Kaleka's project, she clarified, is to record pheriwallas, not hawkers. “Pheriwallahs are people who do the rounds in a residential area, stopping only at a few places. A hawker, on the other hand, is generic term for any seller who shouts out to be heard in order to sell his or her wares,” she explained. There are the usual sabziwallahs, kabadiwallahs and fruitwallahs. And then the ones who you don’t see often, like “those who fluff-up your mattress or the chhatriwallahs" or (umbrella sellers, she said.
Kaleka began recording street vendors in 2003, after she moved to Delhi from London. There were hawkers in London too, she recalls. “There used to be a man with a tinker bell who used to pick up old things from the house, sort of like a kabadiwalla," she said. "They disappeared as I was growing up.”
When she came to Delhi, she realised these hawkers were an integral part of city life “When I used to recite the sounds of the hawkers, people used to say ‘Oh! I’ve heard this one too.’ And they would end up reciting the sounds of the hawkers too,” she said.
“I’ve always been into music, and I wanted to record their voices and give it an art form," she said. Instead of recording them with the natural ambient sound, Kaleka recorded the pheriwallas individually and directly outside her home. She later arranged these recordings in her studio in the form of a choir.
Some of them are hesitant to be recorded, but a simple barter system often works. “I tell the hawkers I will take their photograph and give it to them if they let me record their voices," said Kaleka. "They come back for the photo and have their voices recorded. Sometimes they ask me to buy something if I am to photograph them, to which I tell them that I will if they record their voice.”
Some people don't hear much music in the sound of pheriwallas, but Kaleka disagrees. “They don’t realise that by default they are singing," she said. "When I ask the pheriwallas to look into the camera, they start performing. They know immediately that they are the artist.”
She added: “Some of them like to dress up, wear neat clothes etc when they come to record the next day. It’s very endearing.”
“I have been trying to engage with the pheriwallas to get to know them better, but they don’t tell you who they are," she said. "Our demarcations come to the fore – about how we are from different societies. I know I can never blur the line, but I am not trying to either.”
Kaleka says she isn't tryng to draw attention to her subjects. “I’m just sculpting their sound as a form of space," she explained. "I’m not a social worker, I’m just making art. It’s an arrangement I make, and I love doing it. I love interacting with them.”
She has seen many changes in the pheriwallas since she first started recording them over a decade ago. “They used to dress differently – wear tulle and dhoti. They now sound different too. They knew how to resonate their voice. It’s not a profession – it’s invisible labour. They will disappear soon. The growing economy will give them a lot more choices too. So, by default, I am trying to preserve them.”
Here are some of Kaleka's compositions.
Ali Mohammed recorded Saturday 20th October 2012 from Rashmi Kaleka on Vimeo.
Madhaan Singh originally from Bharatpur, Rajasthan from Rashmi Kaleka on Vimeo.
Bannir Singh, vegetable walla from Rashmi Kaleka on Vimeo.
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