Delving into his memories, Samarth remembers his summers in endless innings of cricket, litres of cold lime juice, the romance of raw mangoes, chilli and salt and the proverbial ‘summer cut.’ As a five-year-old, clutching a 10 rupee note, he would make his way to Gemini Hairdressers down the street and wait for his turn to sit on the ‘magical’ chair from where he could see many Samarths looking back at him. Unable to reach the top of the chair, he would be propped on a stool placed on the seat before the spray hit him and a cloth was draped around his neck. Then, the barber set to work and there was literally no looking back from there.
It were these trips to the neighbourhood saloon that proved to be his initiation into the worlds of politics, music and what happens across the neighbour’s fence. The insightful lessons were doled out over the sounds of scissors at work, a blaring radio and the whirring of rusty fans. And the teacher, armed with a scissor, a comb and wisdom of the streets, came to life in the friendly hairdresser, in a classroom plastered with posters of Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan, Ambareesh, Anant Nag and several buxom beauties.
For generations, the unassuming barber shop or the saloon has been a hub of activity – customers walk in to tame their beards and control errant locks, many linger with a cutting-chai and discuss what should have made news, a few visit to read the newspaper or listen to the radio for free and some come just to let their hair down. And the good-natured hairdresser entertains one and all, with shutters open from dawn till the last bus leaves town.
Septuagenarian hairdresser, M N Murthy, has been opening the doors of Mayura Hairdressers in Someshwanagara, every day since 1967. “Those days, a bar of soap cost four annas and a shave five annas. Today, a haircut costs `60 while a shave is priced at `40. There were no electrical appliances then and we had to learn how to manually sharpen our blades on a long belt,” he reminisces.
Today, their ilk, who inherited the trade from their fathers and grandfathers, find their fate hanging by a hair as their children are steering away from the profession. Govindaraju R, a hairdresser for 30 years at Austin Town now, envisions a better future for his children. His son, a BCom student, is also being taught the trade and it is up to him to choose a profession of his choice, Govindaraju says.
The ‘salon and spa’ phenomenon is further eating into their livelihood and the shortage of hands is forcing traditional hairdressers to employ workers from UP, Bihar and the Northeast. Further, the steep hike in cosmetic prices has dealt a severe blow to barbers who cannot increase rates for fear of losing customers.
The state of the Karnataka Savitha Samaja, set up for the welfare of the community, is mirrored in the derelict condition of the trust building at Journalist Colony in JC Road. The Shrama Shakti Scheme introduced by the S M Krishna government in 2004, to protect the interests of occupation-based groups, has neared a standstill.
Murthy an honorary member of the Shantinagar Savitha Samaja, also mentions that the stigma associated with their profession further discourages youngsters from pursuing the family trade. “Even though I am a man who renovated his shop at the cost of ~10 lakhs, people insult me because of my caste. No amount of wailing before God can reverse this curse,” he says. Though the Shantinagar Savitha Samaja has requested the government to grant a vacant plot opposite the Infant Jesus Church in Viveknagar to the trust, it has fallen on deaf ears.
Further, many traditional hairdressers have moved to more lucrative jobs in salons and spas but nothing can replace the sense of independence that comes with managing your own business, says Sabapathi, who runs Galaxy Men’s Beauty Saloon in Ejipura. “Many go to salons and enrol in styling courses that cost about `60,000 for six months and upwards for a year. They are taught English and how to deal with a customer but end up doing just one kind of job – either cutting or styling or facial and have to heed the owners,” he explains.
However, saloons are not ones to be left behind and if the swanky interiors, English publications that have displaced regional ones, high-end cosmetics, TV sets, false ceiling décor and specialised styling services are anything to go by, the unassuming neighbourhood hairdresser is definitely taking up arms to shave off competition.