While social norms continue to associate traditional hair workers with stigma, changing economic norms are enabling others to reap the profits of the profession.
A week before stepping down as Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa promised to issue an order prohibiting the use of the word hajjam in Karnataka. He was addressing the members of the Karnataka Savitha Samaja, an association of traditional barber castes. (According to myth, Savitha was a sage who used to cut the hair of gods.) Such a prohibition aims to make illegitimate, and probably punishable too, the use of a term laden with memories of humiliation and restore respect to hair work. Whether banning words makes their meanings more potent and gives them a secret lease of life is another discussion.
Originally a Persian word for a barber, hajjam has long become part of the Kannada lexicon. This word can easily acquire shades of ridicule and mockery. It is not uncommon to abuse someone as a hajjam or to say “Am I doing hajjamat here?” to assert that one's work was not inconsequential. In most parts of India, hair work continues to be socially devalued.
Sanctioned by custom?
The low status of the barber profession in India goes way back. The Buddhist Jataka Tales, which are dated to Fourth Century B.C., narrate a story of a barber's son who falls in love with a girl from the high Licchavi clan. His father reminds him of their low social status and assures him, in vain, that he will help him find a bride from his “own place and station” (in W.H.D. Rouse's 1895 translation). The son dies longing for his love.
A toxic tale from the archive of stories about Krishnadevaraya, the Emperor of Vijayanagar, and Tenali Rama, the court poet and jester, is also illustrative. Krishnadevaraya's barber gave him a fine shave while he was asleep (and spared him the discomfort that came with a shave back then). Delighted with the shave, the king granted the barber a wish. The latter asked to be made a Brahman. The king summoned his Brahman priests and asked them to confer a Brahman's status to the barber and promised, in return, to exempt them from taxes. Unaware of rituals for enabling the barber's wish, they approached the wise Tenali Rama for help. Agreeing to help, the latter asked a few of them to assemble on a riverbank with the paraphernalia for ritual conversion. Tenali Rama brought a black dog to the riverbank, bathed it and walked it around the ritual site. When Krishnadevaraya asked this bizarre spectacle to be explained, the jester replied that he was trying to turn the black dog into a white one. The king expressed disbelief. The jester argued that if a barber could become a Brahman, then the dog's coat could as easily be changed. Apparently, the king now saw reason: the high and the low could never change places.
In an essay on the meanings of hair in the sub-continent, Patrick Olivelle, the Sanskritist, observes that discussions in ritual literature have consistently held hair as an impure object. This is a probable reason for the hair-related service occupation to invite low social status. The fact that barbers also performed minor surgeries and played musical instruments did little to alter their status.
Although rulers like Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohamed bin Tughlaq are known to have recruited from among Muslim converts from the barber castes for high positions in the army and administration, the status of barbers has been low among Indian Muslims too.
Untouchability brings another facet to the social experience of humiliation. The village barbers usually serve upper castes and Dalits with separate sets of instruments. Recently, in a village in Tumkur in Karnataka, the barbers refused to serve Dalits, forcing the latter to learn to cut their own hair.
New players have entered the field of hair care. In 2009, the Salon and Beauty Parlours Association (SBPA) in Maharashtra protested against the term “barber” in the title of the Shah Rukh Khan starrer, “Billu Barber”. The protestors pointed out that “barber” was a translation of Nai, a Hindi word for the barber caste, and, therefore, amounted to an insult. The President of the SBPA asked that the film's title be changed to “Billu Hairdresser,” since the word barber was “a derogatory and insulting term”. He noted further: “We choose hairdressing as a profession because it is an art. Also there are many women hairstylists. If ‘Billu Barber' becomes a hit, women hairdressers will be called barbers too!” (Admitting innocence, Shah Rukh Khan agreed to have a white paper pasted over the offending word in the film posters as reprinting them was expensive).
The SBPA's demand for language censorship stems from concerns other than those of the Karnataka Savitha Samaja. The hair and beauty industry, which was worth Rs. 6,900 crores in 2008, is estimated to attract Rs. 98,500 crores in 2020. The multinational giant L'Oreal alone is said to own over 4,000 hair salons in 70 cities across India. In the expanding hair care sector, which smells of money, moisturisers and styling gels, hair work becomes only an activity in style and loveliness. Its elaborate salon terminology is free from older associations of impurity with hair work.
The new hair care industry does not want to take chances with the past stigma of hair work. The SBPA prefers hair-dressing to be viewed as an art. For them, the large numbers of women who are likely to join this sector are better termed hairstylists rather than barbers. Professional associations such as this want to steer clear of the old stigma of hair work and have little interest in fighting the sources of such stigma, the way the Karnataka Savitha Samaja wishes to. More importantly, they have themselves created new sources of humiliation for the traditional barbers, who are out of place in the emerging hair care industry.
The lack of economic capital will not let traditional barbers invest in air-conditioned state-of-the-art hair salons and spas. And their lack of cultural capital i.e., the urbane language and demeanour that go with the chic salon decor, is another disadvantage. Clearly, those with privileged class and caste backgrounds are perfectly positioned to reap the new profits. This helps understand a leader from a barber caste who wondered ironically at a recent conference in Bengaluru whether an occupation confined to them for centuries should not be reserved for them in the present.