Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rangrez - Dyeing for a living.

The older I grow the prouder I feel belonging to a community that has fascinated Indian literature, spirituality as well as cinema for decades if not centuries.
Amir Khusrau, that famous Sufi poet of the 13th century wrote:
sab sakhiyan mein chunar mori maili, dekh hasein nar naari,
ab ke bahaar chunar mori rang de, rakh le laaj hamari,
jo tu maange rang ki rangai, mora jovan girwi rakh le
Dyed yarn drying on a terrace.

The truth is that Rangrez - at least those of us who came from Rajasthan - fall in the middle order as they considered a great honour to be dyeing 'peelas and pagdis' (yellow dupattas and headgear) both essential requirements for weddings in Rajasthani communities. As more and more Marwaris settled in Calcutta more and more enterprising communities from Rajasthan followed suit as Burra Bazar was set up and (is still) managed entirely by them.
A R Rahman in the latest 'Rockstar' movie sings:
'Rangreja, rang mera tan mera man,
le le rangaai chaahe tan chaahe man.'
Tools  of the trade. 

Before Rajasthan discovered it's tourism potential it was a tough dry region where people had to travel for kilometers for an urn of drinking water. Contrast that with Calcutta, where the Ganges flowed amply, blessing it's people with unlimited water and therefore prosperity, and you have a very good reason for this mass migration. Plus, there was the common saying that money used to fly in Calcutta and anyone with the right skills could come and catch it.
My grandfather, one such Marwari Rangrez, fascinated by the potential of this megacity, moved lock, stock and barrel to seek his fortune. Through the language connection, as well as relative's references, he found some Marwari traders willing to give him business. He dyed in tubs in Chitpore, where most of our relatives still do, and took the cloth to dry at the maidan. Through easy availability of water his business prospered and he managed to construct a factory in the immediate outskirts of the city.
In Pakeezah of the 70's, Lata sang:
'Hamri na maano rangrajva se poochho,
Jis ne gulaabi rang deena dupatta mera,
Inhi logon ne le neela dupatta mera'
Rangrez also sell the dyes needed by the dyers.

Today the leelgar community of Calcutta, all Muslims, and all Marwari speaking, number not more than 3000 and follow the practice of endogamy - marriage within one's own community. In fact my wedding, to a Punjabi Muslim, was seen as an act of rebellion by the community members. But owing to my steadfast stand on the subject they had no option but to give in and accept. 
There is a constant tussle today between the cultural beliefs of the Rangrez community, which are largely traditional and Hindu, and the Islamic realization of the do's and dont's according to sharia. Considering that the leelgars may have converted largely influenced by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer and his concept of Sufi Islam in the early 13th century the customs and traditions of the community still remain from before the conversion. 
Most of the dyeing today happens in factories but it is easy to see yarns as well as clothes dyed in different colours and hanging to dry on terraces as well as streets between Phears Lane, Ratu Sarkar Lane, Zakaria Street, Armenian Street and several other streets that fall in and around these. There are those that dye laces and buttons, those that dye people’s old clothes into newer colours, those that dye dupattas and saris and some, like us, who have factories where machines replace the romance of tub dyeing. 

Rang de basanti.

Although most of the members of our community are still in the business of dyeing some are slowly moving away. In creating a walking tour company in Calcutta I have been loyal to my city but disloyal to my community as the knowledge that should've passed traditionally from my father to me, as it was passed from his father to him, is lost with my generation. But the drudgery of an industrial existence with a purely capitalistic outlook was not meant for me.

Although the community had always done well for itself, making money out of water and a little dye, business is not the same as it used to be. As more and more work is being done in big cloth mills and the imported Chinese fabric comes in many hues and shades the Rangrez community has suffered a blow. But as long as we have traditional markets and old city zones in different parts of the country it will not be difficult to locate a rangrez with a tub ready to enthuse new life into your old clothes.

Ultimate dye of old clothes - Black.


  1. Fantastic read Ifte. Extremely enjoyable. Particularly the parts where patrons seem rather keen and willing to compensate the Rangrezi's effort by offering their tan,jovan and others such. :)
    PS: Didn't know Shaheera originally belongs to Punjab.

  2. Ha ha ha.
    I have been planning to revert to the dyeing business ever since I realised that.

  3. Fascinating. I have only ever trusted one shop in New Market to dye my dupattas for me but what I really wanted to track down was one of those streetside dyeing stalls like they have in Gurgaon where they dye and dry while I polish off a plate of chaat. :)

  4. Hello, can the rangrez community be also found in Delhi?

  5. Yes Smriti. All over Delhi but a particularly high concentration in Sitapuri (near Janakpuri). Call Mr Ghyasuddin Solanki on +919891144455 to find out more about Delhi Rangrez, he's a prominent member of the community.