainstream media.