First News
Volume:7, Number:35
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Vanishing Vocations

A number of professions that were once popular and rewarding do not exist anymore, while several others are fast becoming redundant and forgotten

Before the rise of globalization, profession was not necessarily a choice. It used to be a practice passed from one generation to the other. In many cases, caste, religion and geographical location were deciding factors behind selecting one’s profession. Today, the marvel of technological and communication advancements has opened many new doors to people, leaving room for many more choices.

Technological coups are usurping traditionally manual jobs at an accelerated rate. Due to the rapid changes in people’s lifestyle and the country’s socioeconomic scenario, many traditional professions have disappeared from Bangladesh over the years. With the change of time, people’s demands, social rituals, food habit, etc., have changed, and many old professions could not keep up with them. Some of the professions have become extinct already; there is no trace of them anywhere but the pages of fictions. Some of the professions are on the verge of extinction, as people are no longer willing to carry them forward. The modern generation prefers not to follow the professional footprints of their ancestors.

Mailman or Dak Peon

When letter was the only available medium of long distance correspondence, mailmen, many post offices were set up in different areas of the country. The mailman, locally known as Dak Peon, used to collect the enveloped letters and parcels from the post office and deliver them to the recipients. Some of those post offices are still standing today, although handwritten letters are a thing of the past now. With the development of telecommunication system and Internet technology, people no longer have to wait for days to communicate with others or receive important documents As a result, the Dak Peons are no longer in demand. People are no longer considering this profession as a viable career option due to the falling demand. As a result, this profession is also on the verge of disappearance.

Dai Ma or Midwife: In the old days, Dai Mas used to single-handedly provide primary maternity and childbirth care in the urban and rural areas alike. In those days, the general tradition was that a woman’s first child should be born at her paternal house, instead of her inlaws’. Women used to move to their parents’ house at the very beginning of pregnancy, and the local Dai Ma, usually an older woman, used to be called in. Although the Dai Mas had no medical training, they could predict the date of delivery, possible complications during pregnancy and childbirth by observing the physical symptoms of pregnant women. The closer the delivery date came, the more frequently they visited the prospective mothers. They would attend the birth and deliver the baby with their own hands. After the birth of the baby, a Dai Ma would receive cash, rice, etc., as per agreement. In some cases, they would receive gifts like sarees, shawls, and jewelries. With the advancement of medical service, the demand for Dhai Mas has decreased a lot. This profession has been completely wiped out from the cities, although some of the rural areas still use the service of Dhai Mas.

Dhopa: Before the popularization of laundries and dry cleaning shops, dhopas used to manually wash the clothes of the rich and the middle class people. Every week, they used to visit door to door to collect clothes with strong stains that would not go away with regular wash. While some Dhopas are still active mostly in rural and semi-urban areas, the cities have long moved on to modern modes of washing technology.

Lace-Fitawala or the Ribbon Hawker: During the afternoons, when the women of the households were finally done with their daytime chores and ready for a little leisure time, the Lace Fitawalas used to come in front of their houses, and shout “Lace Fita (ribbon)!” The little girls used to plead to their mothers to buy them colorful ribbons, bangles or other cosmetics from the Lace Fitawalas. The mothers were equally excited about the contents of a Lace Fitawala’s box. The box usually was a carton wrapped with red and white fabric along with another box with a glass lid used to contain a wide array of cosmetics and ornaments. With the change of time, most contents in a Lace Fitawala’s box have lost their appeal. As a result, this profession has almost disappeared

Kathuria or Woodcutter: The professional woodcutters used to cut woods from forests and sell in the local huts, door to door or in the cities. Nowadays, forests are rapidly decreasing to make room for new living spaces. So, woodcutting as a singular profession has completely gone out of practice. However, a small section of people still cut and slit woods in exchange for money, only on a temporary basis. The advent of cooking gas has also been a deathblow to this profession.

Beyara or Palanquin Bearer: Palenquins were a staple medium of transport during weddings. Usually, four bearers used to carry a palanquin on their shoulders to transport the bride from her paternal home to marital home. Many rich people used to board on palanquins for semi-long distance journeys as well. Palanquin bearers were active in some Bangladeshi villages even 20 years ago. However, with the development of communication system, many motorized vehicles have been introduced throughout the country. Even the remotest of villages now have access to various types of vehicles. As a result, palenquins are no longer necessary, neither are the bearers. Ojha or Exorcist/Healer: Most villages used to have at least one Ojha to deal with the supernatural forces. From unholy spirits to snakebites, the Ojhas used to “tame” everything. Largely depending on the superstitious beliefs of the local people, these Ojhas used to make a comfortable living by performing public exorcism and healing, and various other gimmicks. Some Ojhas are still active in the rural areas. Hajam or Circumciser: For performing circumcision on Muslim boys, the Hajams were in constant demand. They used to carry a bag containing thin wood wickers, long razor, clean fabrics, etc. The cities have long shifted from hajams as most circumcisions are now performed in the hospitals. However, hajams are still active in many rural areas.

