Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Hemantha Kalam - 48 'Cutting Evolution'

A quick video clip, posted by dear Maya today morning on WhatsApp triggered my thoughts on the subject. The video had a south Indian humorist, known for his stand up comedy that somehow manages to keep the audience in splits as well as in titters. And the subject is on hair cutting for men in India. https://youtu.be/dblzRmPYSew

After having watched the 4.40 minutes video, I went on a nostalgic journey remembering my own experiences in this regard.

I remember that my father took me a couple of times to the ‘hair cutting saloon’ which was a couple of streets away from our house, then in T. Nagar in Chennai. Once he was sure that I would remember the way to go on my own to the shop and return home safely, I was asked to go to the barber on my own, thenceforth.

I don’t remember well, but when I was about seven or eight years of age, I had to go to the barber shop on my own for the first time and the first visit to the barber shop is vividly etched onto my memory. The shop, on Habibullah road, T. Nagar, Chennai, was on a raised foundation and one needed to climb some four steps to go into the shop through swinging doors that were fashioned like those one sees at the entrance of the saloons in the wild-western comics and movies.


There were three barbers at work, on three chairs, two patrons with grown hair waiting in the chairs. The barbers were wearing clean white dhoti and shirts made of ‘Mull’ cloth with ashes on their foreheads. As was vogue in those days (now loud TVs have replaced the music) the radio was playing some music rendered by a carnatic vocalist with his singing. It is to be noted that the traditional barbers from the south Indian states were either musicians themselves of some quotient of talent, or, at the least, were music rasikas (lovers). I was nervous and I didn’t like the singing any. To this day, my interest in carnatic vocal music is lesser said than better.

The chief (maybe the proprietor), who also was working, smiled at me and showed me to a seat to sit and wait for my turn. I was observing the people getting their job done and also those who were waiting. After about half an hour my turn came. As I was short and a runt of a boy, the barber put a solid wooden plank across the arms of a barber chair and made me sit on the plank for height adjustment and his convenience of work.

Then he started working and after completing he applied some talcum powder, without any smell, on my face and around my neck. Interestingly I note that even today, only in these barber shops does one come across of brands of cosmetics which other-wise are unheard of and whose quality is unchecked. It is but a matter of serendipity that I later worked in a company which manufactured the famous shaving rounds, shaving creams and hair-dyes that were used by the barbers in the hair cutting saloons. In fact, those days many of the barbers were not using the elite shaving creams of our company because they were very good but considered pricey. Today many of the new era hair stylists try to sell you such cosmetics needed or not needed by you.

The visits to this shop were only for a year or so. Later we changed our home from the rental premises in T. Nagar, as my parents constructed our own small house on the outskirts of the city which hardly had other houses, leave alone a barber shop. But then, one Sunday morning, a barber appeared at our door and offered services at our home itself.

Relieved, my father immediately engaged him as our house-barber, for a few rupees (less than five) per month. I was immediately made to remove all my clothes and wear a loin-cloth, sit under a tree (we were bestowed with eight coconut trees in our plot of land) and get the job done. Now, why the loin cloth? Here’s a little history on that! Traditional Hindus always considered any portion cut from a body as dead and anything dead was unhygienic, requiring any contact to be completed with a cleansing. Since hair is going to be cut, after the cutting is over, we were supposed to take a full shower, mostly mixed with an oil bath, before re-entering the home. It is because of this that we were also cutting our nails on the same day before taking a bath. So remove the regular clothes which used to be but very few in many households those days.

I still follow this tradition of taking a shower (not wearing the loin-cloth though, I hasten to add) after going to a barber saloon. I don’t know for sure, but I think I am not a loner in this and there must be several who still follow this tradition. Compare this with the modern users who don’t mind going for a hair cut after their lunch or dinner or before a meeting or on the way to college or office. In later days I too did this on a few occasions as was needed due to my work, but now that I can afford the time, I don’t do it anymore.

