“Now you can eat as much mutton biryani as you want, but don’t forget to brush your teeth twice a day,” said Allah Baksh to Amina Biwi, while soaping his hands under the busy KR Market Flyover in Bengaluru. Amina Biwi appeared relieved: her pain had receded. In gratitude, she flashed a generous smile at Baksh, revealing the three shiny new incisors she had just received.

Nearby, dental procedures were underway at four other makeshift clinics under the KR Market Flyover.

KR Market is a bustling bazaar with a rich history. According to The Hindu, the area was a buffer zone between the Bangalore fort and the city at the time of the Third Anglo-Mysore war in 1791 AD. When the British army laid siege to the fort, it was at this place that they camped.

“The battle continued for 15 days with no significant result,” The Hindu said. “Finally, the British army chief, Capt. Cornwallis planned to attack the fort at midnight. This was against the rules of war. The Tipu Sultan army, unaware of this vindictive act, were defeated. The 70-year-old Kotwal Bahadur Khan and several others laid down their lives to protect the fort. On March 20, 1791, the British army captured the fort.”

That history is difficult to see now in the dusty market.

Ignoring the ear-splitting noise around him, Baksh carefully filled a cavity in a patient’s tooth with a worn tool. His patient cringed from the agony – no anaesthesia was administered – but Baksh promised the pain was temporary. A curious crowd stood around while Baksh sent his bare hand into the patient’s mouth to fit the dental bridge using a soft pink adhesive. Around him there were toothbrushes, mirrors, dentures, tweezers, pliers, a file, a spoon and other implements. Cases full of artificial teeth and before-and-after images made up the display window of his open-air clinic.

Baksh, now 55, has been in the job for the past 30 years. He says he never trained as a dentist – he just picked up the skills from his father.

Baksh’s work falls into a grey zone. Though it helps those in need, it violates Chapter V, Section 49 of the 1948 Dentist Act, which clearly demands that dentists, dental mechanics and dental hygienists should be licenced.

Baksh’s 25-year-old son Imran Pasha is learning the trade the same way his father did. “It has become a family business now,” Baksh said, as Pasha prepared a set of dentures costing Rs 500 for another customer. Baksh’s brother and nephew – all of them have set up makeshift clinics.

A proud Imran Pasha proclaimed that there is little difference between them and dental surgeons with degrees – they are equally skilled and take extreme care while treating their patients. What set them apart perhaps, he said, are the resources. The brick-and-mortar clinics possess expensive equipment and they are more hygienic. “But none of our patients has complained for the past 30 years,” he said.

Still, like the brick-and-mortar clinics, Baksh maintains a record of all visitors – their phone numbers and addresses – so that he can identify the returning patients and offer them discount.

I met two other roadside dentists under the KR Market Flyover – Shaik Ajaz and Syed Khizar. Ajaz, once an assistant in a dental clinic, complained that he used to get 15-20 patients a day, but the number dropped over time. And now only the really poor come to them.

Baksh and his peers under the flyover think of their job as social work. Although a complete set of dentures costs Rs 500 and a single tooth Rs 50, the dentists often accept any amount if the patient cannot afford the rates. For the poorest of the poor, the treatment is free.

All images by Arindam Thokder.