The Mithaiwalas or Sweets Sellers: The Mithaiwalas used to sell pink and white cotton candies to children. As per the children’s demand, they used to mold the candies in the shape of handfan, elephant, flute, etc. The Kotkotiwalas, a specail class of Mithaiwalas, used to barter a delicacy named kotkoti (peanut brittle) in exchange for used household goods. They used to carry a hand-bell around and ring it to attract customers. Duburi or Diver: Before the introduction of indoor bathrooms, people used to bath in local ponds, rivers and other waterbodies. During bathing, women often used to lose their ornaments in the deep water. The Duburis used to be called to retrieve the lost ornaments from the water. They used to search for the ornaments by using various types of strainers, weeders and other instruments. This profession is almost extinct nowadays. Saraiwalaa or Utensil Repairman: The Saraiwalas used to go from door to door with their tin instrument to repair dented aluminium utensils. The plastic revolution has completely wiped out this profession.

Daater Poka Fela or Ameture Dentists: Members of the bede (snakecharmer) community used to visit from house to house to extract damaged teeth in exchange for rice or seed. With the availability of dental clinics, this occupation has virtually gone extinct.

Knocker Upppers: Nowadays, alarm clocks are available to people from all walks of life. All the mobile phones come with the alarm system, snooze button, etc., to help us wake up on time. However, in the earlier times, alarm clocks were neither cheap nor readily available. In those days, knocker uppers used to do the job of waking people up on time. A knocker upper would begin sometimes as early as 3:00am to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work without being late. Once assured that the customer is awake, they used to rush to the next customer's door.

Linkboy: Today, all the city streets have streetlamps. Even in the rural areas, people these days use torch light and the torch option of their phones to help them see at night. Before the days of electricity, walking on the streets at night was hazardous for a multitude of reasons. In those days, linkboys used to carry a flaming torch to light the way for pedestrians at night. Linkboys were common in London in the days before street lighting. The linkboy's fee was commonly one farthing, and the torch was often made from burning pitch and tow.

Putul Nuach or Puppetry: The art of puppetry in Bangladesh dates back to at least a thousand years. The puppet show is a glorious part of the country's folk culture and tradition, but now it is rarely seen in urban communities. The rural people do get a chance to enjoy puppet shows at least once or twice in a year but the city dwellers hardly have the scope to indulge in this art form. Puppet shows are losing their appeal in the village fairs as well. Wire puppets, stick puppets and tressed puppets, which are made of shola and light wood, were the most commonly used puppets in Bangladeshi puppet shows. They used to be adorned with flashy cloth and ornaments. Along with light entertainment, the puppet shows often provided social commentery and showcased the history and tradition of our country. After the Liberation War, many puppeteers used their art form to tell stories of the war. Besides, various fairy tales and children's stories used to be brought to life with the puppet shows. Unfortunately, this art form could not stand the test of time, and is slowly disappearing into obscurity. Nowadays,many children are completely oblivious of Putul Nauch. However, puppet shows have a small niche audience in Dhaka.

Garial or Bullock Cart Driver: In rural areas, three-wheeled carts pulled by domesticated bullocks, oxen, and buffaloes were the most reliable and commonly used modes of transportation. The drivers of these carts were called Garials. To keep the passengers’ spirit up during the lengthy journey, the garials used to sing folk songs and keep conversation with the passengers. There are many references of the Garials in Bangladeshi folk songs and literature. However, this profession is on the verge of extinction due to the rise of motorized vehicles throughout the country. As a result, many Garials have changed profession and are moving on to contemporary sources of income.