Coming back to our house barber, he used to hone the knife and the pair of scissors on a whetstone preparing his onslaught on my poor hair. Using shaving knives as razors was more common those days and using disposable blades was unknown. That became more prevalent after the HIV AIDS scare made every one use a new blade. Those who used to shave on their own, at home, were using Bharat (less expensive) or 70 Clock or Panama branded blades. Panama was slightly expensive. Topaz entered the market much later and the 'Wilkinson Sword' was introduced around early 1990s. As my father was working for the son of a top most government official, he used to be gifted with regular supply of Wilkinson Sword blades even in the late 1960s. Till his death last year, my father had always used that brand of blade and I inherited the practice from him, though I rarely shave.

Now this is the problem with me. Like the main river parts into distributaries / tributaries, I keep digressing. Our house-barber used to have a small shake of hand or should I call it a mild tremor? And every time he used to bring the knife onto my neck I used to wonder whether I will have to go to school the next day with a bandage around my neck. Inevitably he used to leave at least a couple of nicks on the head which used to tingle with a bit of burning. Most of the hair cutting used to be just for shortening the hair devoid of any styles or fashion. Mushroom cuts, spikes and gels were unheard about. Hair cutting ‘ceremonies’, mostly took place on Sunday mornings. So it used to be like ‘Sunday morning up with the lark, to get into the barber’s hands….’

This happened for quite some years. I started growing and I refused to wear the loin-cloth any more as we were now surrounded by more houses, having girls in their homes. Along with the houses, came in a barber shop, where I bumped into Srinivas, who became the universally famous ‘Mandolin Srinivas’. His family used to stay behind the shop and he used to come into the shop and practice his mandolin. The chief there used to follow his music while doing his work and used to tick for any ‘apa swaram’ (wrong/false notes). Over a period of time this shop folded out, giving way to another shop a few yards (now people don’t much use the yardstick of yards but only meters) away. The chief of this new shop was known as Rajendran.

As I started growing, I used to engage the barbers in some conversation or actively participate in an on-going conversation. The conversations could be of any interest and on any subject. This was also the times that the carnatic music was giving way to film music in the saloons. Initially a lot of politics were discussed in the saloons too and I too used to participate. But then one day I saw a victim of one of these conversations in a saloon where he was attacked by another customer of a barber shop with a shaving knife and he was slashed all over. All because they belonged to opposing political parties and the wordy argument led to the violence. He was a bleeding guy walking towards a nearest hospital with slash wounds literally all over the body. After seeing that, I stopped involving in political conversations in public places. Trust anyone would like to spend days with slash wounds. No, not for me Siree!

As I grew up, I started sporting a full beard which had many colours. Brown, red, black and grey (some of us in our family grey at a young age of 22 to 23 years – this is one inheritance we have all been studiously passing on to the next generations) so much so that one day one of my colleagues asked me as to how I manage to dye so many colours on to my beard and so naturally too. What would you like me to answer?

Having heard this refrain often and also because I do remove my beard once every three years so that I can see my new face and so that I do not forget my own natural and uncovered face, I asked Rajendran one day to remove my beard but leave a thick handle bar moustache on. He did this and on seeing his handiwork, he broke into a laugh and bet that I will be back to him for removing, as my mother won’t allow me to have such moustache.


He was right and wrong. My mother didn’t allow me to have that moustache for more than two or three hours and I had to remove it. Only I didn’t go back to Rajendran, but I did it on my own. Why waste a walk and some money? Mind you all, this was much before Kamal Haasan did his ‘Devar Magan’ film.

On one such occasion Rajendran compared me with my young brother and told that unlike me, my brother was always quiet and just used to say ‘shorten the hair’ and kept quiet till the rest of the session. As I was in NCC, which required us to have close cuttings for over three years, I always had short hair – what used to be called as ‘sadara vatta’ (‘Square Circle’ whatever it meant).

After I came out of college and NCC, there was no need for me to crop my hair so close and so once had grown the hair for almost eight months at a stretch. Mind you, it was the season of hippies and hippy type of long, unclean hairstyles was a fashion. However, I didn’t enjoy the long hair much as not only was it irritating and smelling lousy, but also it made me look effeminate! Being a middle-weight lifter, how can I afford to look effeminate? Harrumph!

