From time immemorial, the fetish for stylish footwear has lingered in our systems. Be it the Japanese Okobos or the Indian Mojaris; the American ‘All Star Converse’ or Ballet Flats or the Roman Gladiators, shoes have always been a valuable piece of handiwork
Footwear and its evolution has been an important reflection of cultural beliefs, values and traditions and hence an important part of civilization.
In India, the holy gurus could be seen wearing Padukas or toe-nob sandals. This simplistic style of footwear was made in religiously symbolic shapes, like fish. On the other hand, Indian kings and queens wore Juttis or clothed shoes, which were embroidered with precious gems, pearls, silver and gold threads.
It is a safe assumption that leather shoes and boots came to the attention of the ancient Indian only during the days of the British Raaj.
Now as and how the East India Company grew and spread across the country, the number of British officers and their families setting up a house hold here increased. This in return opened up an array of opportunities for a lot of Indian to make a living out of.
For example, because of the elaborate sense of dressing and styling of the British, the ‘Ostagars’ or tailors were born, similar was the rise of the ‘Khansamas’ or the modern day butler. Like them there were many trades and services that took birth as a result of the British ‘Nawabi’ or elaborate and expensive lord-like lifestyle. But, with time a majority of these trades died down and quietly disappeared.
Now, one such trade that has sneakily stuck around all these years is that of the ‘Joota-polish wala’ or the Shoeshiners of Kolkata. A Shoeshiner or boot polisher is a person who polishes shoes with shoe polish and a brush for a living. They mostly have fixed locations or follow a nomadic pattern.
In popular culture, they are often known as shoeshine boys because the job is traditionally that of a male child.
While the Shoeshiners can still be seen thriving in Mumbai along the railway platforms, Shoeshiners of Kolkata have not been as lucky.
Today, the number of Shoeshiners of Kolkata has come down to a few hundred with the previous ones either setting up shop to become cobblers or seeking some other form of employment.
We caught up with a few of the Shoeshiners around Park Street to get a first-hand knowhow.
While there are some Shoeshiners in Kolkata that can trace their legacy back to the days of the Raaj, majority of them came to the city from neighboring states. They either picked up the skill from existing relatives into the trade or began from scratch on their own.
Shoeshiners of Kolkata go around the city carrying their typical wooden box with a handle that also serves as a pedestal for the customers to rest their foot on for polishing.
The box contains: Needles, threads, wax, gum, shoe polish, shoe brush, tooth brush, cream, small nails.
A Shoeshiner who began working in Kolkata in 1971 said “When I began polishing, I used to get 5 paise for a polish job. And the ones who used to give us 10 paise or 25paise (4 anna), we had the habit of giving them a salute”
One Shoeshiner who has been setting up shop at Park Street every evening from 1992 said “there have been times when I’ve gone home without a rupee in my pocket and there have been days when foreigners, overjoyed by my service have handed me a Rs 500 note”
Shoeshiners of Kolkata are those building blocks of the city who may go unnoticed, but without them, the city will simply lack its ‘shine’!