Friday, July 30, 2010

Our Barbers

After the first year’s birthday of a Hindu boy, the next important religious ceremony is the Choula - the first haircut. The barber or hairdresser from the nearest saloon is called in to do this in a special ceremony. From then on, the barber becomes an integral part throughout the boy’s life, until of course the pate goes completely bald!

Simple invitation to get people together for an evening reception.

Before and after the first hair cut. Photos taken at Raj Studio. Suddenly, there is a 'different look'!
It was an old time practice that barbers (kshourikakas) used to visit homes periodically, barring Tuesdays, which is usually a holiday for all barbers. A separate place outside the house would be chosen for getting it done. The person would sit on a wooden plank placed on the ground and the barber would carry out his job on persons needing the haircut. After the job is over, the area was cleansed with water, the wooden plank washed and the person had to immediately take a bath – he would not get in contact with anything or person before taking bath which the person’s wife, or mother or grandmother would give by pouring water on the squatting person in the bathroom. Brothers are not allowed to have the cut the same day, nor father and son. Also, as per tradition one should not have the cut on the week day of their birth or on new moon day or festival days. Religious guidelines like this leave little to choose the day. The Ayurvedic Principles for daily life (by K.Parvathi Kumar) mentions that Mondays and Wednesdays are suitable days for haircut.

In the 60s one barber Muthu used to visit us with his box of tools and other paraphernalia. He was always clad in white shirt, pyjamas and that typical towel wrapped on his head. When my grandfather or father used to have their haircut we used to watch the action with great curiosity. It was great fun to sit on the plank when our turn came.

The rhythmic snip-snip sound of the scissors was great music and the wonderful tickling from the barber’s comb produced beautiful goose bumps – it does even now! While we enjoyed those special tickles we used to try and avoid by drawing the head between the shoulders in an involuntary action!

Muthu helped us for some years and I cannot remember anyone telling me for how long he was doing this. But he stopped around 1968 or so and I vaguely remember knowing that he had died. I think it was he who had performed my first hair cut (Chowla) at the age of 3. Since we did not have cameras to record the events, pictures were taken at the studio on convenient days (the famous Raj Studio). Before and after pictures are interesting.

Even when Muthu was visiting, there was a saloon a hundred metres away from our house which was owned by one Venkatachalam, fondly known to everyone as Chalam. We became his customers after Muthu’s passing on.

The closed door was Chalam's Saloon. It remains shut though the board from Srinivas' time stays at the 'Society premises'.

Chalam was popular because he was quite skilled in his trade and he knew how to keep the attraction in customers going. It was rare to see barbers speaking English in those days. Chalam was fairly well versed in it having been educated at Maharaja’s high school and was my father’s classmate. My father used to narrate an incident with great fondness involving Chalam during their school days (1930s). There was a code wherein students had to wear a cap and their caste’s mark on the forehead. A teacher (they were orthodox) used to notice this Chalam boy without any mark and used to question him. Chalam used to mention a humourously Sanskritized name for his caste, which the teacher understood and did not give any punishment for that. I forget that particular word.

There used to be long queue in his saloon and the waiting bench used to be always full with people reading old papers (latest was not available with him!) and getting entertained by Chalam’s funny dialogues, jokes and gossip with good mix of English words in his Kannada. This made the long waiting appear short! Often he used to have a puff or two from the beedi while he coughed close to the customer’s ears while snipping hairs! Almost all his sentences would be broken by this single-paroxysm-cough.

His simple saloon was decorated with pictures of heroes of that period and a barber’s sample for display with various hairstyles. The 1950s had a particular fashion in which some odd greenish blue tinge was given to the scalp from temple to temple around the head using sheer skill of the barber which was a secret, or so it seemed to us. He used to threaten us with “Shall I give colour like that?” showing that outdated sample picture when we demanded him the style that we needed. He rarely did that and went by his own.

Album picture from the early 1950s. See the boys' crops! Also in this rare picture is the Mysore Princess and Prince. The kid Prince Srikanta is yet to get his first haircut.

Children were invariably made to wait longer by calling the elder customers ahead of the queue on to ‘the throne’ often much to our displeasure. Children were made to sit on a plank placed on the throne’s arm rests so that our heads would reach a suitable height for his job. Looking at ourselves in the mirror at this elevated place was a joy as we could get a good 3D view of our own head! We did not have this privilege with Muthu or anywhere for that matter! I cannot remember how much Muthu was paid but I vaguely remember carrying two rupees when I began to go alone to Chalam. When younger, either I went with father or sometimes mother or aunt. They waited outside to take me back.

The 70s saw a revolution in hairstyles. Neatly trimmed hairdo was considered clean and tidy. Hippies’ style had been noticed in the print media and was tagged as ‘dirty’. But movie hero Amitabh Bachchan began sporting a clumsy style that covered the ears. It became a great hit with the younger public. Barbers began to give this ‘step cut’ and whoever did this well became popular and Chalam was one. It seemed to go well with the equally weird ‘bell-bottom trousers’ which also made its brief appearance in that decade!

AB and his looks!

Oldies had no style – it was barber’s wish. For others there was a ‘short cut’, ‘medium cut’, ‘machine cut’, a ‘crewcut’ or ‘military cut’ - it appeared as if a thread was tied around the head and all below that line was ‘mowed down’ with a machine leaving the top alone! The ‘military cut’ got a good tease among the boys.

Picture from the Net. Crew Cut.

During the mid 70s, another saloon came up equal distance to Chalam’s, from our house on the other side. That was the place where my uncle had a small book library for a few months before he fell sick and died in 1967. Now we tried to avoid Chalam because of his methods and try the hand of this new barber. He was okay, but we reached a stage when we felt Chalam was the better option after a couple of years and so we went back and offered our heads to him. We began tolerating his methods! We realized that a known devil was better than the unknown devil!!