I used to have straight hair curled in the ends. I used to part the hair from the left and the result was like having a sun shade all around my head. Once I started growing a full beard, to me this hair style didn’t match well and I have started combing my hair straight onto the back without parting, a practice that I am now holding on to over 35 years. I don’t need a mirror to comb my hair and the job is done in a jiffy! But, I found that I could not trim my beard on my own and have to necessarily depend on a barber shop. For a long time I was visiting a shop where the owner became old and started employing a couple of others to do the work whereas he himself used to manage the till.

One day I went into the shop to see all the chairs occupied. Calculating per chair, per customer time, I felt it will take about 30 minutes to get my turn. So I told them to hold my queue and went out to a nearby shop. I returned within the 30 minutes but found that they had seated someone who came later than I did; jumping the queue. I didn’t like it and shunned the shop for a few years and used to drive out to a far away shop wasting time and fuel.

I was wondering on the alternatives when a guy started what he called ‘Style foyer’ or something like that in the next street. This had all the modern trappings and the only barber in the shop, the owner, called himself a director. Now this ‘director’ instead of cutting my hair, started plucking my hair one by one, as was apparently taught to him in the modern hair dressing, hair styling schools. I had to fix appointments with him and pay a higher fee too. On one side I was losing more time, could not choose when to lose that time on my own and had to pay more too. And the worst factor is, I was leaving my DNA foot prints there and had to pay more for it :-). I didn’t like the prospect one bit and was thinking on what to do.

The whole experience made me remember a story told by my father. There is this world famous temple on a mountain where the devotees go and get tonsured. The barbers were on the salary of the temple management and to make an extra buck, they used to demand ‘bribes’. If one gives a bribe, his job would be done with a clean razor, neatly and softly. If not, the barber will cut a patch exactly in the centre of the head like the sea gives way to a path in the ‘Ten Commandments’ film and then disappear. Now the devotee can neither go out with the awkward head nor could find the barber easily. Virtually he is held at ransom by his hair, till the barber returns after a considerable time for re-negotiation!

Meantime, I went abroad and had a different experience of getting cut nay ‘styled’ by women / girls there. It was an experience to write home about as it was the first time I came across unisex barbers or hair stylists. Now that has become a regular feature even in 'conservative' Chennai.


Upon returning to India, one day I met the old barber (who was just managing the till) who inquired why I was not patronising his shop any more over the years. I said that I felt belittled by his staff when they jumped the queue and didn’t feel like coming back again.

He has assured me that I will be treated better henceforth and won’t I come back again? Sure I did, for quicker work, for less time and cost and a real VIP treatment. Things have been going well for so long but now I find that all the chairs in his shop are dilapidated and I am worried of contacting some infection. I told the owner to change the seats soon (or I have to change shop again – this I thought to myself) but he seems to be in the mood to go on as long as he can without changing. Looks like I have to be on the search path again. Hope soon there will be aggregators for barbers / hair stylists too!

My father never went to a barber shop after our house-barber stopped visiting us. He did his job on his own with aplomb. I am thinking whether I should do the same too soon, but then I am not as good as my father in anything and in this thing too. So thinking on ……

My revered friend Senguttuvan says ‘hair today, gone tomorrow, so why so much of discussion on this?’ J

What do you think? Please do let me know.

Till then, 

Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Dhanyosmi (Sanskrit), Thanks (English), Dhonyavaad (Bangla), Dhanyabad (Odhiya and Nepalese), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic and Sudanese), Shukriya (Urdu), Sthoothiy (Sinhalese) Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai), Asante (Kiswahili), Maraming Salamat sa Lahat (Pinoy-Tagalog-Filipino), Tack (Swedish), Fa'afetai (Samoan), Terima Kasih (Bahasa Indonesian) and Tenkyu (Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea), Malo (Tongan), Vinaka Vaka Levu (Fijian)

Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy
Chennai, India