An Age-Old History of Ear Cleaning Takes the Test of Time

Kaan saaf walahs or ear cleaners - They refuse to let their legacy die, despite long hours and meagre pay

3 min read

Cameraperson: Debayan Dutta
Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas

Hi... I’m a journalist and I would like to film a documentary on you, your profession, your life and your struggles.

No sir, we don’t want to do any documentary or anything.

But why, if I may ask?

Sir, we don’t want to talk to any journalist. We don’t want to talk about our profession. We don’t want anyone to know about our profession. 

But why not?

Sir, we clean ears for a living. We don’t wear good clothes and go to an office. We aren’t proud of what we do sir. We just do it because that’s all we know. What will you publish about us? There’s nothing special about us. We have nothing to be proud of. Nothing. We are ashamed of what we do, but we don’t have a choice - this is all we know. 

After a few similar interactions, the conclusion became evident – the age-old unique trade had given way to embarrassment.

(The only way they agreed to let me document them was if I got my ear cleaned by them, and I can interview them during the process. They were shy of cameras, which is why they insisted that I document them using only my phone. They would also not talk in groups as their group or union has a “don’t talk to journalists” policy of sorts, so I had to find one of them when they were alone, in order to convince them.)

Ear cleaners or kaan saaf wallahs have been around for generations. Some say that the profession originated during the Mughal era. They were the ‘Ear Doctors’ before ENT specialists came along. Now, only a handful of them remain in the nation. In Delhi, they are usually found at Chandni Chowk’s crowded pavements, or along the steps of the Jama Masjid.

The profession is unsure if it will stand the test of time. As the population flocks to certified doctors to get their ears treated, the kaan saaf wallah’s life becomes one of meagre pay, long work hours and disappointment, but one that still refuses to die.

“We will die. Our children will carry on the trade. Business might suffer, but it can never die,” says, Mohammed Mauveen, who has been in the profession for almost two decades.

Mauveen is one of the last of his breed, spotted dotting the steps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, or in one of its corners smoking a beedi, in his trade’s signature red cloth that is tied around his head, his instruments tucked behind his ears, and an eye constantly scanning for potential customers.

His customers mostly include aged people who are accustomed to visiting them, and tourists. Like most of his comrades, the trade runs in his family and has been passed on from generation to generation.

“This is honest work”, he says. “It is better to earn a living by honest means than to beg, borrow or steal.”

For most of these kaan saaf wallahs, that is the only trade they know, and the burden of a rich history prevents them from betraying the trade.

“Who can quit a family profession?”, asks Chand Singh Rajput, who is among a breed of young kaan saaf wallahs who have recently taken to the profession, frequenting Noida’s Atta Market.

However, with days when they go back home with an empty pocket, increasing debts and a growling stomach, some of them do other jobs alongside cleaning ears.

Some of them, who are in their 20s, like their comrades, have learnt the art from their fathers and grandfathers, but now want to shift to a profession that pays better.

“I want to do a proper job. A bank job or any job will do... I can do anything,” says a young and ambitious Shahleel Singh.

A Rajput who would otherwise speak with a loud and slightly boastful voice lowered his voice down as he said,

“If we were educated or had a degree then our conditions would’ve been better.”

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