An umbrella seller walks along a road in the old quarter of Delhi. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

A decade-long project showcases the vocal beauty of Delhi's pheriwallas, who are fighting a losing battle against the forces of globalization.

A day in Delhi is anything but routine. With a growing population of 17 million people, the Indian capital has recently emerged as an ever-shifting global hub. Yet one thing has remained constant for generations: the echoing chants of the city's pheriwhallas, or street vendors.

"People wake up to the sound of hawkers coming to sell eggs, fruit, [and] vegetables," explains Rashmi Kaleka, a Delhi-based artist. "By the afternoon one has the cobbler—the chaader walla. On Sunday one gets the mala walla, the man who will mend your old jewelry."

Kaleka may appreciate the vocal beauty of the city's pheriwallas more than the average Delhi resident. She's been recording their chants since 2005, and her work was recently featured on a BBC podcast. Listen to a few of her recordings below.

The recording project offers an interesting look at how sound fluctuates in urban space. The vendors' chants are affected by the density and design of the neighborhoods they're hawking in. A tight residential area, for example, is likely to create greater competition among pheriwallas selling there. Like music blaring in a small room, the chants ring off the walls of neighborhood buildings more intensely.

"A hawker in a densely populated area remains mostly stationery," Kaleka says. "They blast out their tunes, a restless competition of shouts overriding the cacophony of a deafening street." In the suburbs, on the other hand, the pheriwalla chants fade much quicker.

Getting the city's pheriwallas to agree to being recorded hasn't been easy. Kaleka often barters with a vendor whom she wants to record. At first, Kaleka relied on the powers of her camera. If a pheriwalla agreed to be recorded and photographed, she would return the next day to present the vendor with a copy of his or her photograph; this way both parties would get something in return.

More recently, she's been offering pheriwallas an opportunity to create their very own maps. Kaleka has the hawkers trace their feet on a piece of paper, then draw the rural area they emigrated from. The exchange pulls vendors into a creative process. It also presents Kaleka with a clearer picture of the life of the pheriwallas she's recording, piecing together their ancestral homelands and their journeys to the streets Delhi. It's become sub-project of her larger recording effort. She's titled it "Meera Joota" (My Footwear).

A "Meera Joota" map made by a Delhi pheriwalla. (Courtesy of Rashmi Kaleka)

Kaleka's recording project aims to give Delhi's pheriwallas a new narrative. By eliminating visuals and magnifying their vocals, what's on display is how this community injects music into the neighborhoods of Delhi. Even more important, the project preserves the sounds of a community on the brink of extinction.

Since the turn of the millennium, few cities have undergone economic changes as turbulent as Delhi's. Once a nondescript hub in the north of India, Delhi has become a legitimate megacity wielding global influence. In his latest book, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, award-winning author Rana Dasgupta credits India's economic liberalization with stirring the city's recent renaissance.

In 1991, facing a massive debt crisis, India started to open up its economy to the world. Import tariffs were slashed, India's currency, the rupee, was devalued to encourage exports, and robust foreign investment was welcomed. The size of India's economy subsequently skyrocketed. Delhi in particular received much of this new economic activity.

A fruit vendor takes shelter under his cart during rain showers in Noida, located on the outskirts of New Delhi. (Reuters/Parivartan Sharma)

Still, liberalization created tremendous stress on laborers operating on the peripheries of society. As Dasgupta explains in his book, the city's old social order, with its penchant for safeguarding the socioeconomic rights of poor working class residents, has dissolved.

[Globalization] would remove much of what was settled about Delhi. It removed, certainly, the homes of hundreds of thousands of the poor, in order that shopping malls and apartment complexes could be erected in their place; this enormous transfer of wealth and resources from the city's poorest to its richest citizens turned many into refugees in their own city, and made working-class life in general more edgy and precarious.

The pheriwallas stand among this fractured social class. "We can't tell for how long they will be around," Kaleka says. "Gradually they will disappear as India's open economy will redirect the labor force."

Eventually, Delhi's informal street hawkers will lose out to shopping centers and the convenience of shopping online. But, as Kaleka's project showcases, the vendors posses a historic artistry—something modern urban development can never replicate.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a mural in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
    Life

    Stop Complaining About Your Rent and Move to Tulsa, Suggests Tulsa

    In an effort to beef up the city’s tech workforce, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is offering $10,000, free rent, and other perks to remote workers who move to Tulsa for a year.

  3. Design

    Stan Lee’s New York City

    The Marvel Comics maestro gave his superheroes a city that’s colorful, dangerous, rude, quippy, and full of heart. It might be his greatest creation.

  4. Life

    How Friendsgiving Took Over Millennial Culture

    In the past five or so years, hosting a Thanksgiving meal among friends a week before the actual holiday has become a standard part of the celebration for many young adults.

  5. The charred remnants of a building in Paradise, California, destroyed by the Camp Fire.
    Environment

    How California Cities Can Tackle Wildfire Prevention

    Wildfires like Camp and Tubbs are blazing with greater intensity and frequency, due to factors including climate change and urban sprawl. How can cities stay safe?