Chalam’s young son Srinivas (by now the saloon’s name was “Slim and Trim”) was getting to learn the skill in the other chair and often we children were his scapegoats in his learning curve. During adolescence, when we were much conscious about the styling even though mine was a simple one, I was particular on immaculacy but I soon ‘certified’ Srinivas! It was Srinivas to whom I offered my head thereafter.

Chalam died in 1979 after a brief illness leaving a void which Srinivas found it hard to fill. Chalam was a real character! In fact it was he who had come home for the ‘hair cut ritual’ during my ‘thread ceremony’ in 1970. I think he was an alcoholic besides perhaps suffering from some respiratory problem which is why he had that typical ‘Chalam cough’. I heard some customers waiting on the bench rumouring that it could be the small pieces of hair flying about that created his problem. But I do not know. I informed the news of Chalam’s passing on to my father who was recovering in hospital in 1979.

Srinivas continued the good work on my head and he was the one who announced ‘it was thinning on top’ and I could also see more and more salt over the years accumulating on the sheet that he used as my shirt cover as he cut! It was not a worry as I felt it was happening naturally. It was still a joy to see those cut pieces fall in front of me. Srinivas was fond of gossip rather than humour. Barbers always knew all the happenings in families of that area through such saloon-gossip.

When we sat on ‘the throne’, he would fold our shirt collar inside and put a cloth cover sheet to prevent hair from sticking to our dress and then start the work. The most irritating thing was to wear the same shirt or vest the next time after it is washed. Those little pieces of hair somehow entered through the collar near the neck and get stuck, pricking the skin around the neck and back.

Srinivas later used a hair dryer to impress on new customers. To us, he avoided it! Towards the end, he had been gifted by an old customer who visited from the USA with an electric machine which eased his job considerably and the cut was neater too.

There was a leather belt hung in a corner which was meant to sharpen his knife. Nowadays, the knives come in such a way that ordinary shaving blades can be slid in to its groove and used. Chalam used alum when he accidentally cut skin. A huge crystal of it always lay on the table.

Once I shared a joke at the right place at the wrong time. A young boy had been brought by his mother. I saw a dog in front of the saloon. The joke: The dog waits there to eat up the ear that falls down when the barber accidentally cuts it! The innocent boy believed it when he saw that dog and started crying to the extent that he had to be taken home, status quo. Srinivas later scolded me for this loss of a customer!

Just a few years ago, I heard the sad news of Srinivas too passing off suddenly. He had become an alcoholic. Now, this created a great problem in finding a new barber. We are always skeptical to offer our heads to new ones. A former colleague showed me one and till date I’ve certified this Shivanna too. It’s a simple saloon where I have to pay Rupees twentyfive at this juncture (=half U$D). My great grandfather paid two eight annas 110 years ago.

In his diary my great grandfather accounts for eight annas for the barber. It has to be for more than one head. Eight annas was half a rupee. May be for 2-3 as it was a joint family with many people in it.

Parlour is the fancy word these days. This is where I've been going nowadays. Also enlarge the picture and look at the English spelling on the wall below the big letters! Also note the two plants there. Many barbers plant this variety in front of their shops. I know not why, but they put all the water they use for shave at the base of those plants! My guess is, they plant them to catch the attention just like tyre vulcanizers pile up tyres beside the roads.

Srinivas’ younger brother Lakshman who was doing the sweeping of the cut hair from the floor when he was young and going to school had slowly learnt the trade as he grew up. Sometimes he would cut my hair in his learning process too. He now has his own saloon running successfully two miles away, for some years. But the newfound one is a lot closer to home. Some of old Chalam’s clients are going to Lakshman.

‘Slim and Trim’ disappeared from the ‘Society premises’ in Chamarajapuram. Those days will never return, but the cut hairs do. Hairstyling keeps on changing and the barbers will be abreast with them. But I’ve stuck on the vintage cut, even as barbers have begun to rechristen themselves as hairstylists and saloons as parlours! They will be there as long as mankind!


Some snippets:

I played the role of the home barber to my daughters when they were young and did the job much to their satisfaction and comfort!

If a friend or kin pushes our head for fun or to tease we wont tolerate. But when the barber does it roughly to adjust his cutting angle comfort, we enjoy and cooperate!

Some pictures taken by me in different cities:

No overheads, no taxes. Pavement barber near New Delhi Railway Station entertaining a customer.

This was at Chandigarh near a shopping block. While we were having tea from a vendor next to him, we also saw a customer in a car stopping by and getting a shave on his way!

This is at Haridwar. Observe the chair and its fittings - you will notice ingenuity!

Finally, Engelberg, Switzerland! Not a saloon, parlour or hairdresser.... but simple "Hair Shop"!

Finally, I would like to link a blogpost by Sri MPV Shenoy, who has written a beautiful piece.  
Read it here. [click]


1 comment:

Ajay Babu said...

Excellent! I used to hear about barbers of past from my grandfather in village. He used to say that his village had only one barber and ಅವನು ಕೆರೆದ ಹಾಗೆ ನಾವು ಕೆರೆಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳಬೇಕು! And also that barbers were the best messengers and informers as they visited almost every house. From my birth, I have always stayed in this Mysore city itself. I have seen only the hair salons, and never these kind of barbers. I got my first haircut (excluding the first mudi) probably just before joining school and the cost then was 2 rupees. Now I see parlours which charge up to 500 rupees to do all non-sense. Frankly, I hate going to salon!!