Thursday, November 10, 2011

Haircut Over the years

I had made a reference to "Haircut" in "Haircuts and Stock Markets", the reference being in the context of Banking and Financial Markets.  There was also a reference to "Haircut" in "Of Pure Haircuts and Cutters",  which was purely in haircut context.  Of course, the story of "Baalwale Baba" was not due to haircut and rather a result of lack it.  Thinking in these backgrounds, the evolution of "Haircut" and "Hair Dressing Saloons"  makes a journey "Down Hairy Lane".  More so because the hairline has gone down substantially for many of us over the years.

My earliest memories of haircut dates back to the villages in late fifties.  There was no fixed place for the hair-cutters and they were actually one-man moving saloons.  The word "Saloon" actually means a place where alcoholic drinks are sold and drunk or a place of public entertainment.  It also means a large Public Room, used for a specific purpose like even a dancing saloon.  All Western movies invariably have a saloon scene, and if we consider the number of shooting that take place in these scenes, a saloon should also mean a public place for shooting and killing people!   Remember all the scenes from the films of such legends as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Lee Van Cleef, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Yul Brynner and many others.  There are also scenes in which the Hero finds the intruder in the small mirror and shoots him down before we bat an eyelid.  But in the part of the world where I grew up, Saloon generally meant a hair cutting saloon only.  In my younger days I have seen these hair-cutters (barber was the generally used word) moving in the village streets in the morning with a bag containing their weapons, like knife and scissors with an aluminum pot or cup for keeping water etc., and hoping that some one will call them for a haircut or shaving so that they can earn their daily bread.  Life would never go on without them, but the society did not treat them properly.  But for their service to the society, there would have been many "Baalwale Baba" around us.  However, they made a very difficult living in those days and were never recognised as Artisans or Service providers like today when you have to meet them with appointments.  Their bag, usually a tin box or a leather bag, was their trade kit and whenever somebody calls them, they would sit on the stone bench or yard outside the house and open their kit displaying their wares.  They usually had either a leather belt or stone piece for instant sharpening of the knives.  Despite this he would be blamed either way, when the knife is sharp or not sharp enough.  If the knife was very sharp and inflicted small wounds, then he was not careful in his work.  If the knife was not sharp enough, then  for not caring for his implements of trade. Most people used their own piece of cloth, usually part of an old Dhoti or Lungi to cover themselves during the hair-cutting.  Shaving rounds had just come into use, a small round object with soap in it and a brush to generate lather to aid smoother shaving or cutting.  This was probably a gift from the British sahibs. The kit was called "Hadapa" in the local language.  Even today, whenever somebody opens his bag or briefcase and displays his wares or possessions, village elders use the expression "Oh, he has opened his Hadapa".  Hair cutting was usually followed by nail cutting or trimming.  The payment for their services was made mostly in the form of some grains and vegetables etc., as neither the served nor server had enough supply of coins with them.  As there was no prescribed fee which could be measured, the payment actually depended on the generosity of the giver and the persuasive capacity of the receiver.

There were certain days of the week or month considered as auspicious for hair-cutting and some other days considered as inauspicious.  The activity itself has a wonderful name - " आयुष्कर्म"  meaning  "An activity for increasing life span" and getting it done on an auspicious day was considered to result in longer life and one done on an inauspicious day was considered to reduce the life span.  What happens if it is unfortunately got done on an inauspicious day?  There is an easy remedy for this - getting it done again  immediately on the next available auspicious day!  Tuesdays were generally banned for such activity.  Even today many hair-cutting saloons have Tuesday as a weekly holiday for this reason.  It makes eminently good sense to have a holiday on a day when the business would be next to nothing.  Many people did not get it done on Fridays and New Moon Days or Full Moon Days.  It was not even to be thought of on days of Eclipse and on festival days.  People would even consult the local Astrologer or Priest for finding a suitable day for hair-cutting.  The barbers themselves kept a track of the auspicious day as they looked forward to them with great hope for prospects of good business.