Kolus or Oil Extractors: The manually operated oil extraction system, locally known as Kolur Ghani, has declined precipitously in the recent years. Most of the Kolus are now switching to other professions in a bid to earn a decent livelihood. In the Ghani technology, domestic animals such as bull, ox or donkey was used for crushing mustard seeds and extracting oil. An upright pestle which descended from a top curved or angled piece used to work within a scooped circular pit in the exact center of a circular mortar made of stone or wood. The bottom of the lower angled piece used to be attached to a load-beam. One end of the load-beam went around the outer side of the barrel, while the other was yoked to the animal. The load-beam used to be weighted down with heavy stones. As the animal moved in circular motions, the pestle rotated, exerting pressure on the upper chest of the pit, first pulverizing the oilseed and then crushing out its oil. Mustard oil was a staple ingredient in the daily diet of Bengalis. Moreover, the remains of mustard seed crushed in the Ghani were a nutritious food for the cow. The Ghanis used to produce oil all night long, and the Kolu used to sell that oil to the local market. With industrial revolution and globalization, many hi-tech motorized machines have made their way worldwide, replacing time-consuming and manually operated options such as the Kolur Ghani. Mustard oil is no longer a staple ingredient in Bengali cuisine, as people now use various other types of oils such as soya bean, palm, etc. People have long shifted to the factory refined and neatly packed oil, leaving the Kolus virtually jobless. As a result, they are now switching to new lines of work.

First News

Aruna Biswas A noted Jatra artist

For centuries, the traveling Jatra-Pala groups swayed the rural areas of this country. Every winter, Jatra-palas used to be staged amidst huge public gathering and festivities. A booming industry was built around the popularity of Jatra- Pala, and thousands of people were involved in this industry. However, time has not been kind to this art form. Amidst declining popularity and inadequate patronage, Jatra is now on the verge of extinction. The artists and others involved in this art are now searching for new ways to make a living. Jatra has not received the support it needed in the moments of crisis. Despite having government approval via Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, many local administrations do not allow the troupes to stage their performances. Their main excuse is lack of security. To get permission from the local politicians and administration officials, the members of Jatra groups have to make many unethical choices. As a result, thousands of people associated with this craft are living in misery. To make a living, they are being forced to look for other lines of work. These people are actors and they play the roles of brave heroes, heroines, kings and queens on stage. It is psychologically very hard on them to switch to other professions. Another big threat for this industry is vulgarity. In the name of Jatra-Pala, some unscrupulous people are staging sexually charged, vulgar shows in the rural areas. This trend is not only harmful to the young viewers, but also to the reputation of this already dwindling industry.

First News

Professor Mesbah Kamal Department of History, Dhaka University

The Bedey community is a small ethnic group. For centuries, they have been living a nomadic life. Traditionally they live, travel, and earn their living on the river, by selling talisman, amulets, etc. Besides, they used to make a living by playing on the superstitions of rural people by providing various psedu-treatment for general diseases. Some of them used to sell utensils, ornaments or charm snakes in exchange for a small amount of money. With the change of time, the demand for their service has diminished significantly. As a result, most of the new generation of Bedey people are now switching to new forms of seasonal business. Some are even leaving the Bede lifestyle altogether. As a result, the community is breaking apart. Nowadays, even rural people have access to medical facilities and information. As a result, they no longer fall for the pseudo-treatments offered by the Bedey people. The Bedey people’s business has substantially declined in the rural areas in the recent years. As a result, they are being forced to change their profession.

First News

Dr. Mahbub-ul-Islam Professor of Economics a t St Francis University, USA

Bangladesh is the land of festivities. This riverine country has provided its inhabitants with a wide range of occupations over the years. Change in profession is not a new concept, as people have been doing it for centuries. To keep up with the changes of time, and to meet their economic needs, people have to change their professions. To make room for new professions, many old professions have to go away. In the past, people were involved in the production and selling of their own products. Following the rise of industrialization, individually operated trades are facing the biggest challenge. As a result, some occupations are disappearing faster than others. In the recent past, weavers, boatmen, potters, and craftsmen are the ones to switch to new professions. The arrival of new technology is changing the needs and demands of people regularly, and professional choices are being affected by it.

Bioscopewalas or Cinema Men

Once considered a favorite pastime for children, the bioscope has long lost its glory. Gone are the days when Bioscopewalas used to play their whistles to draw children close to their box of magic. The concept of the bioscope is fascinating, even to the standard of today's advanced technology. A hand-driven projector with a low-watt bulb was placed behind the reel. As the handle was turned, the reel moved. The person peeping through a fixed lens got to experience a wonderful cinematic treat accompanied by music.

Peeping through the small lenses around the box, the viewers could see snippets of Duldul horse, Mecca, Medina, Azmir Sharif and even the dramatized execution of young Khudiram. Bioscopes used to be the main attraction in the local fairs. However, with the advancement of technology, many newer and sleeker gadgets of entertainment have come to the market, replacing the poor old bioscope. With televisions, multiplexes, Internet, DVD, mobile phones and other sources of entertainment, the practitioners of the bioscope could no longer afford to carry on their trade.

