A feriwala in Tamil Nadu. (Photo: Brandvenkatr/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A strange sound pierces most residential streets in Indian cities: a recurring cry that sounds almost like an attempt to imitate a bird call. It is the resonant call of the feriwala, a street vendor who comes around to sell wares to customers at their homes.

The feriwala is not to be confused with the street hawker, who has a stationary stand where customers come to him or her. The feriwala, on the other hand, comes to you, by doing rounds of a few blocks’ radius within a neighborhood. Each neighborhood tends to have its own feriwalas, who usually only sell one type of ware each and are generally well-known to the residents.

Because their customers cannot see them from within their homes, feriwalas incorporate vocal announcements in their advertising practices. To let people know what kind of wares they are selling, each feriwala has a unique call. While sometimes the call is just the name of the good that the vendor sells, repeated multiple times, other street vendors choose a simple, recurring vowel sound with a unique, resonant pitch to alert customers to their presence.

What makes the calls so impressive is the fact that feriwalas have mastered the art of projecting their voices, and had figured out catchy jingles for themselves well before the advertising industry came into the game. The only difference is that an advertising jingle is a perky, upbeat ditty that may or may not burn itself into your brain, while the street vendor’s call is a haunting, piercing tune that lingers in your memory.

In some ways, the advertisements are like music, and the feriwalas the musicians. In 2003, artist Rashmi Kaleka decided to record some of the New Delhi feriwalas’ “songs” as a way of preserving their sounds, which were becoming less and less common with the growth of other retail sectors in India, such as shopping malls and online shopping. Her project ended up lasting several years.

“When I ask the pheriwallas to look into the camera, they start performing,” Kaleka told Scroll.in. “They know immediately that they are the artist.”

You can listen to some of Kaleka’s recordings below.

In the above video, the seller repeats the same phrase over and over: “jharuwala,” which means “mop man,” or “broom man.” As you can hear, the man pitches his voice up and down in the exact same way each time, as though the word were a lyric in a song. 

In this video, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a meaningless yet ubiquitous sound at around 14 seconds in, which sounds like a drawn out “eh” that pitches upward at the end. 

This video features a man who Kaleka recorded for several years, who is losing his voice, perhaps as a result of his daily sales pitch. In his chant, he repeats the Hindi word for vegetables, “sabzi,” over and over again. At around the halfway mark, he begins listing each of the vegetables he’s carrying–potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes, okra–in a rhythmic pattern.