Colourful Flavourful Dhakaiyas

August 19, 2008

Star Lifestyle :Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Groups of people vary across geographic distances. They form different and at times weirdly unique cultures of their own. No one knows whether it is the food they eat, the water they drink or the Daily Star supplements they prefer to read that cause them to behave differently.

Within the confines of Dhaka a particular people have for generations grown up and passed away breathing the increasingly polluted air of the capital city. They are known as Dhakaiyas or “kutti” and they have been leaving their footprints since the 16th or 17th century.

Noted historian Syed Muhammad Taifur wrote in his book ‘Glimpses of Dhaka’ how the famines 1769-70 brought out a class of labourer tribe called ‘kutti’ from the inner areas. They settled around the canal regions making a living on husk paddy and breaking concrete for the Zaminders of that era. What sets them apart and still does is their unique dialect, which is popularly portrayed in local drama serials.

The neighbourhoods
The neighbourhoods occupied by kuttis include the canal areas like Chawk Bazaar, Najeera Bazaar, Bongshaal, Swary Ghaat, Islampur, Chankhaar Pul, Raishaheb Bazaar, Tati Bazaar Dakhshin Musandi, Katara, Narinda, Lalbagh and the infamous car stripping Dholaikhaal. At one time the Buriganga used to branch out and flow through these areas before people learned to encroach. These places ended up becoming the business hub under the rule of the Nawab Subedars. The kuttis were employed for labour purposes.

All this began to change following the English rule when the kuttis began using their experience and expertise to start off businesses of their own. As the people grew so did their culture. Families formed, children grew up and formed families of their own in the same place. Gradually these places became known as kutti localities. Trading was the primary occupation and many followed this path to become rich and famous. The fame is spelled out in the roads named after people like Kader Sardar, Majed Sardar, Maola Baksh Sardar, Dilen Samvrant etc.

The potpourri of languages
The kuttis were predominantly Muslim. It was during the Mughal era when their primary language was Urdu. It was then considered the must-know language the way English is now. The difference was that those who were relatively well off could speak and write fluently. Those who had a lower education in this language ended up speaking a different tongue that had Urdu and Bangla mixed in a colorful potpourri. That particular mixture of languages has formed a unique dialect that is widely used today. Its one that is quite easily understandable and is in fact something akin to a trademark.

All that glitters better be gold
Colour is an integral part of the kutti culture. These are people who like bright, warm colours to complement their bright, warm personalities. Generally colours such as yellows, reds and oranges are preferred.

Gold is of course extremely important. Head to toe ensembles are popular with brides often feeling giddy not at the prospect of carrying the burden of a family but rather the burden of heavy gold ornaments. Women generally compete at weddings and other occasions and giving lots of gold to newly married is a status symbol.

The men do not stay too far behind in the colourful outfits but those looking to exert influence prefer to dress in sombre and spotless white attire.

Of celebrations and food
If there are people who really know how to live, it’s got to be the kuttis. Eat, live and be merry, this is the mantra they follow. And they know how to party!

A married woman in her seventh month of pregnancy is given a party similar to a baby shower. The occasion known as ‘Shaad’ or ‘Shatasha’ is set up by the woman’s family. Close relatives along with the husband’s family are invited. The couple is surrounded by the family members with the unborn child being the centre of the attention. Special cakes shaped in the likeness of frocks or shorts are laid out and the couple is asked to pick one with their eyes closed. A frock signifies that the child will be a girl and the shirt heralds the birth of a boy. It may be totally unreliable, as a means of determining the sex of the foetus but it sure is a lot of fun.

About thirty to forty years ago big functions included a particular feature called the Meracin Dance. Here a group of transvestite dancers would perform their numbers for the merriment of the guests. Such dances were the main source of income for the transvestites. Nowadays such forms of entertainment have given way to band performances. Speaking of music there are many occasions when the women folk themselves lend their melodious tunes.

Marriages are big and long drawn out affairs. They continue well after the marriage has taken place. One such case is that where a new groom will only be fed polao and meat at the in-laws home until the day he brings home a bag of groceries. Now this may sound like a great idea where the groom will never buy groceries but there is a saying about having too much of a good thing. It is possible to get sick of polao after a while.

Regular events like Eid and the month of Ramadan are celebrated with equal zeal. During Ramadan a lot of effort goes behind preparing elaborate meals for iftaar and sehri. In fact, a lot of the local hotels or restaurants stay open during the late nights so that people can come in for sehri. Those who do not like the food at home can simply go out and buy some and the assortment is always huge. Add to that old Hindi songs in the air and the experience is surreal.

In most case kuttis seem to be a class of people with deep pockets and big hearts. They prefer to spend lavishly in entertaining guests. There is a show of heart when they go out of their way to help people outside their locality.

There are Dhakaiya families who are far more advanced than their predecessors in terms of education, culture and trade, and have come out of their old town circle but deep in their hearts they remain true to their culture. A colourful, flavourful people, they live life to the fullest, surrounding themselves with music, good food, friends and fun times. An integral part of our local heritage, they are truly an amazing people.

By Sultana Yasmin
Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny
Info: Glimpses of Dhaka, Syed Muhammad Taifur
Special thanks to Shoebur Rahman and Fatema Shoeb

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