The fading tradition of Kalai

The craft of doing Kalai or re-tinning hails from a rich historical silsila. Delhi has always been a city of imperial importance with presence of rulers and their nobles living luxurious lives. One important feature of their Kitchens were brass and copper ware, often used for cooking extensively because of its superior heat conductivity, however brass and copper are highly reactive with foods. The solution for this was ‘Kalai’; polishing of the utensils with a layer of tin. The craftsmen who mastered the technique of skilfullly coating the utensils were known as “Kalaiwale” or “Kalaigar”.

The first step of the process of coating the ware with “Kalai” (virgin tin) is to clean the utensil with acid using a sand paper. The Utensil is then heated in a small blast furnace, Nausadar (ammonium chloride) is applied to the ware carefully so that no residual of dust remains and it becomes more abrasive. This gives out a thick white smog. A thin sheet of virgin tin is applied to the inside of the ware which is spread evenly on the interiors. After this, the ware is baked for few minutes on the furnace the article is immediately immersed in water of room temperature, resulting in the Kalai getting secure to the utensil. This add silvery finish to the ware giving it a shiny attractive appearance.

Haji Irfan, a Khandani Kalaigar runs one such workshop in Matiya mahal area of old Delhi. He informs of the shop being 85 years old. It was started by his great grand father Haji Sharifuddin. He traces the legacy of the Indian kitchens and how today, Melmoware and stainless steel ware have taken over the kitchens and the bazaar, resulting in the obliteration of the livelihood the many Kalaiwalas of Delhi.

Irfan was determined to keep the legacy of his family alive and continued the business despite low income. However, they make a good sum during wedding season because of the tradition of gifting brass ware as wedding gifts. They also get orders from well renowned restaurants at times, which is quite beneficial to their pockets. However, Irfan frowns on the rapidity of forgetting old traditions and cultures.

  • I am a history major, and a heritage Neophiliac looking forward for a career in Heritage conservation and protection.

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