KOCHI: Stepping into a hall of the Pepper House, Fort Kochi, on a recent afternoon was like stepping into a dark cavern. The warm lights were muted; there were thick black drapes on the windows, which were closed. Added to that, there was a heavy silence. It almost felt as if time had stopped inside the room. Artist Pallavi Singh smiled and says, “I wanted to make it look like a museum.” Not surprisingly, her exhibition on barbers is called, ‘Haircut Museum (Under Construction)’.
As she spoke, through a tiny gap in the curtain she saw an elderly man step into the entrance of Pepper House. Her mouth opened ever so slightly. That was Shamsudheen, the oldest barber in the Fort Kochi, Kochangadi, Jew Town and Mattanchery areas of Kochi.
“He looks nervous,” whispered Pallavi, as the silver-haired Shamsudheen, wearing a blue shirt and white dhoti, came forward with hesitating steps. “This must be the first time he is coming for an art exhibition. This community is so far away from art.”When Shamsudheen stepped into the darkened room, he noticed the old barber’s wooden chair. He immediately went and sat on it and looked pensively at the mirror in front. “Shamsudheen is a fourth-generation barber,” says Pallavi. “His son is in another profession. So, after he dies, the shop will close down. He feels sad about it.”
Soon, Shamsudheen got up and went and caressed the combs, trimmers, scissors, shaving brushes, creams, bowls, razors, blades and hair gels which have been placed on the top of square and rectangular boxes. Under each item, Pallavi has pasted the name of the item and the barber who donated it. So, ‘Power Brush’ has been donated by Nawab of the Belleza Gents Beauty Saloon, while ‘Hair Styler – Gatsby’ has been given by Thajudheen, Beauty Care.
At one corner, there were photo albums which traced the lives of these barbers accompanied by several photos. In Ramzan’s life story, he says, ‘This is not my family business. I learned the art of hair cutting for my survival and now it has become my profession.”Pallavi has focussed on the life of nine barbers. But they were not very welcoming in the beginning. “I can’t blame them, because I am from Delhi,” says Pallavi. “And I am a woman. Plus, I could not speak Malayalam.”
But Pallavi went regularly and made small talk through an interpreter. She explained about her two-month long project based on a residency given by the Kochi Biennale. Slowly and steadily, they started opening up. And she heard some interesting stories. One of them was about Shivan Thakur, who was a farmer in Jharkhand.
He works in the Lucky Men’s Parlour in Jew Town. He came to Kochi to meet a distant relative and accidentally met the saloon’s owner Ramzan. “We clicked,” says Shivan. “When Ramzan invited me to join the saloon, I agreed. But it took me a while to learn and understand Malayalam.” While Shivan stays in Kochi his wife and family remain in Jharkhand.
As for Nawaz Yusuf, 45, he runs the Bombay Saloon. He has five brothers. Soon, they split up. Now, there are two more Bombay Saloons in the same area. “But Nawaz had a look of pride when he said that his son is a sailor,” says Pallavi.
As she conversed with the barbers, she realised that all of them loved the profession. “It is a passion,” she says. “They told me that when a customer presents his head to them, they have the responsibility to do the perfect cut. They said that by just looking at a face, they know the type of haircut that will suit the person.”
Nowadays, more and more young barbers have come into the profession in the area. But when Pallavi asked Shamsuddin whether he felt nervous, he said, “Not at all. I have a loyal customer base and they will always remain with me.” Not surprisingly, the new barbers have youngsters as their customers. The Mohawk and the Pompadour styles are the most popular styles. Many of the youngsters have been influenced by the haircuts of international footballers that they see on TV.
And the barbers received a never-ending stream of customers on the night before Id, which took place on June 14. “They worked till 1 am,” says Pallavi. “And they did all sorts of styles. I was surprised at the interest that the youngsters showed in grooming.”
Meanwhile, when asked about the reaction of visitors to her exhibition, Pallavi says, “Many told me it reminded them of their childhood and how their fathers would take them to the local barber. They were able to relate to the scissors and combs. Some said the old radio [which had been placed on a window sill], reminded them of the songs they heard at that time. They would sit on a small stool placed on the seat of the chair and get their hair cut.”It has been an interesting two months for Pallavi. “I got to interact with a community whom I knew nothing at all,” she says. “So, it was an eye-opener.”