Celebrating the wallah and walli of Mumbai's streets

Celebrating the wallah and walli of Mumbai's streets

Traveling photographer Meena Kadri captures Mumbai's technicolor street sellers, from washermen and tea vendors to flower sellers and band members

India lives in its streets, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Mumbai, city of salesmen, busily offering, brewing, collecting or cooking right there on the sidewalk as you stroll by.

The chai-wallah serves up steaming thimbles of tea, the dhobi-wallah collects your laundry, the rickshaw-wallah takes you to your next destination. Where there's a need you can be pretty sure there's someone willing to provide. Got dirty ears? Search out your nearest kaan-saaf-wallah who will happily scrape away the grime, for a modest price.

These roadside entrepreneurs fuel the flourishing street economy of India with their diverse trades and assorted services.

Although many wallah move around to find the demand hotspots, I fondly noted their regular presence in certain neighborhoods while I was living in Mumbai. As I charged around by scooter, rickshaw or taxi, I could always count on nods of recognition by my local wallah from their pavement perches and regular haunts.

I would often catch sight of them plying their trade amidst the flurry of city life. The flair of the chai-wallah forming arcs of steaming tea as he pours from glass to glass. The precision of the nariel-wallah hacking the tops off coconuts. The calm of the dabba-wallah as he negotiates Mumbai's maddening traffic to deliver dozens of lunch boxes.

At other times they are integral to the street-side commotion with their signature cries to alert us of their offerings and the banter of competing wallah vying for customer attention.

Wallah, and their female equivalent -- walli -- respond to the hundreds of opportunities that Mumbai’s urban neighborhoods present. As vital as they are vibrant, wallahs are a constant feature of the urban Indian landscape and act as functional anchors for the communities they serve.

Meena Kadri
Dukaan (shop) walli
A small roadside stall near the Worli village fish market. Should you be in Mumbai and want to take a personalised tour, I highly recommend Deepa Krishna and Freni Avari of Mumbai Magic: A la Carte Tours. The tour I took here was of the fishing village at Worli which is far from the usual tourist route of Mumbai and has a completely different atmosphere to the heaving city.

 

Meena Kadri
Phul (flower) walli
A beautiful Maharastrian flower seller in Phul Galli at Dadar Station.

 

Meena Kadri
Coolie 
A coolie and his basket which he carries on his head to ferry vegetables from Crawford Market to the Subji Bazaar at Buleshwar.

 

Meena Kadri
Resting Phul (flower) wallah
Afternoon siesta at the flower market in Dadar.

 

Meena Kadri
Painter and denter wallah
A panelbeater near Mahalaxmi station.

 

Meena Kadri
Dabbawallahs (lunch box delivery men) and train buddies
As I head to Dharavi for research work I end up in the baggage compartment used by Mumbai's famous dabbawallahs.

 

Meena Kadri
Dabbawallah on a train
A dabbawallah on the return train journey to Bandra. There is a brilliant comraderie between these men.

 

Meena Kadri
The Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat
The Dhobhi Ghats are where Mumbaiker's laundry is soaked, slapped, spun, and pressed in this centralised open-air hub spread across 10 acres at Mahalaxmi.

Read Meena Kadri's photo essay on the subject.

 

Meena Kadri
Jan Mohammed dhobi wallah (washerman)
Jan Mohammed (65) has worked at the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghats for 40 years. He rents his own ghat which is worked at by three people. Some 5,000 Dhobi Wallahs work the ghats, many of whom reside within the compound with their families. The few I met earned my respect for their dedication. It is a job that is passed on through families, predominantly from Andra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, which adds a dimension of pride among this close-knit community.

 

Meena Kadri
Machhi (fish) walli
This woman was de-shelling prawns in Worli's fishing village. It's hard to imagine that this relaxed sea-side village sits is tucked away in a city that holds upwards of 16 million inhabitants.

 

Meena Kadri
Anda (egg) wallah
Egg trays are stored under a stall near Mumbai's fascinating Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market).

 

Meena Kadri
Fruit wallah
This man takes an afternoon siesta amongst wrapped papaya at Crawford Market.

 

Meena Kadri
Juice wallah
Selling fresh lime drinks at Dharavi.

 

Meena Kadri
Recycle wallah
The bulk transporting of cooking oil containers which have been cleaned for re-use in Dharavi.

 

Meena Kadri
Unda (egg) wallah
This man is cycling his fragile stock through the market at Mukundnagar, Mumbai.

 

Meena Kadri
Chai wallah
A teenager delivering tea at Kumbharwada, Dharavi.

 

Meena Kadri
Knife shapener wallah
A mobile knife sharpner that operates from a bicycle. This was a particularly busy day for him as it was the day before Bakri Eid, when Muslims worldwide slaughter goats to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God.

 

Meena Kadri
Masala dukaan (spice shop) wallah
Spice stall at Tilak Market where Mumbaikers buy freshly grounded spices such a red chilli powder, coriander power, cumin powder and so on for everday cooking.

 

Meena Kadri
Band wallah
A wedding band player on Grant Road in Mumbai.

 

Meena Kadri
Police wallah
A jewelery store guard in Kalbadevi. Here each morning, in the Zaveri Bazaar, the price of gold is set for the day's gold trading for the whole of India.  

A New Zealand-born designer and photographer with a background in cultural anthropology, Meena Kadri has spent time working in Hong Kong, teaching at India's National Institute of Design, and a stint in Europe writing for publications including Monocle magazine and the Guardian Weekly. See her work at Random Specific and her Flickr photostream Meanest Indian.

Read more about Meena Kadri