Roadside Razors

Amid growing fascination for branded services, the traditional art of hair-cutting lives on in the lanes of Delhi.
“Apply sesame oil to control hair loss”. Trust the roadside salons to treat you with such advice and stories while you get a quick clip and snip. These hair-dressing shops are a far cry from the upmarket unisex salons. The barber’s chair is all wood with no cushion. The place is not air-conditioned; the salon does not have any walls. Rather than passion, compulsion drives these barbers who serve their loyal customers on the sidewalks of dusty streets.

Mohammad Akram has been earning his livelihood as a street barber on a busy street in Jamia Nagar in south Delhi, since he left his home in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, three years ago. He now lives in a shared rented accommodation in Abul Fazal Enclave, an unregularised colony in south Delhi. 

Being the sole earning member in his family, he has to send money every month to his wife and six children in Bijnor. He works hard to survive in the city, to help his family and clear the debts he incurred for getting his eldest daughter married. Life is tough and savings tougher.

Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan
Hairaab has been working as a street barber outside the Jamia Nagar Police Station in Okhla for the past 25 years. His ‘shop’, on a pavement of a busy street, is covered with a blue tarpaulin supported by two bamboo logs. “All my money goes to support my family. I have a wife and a son who are ill. Three of my children have died due to various diseases,” says 43-year-old Hairaab. “My son needs an operation costing 2 lakh rupees. I am saving for it. Other things don’t matter”.

With higher disposable income, upmarket unisex hairdressing salons are cashing in. The Indian hair-care industry is valued at Rs. 12,400 crore with a 33 percent increase over the last year, according to a 2013 report published by Franchise India Holdings Ltd.

Zafar Khan, a software engineer with Tata Consultancy Services, is a regular customer of an upmarket salon in New Friends Colony. “I am much more comfortable in these salons than the regular barber shops. The treatment, the ambience and the staff, everything is up to the mark. I have no problem with the price as long as the service is good,” he says.

Many Indian hair-dressers, such as Jawed Habib and Ambika Pillai, have achieved celebrity status, with a personal haircut by appointment costing anywhere between Rs. 800-1000. But away from all the Jawed Habibs and Ambika Pillais, Vinod manages his livelihood grooming the people from the lower strata of society.

Vinod charges Rs. 30 for a haircut and a shave. “My customers are mostly from the labour class, so the price has to be affordable,” says Vinod, as he trims the lock of a porter working with Delhi Jal Board, Delhi’s water supply administration. A face massage and neck exercise usually comes complimentary with a haircut.

Raj Kishor, an auto-rickshaw driver waits for his turn at Hairaab’s shop. “This place is cheap. Plus, he’s also a friend so I can pass my time here,” says Kishor on why he chooses to wait instead of going to another shop.

Pramod Kumar is a faithful customer of Shankar, a hairdresser near Modi Mill, South Delhi. Kumar works in a factory and finds it cheap and convenient to get his hair trimmed by Shankar. “I earn Rs. 200 per day. If I spend Rs. 30-40 on my grooming, what will I eat then?”

The traditional art of hair-dressing is seeing its last batch of practitioners. “It is getting difficult for me, but I am unskilled for anything else. So, I am forced to continue this job.” says, Vinod. “I am not yet married, but when I have kids I will make sure they get proper education and do decent jobs.”

With the progress of time, there is a gradual shift from blue-collar jobs to white-collar.  And the respect which comes along is an added incentive for many. “If I had been educated, I would have liked to be a banker with a stable job. My eldest daughter was doing a course of the Holy Quran, when she got married. Now I wish my eldest son to become an Imam (A man who leads the prayers in mosque),” says Akram. “It has been a tradition, but with me, it all ends here.”
The traditional art of hair-dressing is seeing its last batch of practitioners. [Photo: Aaqib Raza Khan]

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3 thoughts on “Roadside Razors

  1. This was a wonderful account of how life is in Real.

    Loved reading it…simple words helped in understanding this simple story more simply.

    Glad you could write about them… varna aaj kal ki bhaag daurr mein we miss out on many such scenes and stories like these.

    Thanks Bhai….. shall look forward to read more from your pen 🙂

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