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culture series...

A brief note on the Mangali /Nayee Brahmin
(Barber / Hairdresser) communities of Andhra Pradesh

by v ramchandra rao


Indian barbers and barbershops

During most of the year India can be pretty hot and dusty. Thats why perhaps cleanliness is some sort of obsession, and you see people sweeping and dusting and taking baths all the time. Even very poor people try their best to look neat and tidy, with frequent trips to the barber. The institution of barber is a very old one in India. Usually barbers belong to a hereditary caste or clan, variously called Mangali, Vostaad, Hajjam, Nayee, or Nayi-brahmin. They point out, since they take part in "purifying and cleaning" for everybody, they can jolly well call themselves Brahmin. (they are highly brahmanoid anyway ;-)

Apart from their barbering they have a few special functions in India. The earliest surgeons, like the ones tending to battlefield injuries, were barbers because of their expertise in handling the razor. Archeologists have found well designed copper-bronze razors in Indus valley excavations. In ancient India, barbers were traditionally used as messengers and go-betweens in delicate matters. Even today, for instance opening the discussion of an arranged marriage alliance to the father of a prospective groom and bride, barbers are the preferred go-betweens. Court barbers with direct access to the kings and ministers were obviously men of influence. (for that matter the ones of today, who service political leaders too). In fact the founder of the immense Nanda Empire (pre-mauryan) started life as a humble barber.

Looking at old Indian sculptures we notice most of the menfolk were clean shaven, except wandering wise men, and even the ones with beards got them shaped by razors. The buddhist monks had a shaved head, and the various hindu sect priests also shaved most of their heads but kept a pigtail. However, sikhs are forbidden to cut their hair.

A barber was usually attached to a village, and was paid every harvest in sacks of grain, granted some land which he could till, a place to stay and obtained some tips. In turn he had to look after the hair of everybody in the village. In some villages hairy species of water buffalo too needed regular skin shaves.

Village barbers moved around, bringing along their kit as they move from village house to house. Gradually barbers set up shop under a convenient shady tree or crossroads or markets. In small villages today, a ramshackle wooden shed serves as a barbershop. There is usually a big mirror, an ancient wooden chair with an adjustable neck rest for shaving, and ---this I don't know why-- a frayed and worn shiny rexine (PVC) cushion, invariably a deep red colour with coir curls coyly peeping out at the corners. The red colour with yellow piping seems to be mandatory, in fact and I have seen this in several parts of India.

In larger towns. one has "Hair Cutting Saloons" which are little shops with a glass front ( note: very few traditional Indian shops have glass fronts), etched with the name of the owner and, (again I dont know why) stylized pictures of slim, beaky girls. And a large mandatory "Welcome".
The owner is usually a senior barber, and employs other barbers and trainee-apprentices. There are really no schools for old style barbers, merely look and learn. Since the last few decades, every Indian barbershop sports chairs which look like a cross between some hindi film throne and dentist chair and hospital wheelchair (minus the wheels). I once met a man who cast these chairs. He claimed the design was original, or at least modified heavily.

Musical talent

For some reason, in some parts of India barbers double as musicians. They are very musically inclined.
In villages they play the shehnai or nadasvaram and drums, but in cities they are the main musicians of brass bands. Why this should be so I really dont know: maybe they are free the whole day after the main shaving is over in the early morning. Whatever the reason may be, it is common to hear them practice in their rooms behind the barber shop. But the people I spoke to say anyone can join the brass bands not just from barber community.

Tools of their trade today
Combs, brushes and scissors, straight bladed with large circular finger holes. They have discontinued using the folding cutthroat razor, which used to give the smoothest shave of all. They now use disposable razors, or a razor blade fixed in a handle. They said it was due to possibility of aids being spread by nicks if the same blade was used. Powder puff and bowls. Manual hair clipper ( called maseen, mishnn, or masheen --i.e. machine) of various sizes of teeth. Sometimes, a hair dryer. Some shops have rotating hair brushes which pick off loose hair ( if not careful it can take off your scalp as well) . Most people in India dont go in much for manicures and pedicures: they prefer to do it themselves.
Cheap talcum powder for dusting before using the razor on the back of the neck. Shampoos. Soaps. Alum (for cauterising nicks). Perfumed talcum powder. "lotions" in some shops. Hair dye. Bleach too, in towns.
Almost mandatory furniture-- Laminate (sunmica formica etc) tables and drawers and a low long table set next to the wall serving as row chair. Some wooden stools, again with a laminate surface. Mirrors along two facing walls set at a slight angle to the vertical so that you can see the back of your head. It also gives the illusion of space.
A monochrome TV or at least cassette recorder running full blast. The older and well established shops still play AM radio. Older readers may remember barbershop's vividh bharati with its noisy advertisements and ting tong sounds. The newer ones play local FM. Some newspapers ,preferably the popular city newspaper. And most important, glossy film magazines, the older and well thumbed the better.