The fixed place of business first apparently started in village fairs.  A group of villages had a fixed day of the week for the fair in their villages.  Between them, there would be a fair on almost all days of the week in their surroundings, thereby enabling the merchants to move from place to place and being busy throughout the week.  Each village had a specialty for the fair; some were well known for fruits and vegetables, some for sheep and fish, some for food grains etc, though there was no hard and fast rule for the items to be displayed and sold in such fairs.  The hair-cutters also used to move from village to village and sit in a regular place, usually below one of the trees for providing shade. This provided a place for the villagers to find the barber and there used to be brisk business for him throughout the day.  I have also seen fights among barbers when a regular place for one was occupied by another in such fairs.  The more enterprising ones and those tired of moving from village to village every day started hiring a small shop premises in bigger villages and towns and started the regular saloons.  The high legged chairs replaced the stone benches and razor blades took the place of long razors, though many still used the long razors for economic reasons.  Over a period of time they started using talcum powder at the end of the customer's session and aftershave lotions made their debut much later.  Certain types of plants were kept in earthen pots in front of the saloon and the place could be identified from the bend in the street itself by looking at these plants.  It is a sign of changing times that such plants like cactus, which were a trademark of hairdressing saloons, have now started adorning the living rooms of the affluent!  In due course of time other additions like Dyeing of hair, Head and back massaging have been added as value additions for visiting a saloon.

I remember going for a haircut once in two or three months to a saloon, walking all the way holding my father's finger and he always had some story to tell me on the way.  Walking with him was never dull and was always like moving with a library.  The barber would place a wooden plank on the hands of the chair for small boys like me to ensure that he could reach for the head without bending.  In the initial days my father had to hold me, especially when the knife was used so that jerks may not lead to injury.  Afterwards plank used to be there, but holding firm was not needed.  When we reached Middle School, we graduated from the plank to the main chair, thus marking a milestone in our growth.  My younger brother and myself were to go with my father on alternate trips.  Father and Son could have haircut on the same day, but not two brothers.  Brothers had hair-cutting  together only on two days in their life - on the funeral day of their mother and father.  After reaching the age of about 12 years, we were visiting the place alone carrying the prescribed fee safely in our pockets.  The saloons generally used to keep some newspapers and magazines for the customers to read before their turn came.  Some of them used to be even two weeks old and many pages missing.  The magazines I remember were "Janapragati" and  "Filmfare"weekly and "Chandamama" and "Kasturi" monthly.  In fact, reading these magazines while waiting for the turn at the chair developed the habit of reading magazines and books in me.

The persons manning these saloons were very talkative and always had something to discuss with their customers.  Some of them were remarkably well informed about the current affairs as well as epics and literature.  The topic they used to choose for discussion depended on their own knowledge and understanding of the customer.  It used to be Cinema or Agriculture for the general customers and more specific topics like Music and Epics for the more educated.  Some of the interesting topics discussed which I can recollect include the criminal case of the famed musician M K Thyagaraja Bhagavatar in Lakshmikantan murder case of 1944 and Belur Srinivasa Iyengar, who was murdered in 1956.  They were well informed about music and were also playing "Naadaswaram", a pipe instrument in functions like marriage etc.  They usually were addicted to drinking and those who did not have this habit made a decent living from their earnings.  They were also respected for their talents in music and one hairdresser I knew in my childhood was refered as Dr. Narasimhaiah in our household.  He was able to talk at length on Saints Purandaradasa and Thyagaraja and quote their compositions with raaga and taala etc.  The honorary doctorate was conferred on him by us, not any University, for his knowledge and the range of topics on which he could indulge in a discussion.  His brother Nagaraj suffered in comparison and was only given an honorary MA degree, due to his lack of knowledge in some areas. 

Today's Saloons have come a long way from those days.  Pictures of different hairstyles on the walls have been replaced by costly paintings.  Old magazines are replaced by fresh supply of dailies in many languages and chic magazines.  Bonsai plants have entered the cutting hall and cactus pots which exited from the outside itself.  Air-conditioning and revolving chairs are the norm now.  Running hot and cold water taps with large washing basins have replaced aluminum cups. The dressers talk less as they are busy watching cricket or football  matches or films in expensive colour TVS. Some of them offer Coffee or Tea as soon as you enter their premises.  They are also ready to get breakfast or lunch if you indicate.  Computer images have replaced printed catalogue of hair styles.  Some of them entertain you only with appointment.  Value added service like Sauna bath and body massaging services are thrown in.  Fresh towels and blades are provided for each customer to aid prevention of AIDS.  Today, there are Saloons ranging from providing basic and pure haircut to catering to luxurious hair styles and life style to those who are interested and capable of affording them.


  1. Also these saloons had radio in morning which broadcast radip Ceylone in which popular song of those days "brindavanadolNandakumaran>>>" used to come.Also later days they used to keep some pepperments for customers to have taste while waiting.Some dignified people were making sure they just read paper an dont touch the peperment

  2. How true it is that we have picked up our reading habits from those barber shops!!! I used to enjoy my hair-cut sessions for the sprinkling of water at the end!