Kobiraji or Herbal Treatment: For centuries, people of Southeast Asia depended on traditional methods of treatment, locally known as Kobiraji. The practitioners, called Kobiraj, used natural ingredients and methods ayurvedic, homeopathic, unani, etc.) to provide healthcare. Although Kobiraji has its limitations, it is also revered for its use of organic, herbal ingredients to cure small-scale ailments. Despite having local demand, Kobiraji as a profession is not likely to survive in the near future. One of the main reasons behind this condition is the rapid destruction of invaluable herbs and medicinal trees. Herbs are immensely important to creating Kobiraji and ayurvedic medicines. However, lack of preservative measures and proper care has already resulted in the extinction of many important herbs. The upward trend in population growth, use of fuelwood in the brick fields, destruction of forest to make room for new constructions etc., have already caused irredeemable damage to our greeneries. Many important trees, herbs, shrubs, etc., have completely disappeared already. The shortage of these herbal ingredients is essentially putting an end to the Kobiraji practice. The rise of modern, allopathic treatment has already cornered the local, traditional treatments. Coupled with the unavailability of necessary ingredients to make medicines, many Kobirajes are struggling to continue their trade. As a result, many of them are switching to other professions.

Forgotten Professions of Dhaka

To trace back the past history of the old professions in Dhaka, we can turn to a number of historically significant books. The invaluable historical documentation of Mughal Bangla “Baharistan-E-Gayebi”, the description of 18th century European traveler Nikolao Manucchi, Yusuf Ali Khan’s “Táʼríkh-i-Bangála-i-Mahábatjangí” (an eyewitness account of Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal and his times), Nawab Nusrat Jong’s “Táʼríkh-i-Jahangirnagar Dhaka” (estimated time of publication 1775-1817), James Taylor’s “A Sketch of the Topography and Statistics of Dacca” (1840), James Wise’s “Notes on the Races, Castis and Trades of Eastern Bengal” (1883), H. H. Risley’s “The Tribes and Castes of Bengal” (1891), L L Clay’s “Heads of the History and Statistics of Dacca District” (1860), and Hakim Habibur Rahman’s “Decca Panchas Baras Pehle,” etc., are especially important in this regard. The older descriptions are especialy important to know about the already extinct professions. Many of the professions described by eye-witnesses in the aforementioned books have long disappeared. Those books are the only place where we can trace them back. Based on the findings of those books, we are going to look back at some of the forgotten professions of Dhaka.

Bhatiara or Food Shop Owners

As per H.H. Risley’s estimate, the word Bhatiara derived from the word Bhaat (rice). He described the owners and managers of hotels and food shops as Bhatiara. They were the members of Muslim community. Along with food, they also sold tobacco. However, James wise described them as owners of grocery shops. He said that the Bhatiaras were popular amidst poor customers. Later, some members of the Hindu community also embarked on this profession

Chamra Farosh or Leather Traders

The members of this profession were involved in the leather trade. They used to preserve hides of a domestic animal by using the traditional method. Due to an unstable market, most of the Chamra Farosh also worked as porters, as per James Wise’s description. Risley described them as generally Muslim and Kutti, while James Wise mentioned them as Farazi or Wahabi.

Paneerwala or Cheesemaker: Dhaka was well-known for its paneer or cheese even in the 19th century. James Wise wrote, “Dhaka is famous for a long time for its paneer. Although the paneer is not made in Dhaka or any of its adjacent areas, but the Hindu and Muslim paneer importers live in the city. The Hindus neither make paneer nor eat it.” As per his description, it is quite clear that only Muslims used to make and consume paneer. James Wise also mentioned that the paneer made from cow milk was known as Gaiya or Dolama, and Buffalo milk was known as Bhaysa. Pankhawala or Fanmaker: The majority of the professional fanmakers were Muslims, although some Hindu sages also made hand fans, wrote James Wise. The fans made by Hindu sages often contained pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. The large sized palm fans were called Arani and the small sized Arbaki. Naichaband or Pipemaker: The people who made the pipes of Hukkah were called Naichaband. Although Sylhet was the prime area of supplying Hukkha pipes across the East Bengal, over 10 households of Naichanbands were active in Dhaka when James Wise wrote his book. It was considered as a prestigious profession.