Costs: Vary across the country, higher in cities and depending on locality and services. Small tips are gratefully acknowledged but not customary really. Usually cities have barber unions who specify rates for services and this poster is prominently displayed somewhere. The Barbers Associations are basically a vehicle for caste based politicians of different political parties. Now the main aim of the associations as a whole is to somehow get the barber caste to be proclaimed as a "scheduled caste" that is to claim they were "untouchables" in the bad old days. Why? so that they can get benefits today by affirmative action programs. But this is unlikely to succeed since the other communities simply laugh and say good try, but forget about it. For now the barbers have settled for being termed as a "backward" community. ( Explanation of backward and forward community: Backward not IQ wise or stupid, but meaning needing special government assistance like cheap loans , etc to become socially on par with the --you guessed it--- forward. Actually this entire backward-forward-sideways-downwards-upwards business is quite complicated ------- and in fact is a vast social con trick. The majority of the members of these castes dont really get any benefit. The savvy smart members of all these "backward" communities grab some educational opportunites, but thats about all.) Nowadays of course the educated barber community individuals take up other avenues in government service, other jobs in large industry, etc. But there are not too many in business other than hairdressing -related or supplies. In the specific hairdressing field, apart from setting up a successful shop, many young barbers aspire to join some central govt establishments like the army, etc where they get other benefits besides a regular salary. The more ambiitious ones try for a job in shipping, or in the Gulf. I dont think anyone has tried further afield in this field. . There are institutes which teach modern hairdressing but are found only in the big cities: the hairdressers from here can expect well paying jobs in large hotel barbershops and women's beauty parlours. There are a few men's parlours too. Curiously in some areas village barbers also give medicinal scalp and body massages, and those suffering from arthritis say they are beneficial.

There are several sub-communities among barbers, usually regional in origin. These subcastes are found in many states. As an example, in Andhra Pradesh there are two main barber communities called Konda and Sri. They'd rather not intermarry, while they are on very good terms with one another. The origin seems to be connected to temple employment---pilgrims get their scalps shaved for blessings or boons they think they received, and offer their 'vanity' in thanks, like catholics lighting candles for grace and muslims offering blanket coverings for prayers answered-----the temple barbers are often a harried lot with hundreds demanding get on with it, impatiently. (The tons of hair collected in big shrines is big business by the way. More later). After the working hours they seem to have taken to musical services of large shrines. I've myself heard humble barbers in small village processions play Indian classical music of staggeringly high quality. One explained simply they 'practiced a lot'.


Addition: some friends pointed out I missed half the population! OK.
Earlier the barbershop used to be a male bastion: the only women were the moms and aunties holding their struggling kids as the barber patiently cut off the hair. In recent times some girls with short hairdos have dropped in for a quick haircut and trim, say barbers.

Taken as a whole, few city girls generally go to beauty parlours: those that do, not so much for a hairdo as for a facial bleach. (everyone wants to look fair, at least wheat coloured ;--). Younger girls increasingly get their hair trimmed and use modern skin and hair care products. Village girls usually let their hair grow thick and long --loo-o-ng--- and sometimes it reaches their knees. They use vegetable oils like coconut oil for the hair, fullers earth, sandalwood paste and turmeric paste for the skin. According to some barbers, lately there's been a turning away in cities from chemical products and revived interest in natural products. (But some say the packaged products also are generally not 100% organic or herbal, the bulk being synthetic. Only those ready to make their own stuff from the locally still available (in India) raw materials like pods and dried leaves can to use get real organic products.)

yadamma, woman barber in Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh. She's  successfully stormed a male bastion in conservative IndiaNews: Woman breaches male bastion:--
In rural areas generally only men are barbers: but Ms Yadamma, 35, a woman in a village in Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh, took up her fathers trade when he passed away suddenly. In spite of initial resistance, she's managed to persuade her dad's customers to get a shave and haircut by her. Now she's part of a self help 'Chaitanya group', and plans to expand the business. (--source: Andhra Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Project, Hyderabad.)

More women follow: Tirupati temple where hundreds of pilgrims offer their scalp hair as thanksgiving, now has several women barbers.

Addition from V S Raju, Hyderabad Andhra Pradesh :
"Our family has always been in this line. We have three barbershops now. It fluctuates with fashions, long hair was bad time for us. Now its OK. People bring pics of their favorite film stars and say I want to look exactly like that. Well, we dont giggle, but try our best. But sometimes they insist and are unreasonable when we say not possible, you head shape and hair pattern are quite different. What to do. Customer is always right.

Hyderabad and Bangalore trained barbers have a good name and work hard. There are several barbers from Telangana who have done well in Bombay. Our girls still do not really venture into barbering, really. But I think it will change since the number of women with trimmed hair especially teenagers, is increasing. Forget the cyber stories. Our people are not so advanced, mostly schoolgirls are seen : most lady customers are more comfortable with lady hairdressers. But it needs special training and experience to do properly. A certificate course at least. The AP govt has announced a diploma course in hairdressing at Maredpally. I'm thinking of sending my son. See, he can get the experience at my shop, but systematic training is a great help. Maybe he can go abroad as a qualified hairdresser. Maybe america, like these computer people... whenever they come on holiday they remember me and get a haircut here only, I've seen them grow from schoolkids.

Younger city barbers are shifting away from learning music, even if they have a family tradition. Now some are doing side business, particularly if their shop has a phone. Cellphones too. Mainly real estate plot business. Several who live in developing suburbs have done well in selling plots of land."

Addition: Several friends insisted that the grand old leader of Tamil nadu, Kal. Karunanidhi (present Chief Minister) traces his personal ancestry way back to barber community from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. Is this true?

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