Yahiyaganj and Chowk area of Lucknow are some of the spots where you can still spot the shops of kalaiwalas.
"Bhande Kalai kara lo"- it wouldn't be an overstatement to say that the current generation of Lucknowites are mostly unaware of what this phrase means. Kalai is an ancient art that involves the coating of surfaces such as copper and brass, with metals such as silver or tin, to make it safe for culinary use. The evidence of kitchenware with Kalai work has been found in archaeological excavations and historical documentation, which prove that this art form is ancient. A hub of practitioners of this dying art form can still be traced back to the forgotten alleys of Lucknow and today, we shall explore the intelligent application of metallurgy exhibited by these kalaiwalas.
A confluence of science and spirituality
Before stainless steel and aluminium vessels stormed the market of kitchen utensils, vessels made of brass and copper were used. Such utensils were common in Indian kitchens for a two-fold reason- science and spirituality. In spirituality, it's believed that these metals are composed of sattva and rajas, the basic components of the universe according to Samkhya Philosophy. According to science, these metals are good conductors of heat, therefore, they consume less fuel.
The science behind Kalai work
Kalai can be done in various ways and requires the use of tin/silver, caustic soda, sal ammoniac (referred to as nausadar powder in Hindi) and water. Firstly, the utensil is thoroughly cleaned with either dust or sufa- a dilute acid solution that contains a purifying compound and then washed with water.
Next is casting, where the utensil is heated for approximately 3 minutes on a blast furnace made by kalaiwalas and once it is pinkish hot, tin/silver is evenly applied on it. Traditionally, silver was used in this process but since it became an expensive metal, it has been replaced by tin.
Further, the nausadar powder is sprinkled on the utensil as the tin/silver melts rapidly and as it is rubbed on the surface with a cotton swab, a whitish smoke and peculiar odour are observed as a result. Once this process is complete, the utensil is dipped in cold water and the surface of the re-tinned vessel appears shiny.
Yahiyaganj and Chowk area of Lucknow are some of the places where you can still spot the shops of kalaiwalas. While it may seem like a hassle to buy brass or copper utensils and get them re-tinned every 6-7 months, a small contribution from your end can aid the preservation of this artistic heritage of Lucknow. Further, such utensils will definitely add aesthetic and exotic charms to your dinner table, next time you decide to host your family and friends!