Of salons and parlours
By: K S S Pillai
In the past, the barber was an important member of society all over the world. A barber’s razor has been found in Egypt among the relics of the Bronze Age (3500 BC). Barbers were known as barber surgeons. They not only cut hair or beard, but also performed surgeries like extracting teeth and blood-letting.
When I was of school-going age, my father used to have his hair cut and face shaved by the village barber, who visited each house at regular intervals. The younger generation, however, went to the barbershop in the marketplace. The waiting customers would spend their time reading the newspaper and discussing different events. There were also a couple of weeklies and many of their back copies. On the wall, there were framed photographs of famous cine actors with different hairstyles, one of which may be selected by the customer. At the end of the session, the barber gave an invigorating head massage.
Whenever someone in the family died, the barber was sent to the relatives to deliver the news. Digging the earth for the burial of the body was the right of the barber. He was not paid in cash but in kind after the harvest of paddy. During festivals and on special family occasions, he was given new clothes.
Hairstyles used to change in the past also. Recently, I came across photographs of my college mates wearing bell-bottom trousers and donning a particular kind of hairstyle. The ‘military’ hairstyle of cutting one’s hair short has always been there. Schools insist on their students adhering to a particular hairstyle. Most parents still keep their children’s hair short during the summer months. The latest trend seems to be one where a lot of hair is left on the top of the head and keeping almost no hair below.
My barber, who had once worked in Mumbai, prominently displays his photographs with Hindi film actors. His shop is air conditioned with revolving chairs for customers. A colour television is kept on for the benefit of the customers.
Women having haircuts was unimaginable in the past. They took pride in their long black hair, and poets wrote about their beautiful hair. Through advertisements, producers of hair oils claimed that the hair was the result of the use of their products. Then came the unisex appearance, where girls and women in trousers and shirts got their hair cut like their male counterparts.
Salons and beauty parlours serving both males and females have now taken the place of barbershops. In addition to hair-cutting, they offer different beauty treatments and are regularly visited by beauty-conscious people.
As most males now keep a moustache that reaches out to the beard covering their chin, barbers are having a field day. As its maintenance is time-consuming, I think they must be getting the service of their barbers.
I have been seeing some people always wearing a cap to hide their bare scalps. Those with bald head and a bushy beard often shave off the few strands of hair on their head, highlighting their beard. Since the cases of grey hair among youngsters are increasing, barbers get additional work dyeing their hair. The truth later comes out when the hair starts growing again, with the fresh growth at the root in grey and the dyed upper part in black. Though hair dyes are available in the market, dyeing one’s hair is a time-consuming affair, and many leave the task to their barbers. Those with fast-thinning scalps can have different hair tonics in the market. Surgeons who transplant hair have also come up in the market.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, barbers were considered super spreaders and were asked to keep their shops shut. Their only income came from house visits that were very few. Though the pandemic has lost its steam, some people who had become their barbers after buying scissors online are continuing the practice and even giving haircuts to other family members.
The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to ‘The Kashmir Vision’, his articles and short stories have appeared in various national and international publications.
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