“I only do cutting and shaving. No hair-dye, bleaching and all that,” says P. Devaraj, sitting on a blue swivel chair, inside Sri Sarathy Hair Dressing Saloon, Triplicane. Seated across him, on a wooden waiting bench, I find out about the hair-dressing business, from the 65-year-old musician-cum-hair-dresser.
“My father was a thavil vidwan. Everybody in the family is either a musician or works in an office. I got into hair-dressing as my father felt it would be useful to have another source of income. And so, 40 years ago, I trained in five or six places, and learnt different techniques in each saloon.”
Back then, machine-cut, crew-cut and summer-cut were the popular styles, says Devaraj. “In the last two decades, hair styles have changed a lot, but I don’t try all that, and my regulars don’t want them either”. Devaraj’s regular customers, he says, are mostly old gentlemen of many years’ association.
“They come simply dressed – in dhoti shirts – but they are doctors, judges, and engineers! They always call and come, just in case I’m away at a concert,” he smiles. The hour-long conversation with Devaraj is punctuated by plenty of eye-crinkling smiles and talk of the thavil and nadaswaram.
“Some days, there are 5 or even 10 customers; other days there’s only one or none. I charge Rs. 80, minimum, for a hair-cut, and Rs.35 for a shave.”
Elaborating on his wet shave, Devaraj says he’s very particular to not just clean the chin and side-burns, but also behind the ear and nape of the neck, so that the customer feels tidy and walks away satisfied.
The furniture in the green-walled saloon was brought by Devaraj’s father, when he started off, 35 years ago. Three wooden mirrors, deep, high-backed chairs, and blue formica drawers complete the work-area. A small sink to one side provides water, and a fan whirs overhead.
Over the years, Devaraj has trained nearly 10 apprentices. Although he does not employ an assistant now, he gets his hair cut when one of his old students visits him. “I cut his hair, and he cuts mine!” he says.
Devaraj’s implements are laid out on the Formica dresser. A blue bottle contains Dettol; a white one is filled with after-shave lotion. “That stone is padigaram, some people ask me to rub in on their face after a shave; it is an antiseptic.”
Once a year, Devaraj goes to Kashi. “I’m there, every Diwali. I’ve also played in many cities in the North. I can accompany North Indian music as well as Carnatic musicians. If I listen to something once on the radio, I can play it immediately!” he says and plays for a western tune, for which he keeps rhythm, waving his hands in the air. “But I play only on auspicious occasions,” he says, adding that his son and grandson are also part of his nadaswaram company, and play music across the city and country.
“But work is dull these days,” Devaraj says of the hair dressing business. “If I were to rent this place, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. But I will continue as long as I can. God is there in both!,” he says, pointing to the scissors and shaving cream, and to the left, where the thavil and nadaswaram lie in cotton covers, on the old wooden waiting bench…
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)