Naanbai or Roti Maker: Naanbais used to make various types of roti breads (shibumal, nankhatai, bakarkhani. panjakhash, parata, etc.). They also used to make various types of pithas. Mostly from the Muslim community, these roti makers also knew how to make European-style biscuits and samuchas. Saykalgar or Metal Makers: These professionals were involved in the making of metal products and other relevant activities. Hakim Habibur Rahman (1881-1847) wrote, “Saykalgari is an ancient profession. In those days, this profession was essential for making the weapons needed in the war fields. In my childhood, I visited the homes of a couple of Saykalgars. They used to keep their work formula secret, and completed all the works in their own homes. Their main jobs were to extract substance materials from steel and polished steel and paint the pipes of big guns. They also used to produce steel from iron, and make spear parts of weapons such as spear blade, sword teat, cutlass, etc. Nowadays, this profession has been reduced to painting guns and sharpening weapons.” Lohar or Blacksmith: In his book, Hakim Habibur Rahman mentioned three types of professionals as Lohars. The first kind was the members of the Hindu community, and they used to make locks, sharp weapons and various types of agricultural tools. The second type was part of the Mungeri branch of Hindu community. They used to make horseshoe, and spare parts of bale cart. The rest, members of Muslim community, used to work in cart shops, and make various parts related to horse carts. According to James Wise’s description, they also used to make gunpowder and oldschool bullets. So, they also were gunmakers and woodsmith all at the same time.

Gandhi or Perfumer: Gandhis used to make various types of perfumed products. Hakim Habibur Rahman mentioned that many Gandhi families used to reside in Dhaka, and the Gandhigoli in the Churihatta Mohalla is still carrying their memories. This profession was already on the verge of extinction during Hakim Habibur Rahman's time. Only a handful of people were involved in the production of perfumed incense. Shishagar or Glass Blowers: James Wise mentioned this longextinct profession in his book. According to his description, the Shishagars used to collect old, used glass bottles, and blow on them to give them various types of shape. Since the process was manually done, the end product was very fragile, and the structure of the bottles was filled with bubbles. Yet, these bottles had high demand during the Durga Puja festivals. James Wise wrote, “The Shishagar put some melted glass on one end of an iron stick and keep blowing from the other end. As he blows, he also turns the stick in different directions to give the glass a unique shape.” Shakhari or Conch Shell Makers: Shakharis are one of the oldest professional groups in old Dhaka. Due to the social and religious importance of ornate, handcrafted conch shell bangles (shaka) in the Hindu community, this profession is not likely to completely die down anytime soon. At the time James Wise wrote his book, 853 Shakharis were active in Dhaka. The number has reduced gradually over the years, as many descendants of the shakahris switched to other professions. Ghondhobonik or Spice Sellers: Generally, the Gondhoboniks were spice sellers. In the 19th century, they used to buy various types of spices directly from the producers and sell them in other parts of the state. They also sold sandalwood and spices associated with the rituals of traditional Hindu ceremonies. Sometimes they also sold various types of chemicals, opium, charas and other narcotics. James Wise wrote that over 150 -200 Gondhobonik families were active in Dhaka during the time he wrote the book.

Gopgoala or Milkmen: A number of milkmen were associated with the trade of milk and milk based goods. In East Bengal, they were known as Gopgoala. Members of Hindu community, Gopgoalas used to raise cows and buffelos, and make a number of milk based delicacies such as curd, ghee, khirsha, matha, butter, etc. Many of them were also involved in agricultural activities. There was a big milk storage in the Rothkhola area of Old Dhaka even in the 20th century. During the religious ceremonies, especially the Pujas, the demand for milk and sweets used to rise a lot. As a result, the Gopgoalas of Dhaka were always in demand. In Dhaka, Goalghat, Goyalnagar, Koltabazar, Faridabad Gendaria, Shingtola and other areas were involved in the milk trade. Kahar or Palanquin Bearers: They were palanquin bearers. Known as Duli and Kahar in Dhaka, the palanquin bearers were in constant demand up until the 19th century. Even in the 20th century, some people used palanquins on special occasions. Although Hindus were initially involved in this profession, later Muslims also joined it. Despite being very labor intensive, this profession had very little social status. After the decline of palanquin’s popularity, this profession eventually disappeared. Nartak or Male Dancers: In the old days, women were not likely to dance on stage. To make up for their absence, male dancers used to dress up like women and perform on stage. The Nartaks were already quite popular in Dhaka even before the British era.

Kumar or Potter: The potters have almost disappeared from Dhaka, although some families are keeping the craft alive. As per James Wise’s description, over 14,835 Kumars used to live in Dhaka. They were divided into four groups- Rudra Paal, Boro Bhagi Kumar, Choto Bhagi Kumar and Mogi Kumar. All of them were members of the Hindu community.

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