Street barbers of Kashmir—the ‘lost tribe’ struggling to keep style

The Classic Cut. [FPK Photo/Muzammil Bashir]

The street barbers predominantly belong to the ‘Hajam community’ considered to be a very lowly tribe. This becomes a significant hindrance to their work as people do not wish for them to do their hair.

On a humid-hot morning of August 2022, sexagenarian Nazir Hajam parks his rusty bicycle near the police post at the general bus stand in Anantnag.

Untying the curtain cloth that carries his almost 2-feet mirror, he starts setting up his little barber space.

“How’re you? You’re quite early today,” greets the elderly voice of Muhammad Ismail from behind while he sets up his own barber space.

Brooming the spot clean, Nazir smiles, “I’m good.” His facial expressions change in a jiffy as he adds, “Market is dead!”

He puts his hands on two wooden chairs and places them facing each other. The chairs are separated by a huge umbrella in between.

The Street Salon. [FPK Photo/Muzammil Bashir.]

After carefully placing the mirror on one chair, he cleans the top of the other for his customers to sit on. He then unzips his barber’s bag and neatly arranges his tools in a tiny cupboard under the mirror.

Since the last 40 years, this is how Nazir starts his day. He and his fellow barber—Ismail—earn a living by shaving and trimming people’s hair on the street, under an umbrella.

Lost in thought, Nazir stares at Ismail and then asks him if he paid Rs 20 day rent to the municipality. He frowns when Ismail tells him about how despite being absent, he was made to pay the previous day’s rent too.

The Commoner’s Tools. [FPK Photo/Muzammil Bashir.]

Along the bustling by-lanes of district Anantnag, the heart-warming view of Nazir and Ismail catering to the needs of their customers is a reason enough to pause and ponder.

The two ‘tapre nayud’—street barbers—inherited this age-old occupation of barbering from their fathers, who in turn learnt the art of cutting and shaping hair from their fathers.

Wearing glinting eyes on his wrinkled face, Nazir runs this family occupation most passionately. Though running the traditional barber space for him is not of much help as far as the family financials are concerned, yet his devotion for preserving the generational business is extraordinary.

The Trimmed Look. [FPK Photo/Muzammil Bashir.]

But waking up early in the morning to get to work isn’t as motivating as it may seem. The street barbers are a victim of great stigma and ridicule in the eyes of the society. The greatest challenge faced by them has to be the way they are looked down upon by people for their work.

The street barbers predominantly belong to the ‘Hajam community’ considered to be a very lowly tribe. This becomes a significant hindrance to their work as people overlook their “outdated” services. As a result, people who visit them mainly belong to lower strata of society.

“Our target individuals are mostly tribal people and those who come from far-flung areas,” explains Nazir, wiping the pair of scissors he just used to style the hair of old Zahoor Ahmed, his second customer of the day.

“Few find the need to get a hairdo in the middle of travelling and as soon as they spot us, they walk over without a second thought.”

The Old Hand. [FPK Photo/Muzammil Bashir.]

Many avoid making use of their services because they are worried about how people would look at them if they got their hair cut on the street in the middle of nowhere.

“People also shy away from us because they believe we don’t use tools that are as sanitized and hygienic as the ones in the local barber shops these days,” says Ismail, who travels 35 kilometers daily to provide for his family.

Wiping the beads of perspiration off his forehead from the hot afternoon sun, 65-year-old Ismail informs that people belonging to lower classes mostly prefer street barbers because of cheaper prices.

They charge Rs 20 for a haircut and Rs 50 for haircut and shave together. “We daily somehow manage to earn Rs 350 to 400,” he says. “It’s very difficult to make a living out of such a meagre income.”

Street barbering was the sole resort of hair dressing until they got replaced by local barber shops in the early 1980’s. Customers from every economic strata would use their services and would be immensely satisfied. However, with time, there’ve been several factors responsible for their decline.

And one of the factors is that street barbers were never able to progress with time. They did not earn enough to be able to adopt modern means of cutting and styling hair. The barber shops made use of the latest shaving creams, head massagers, advanced appliances and followed all the latest trends in hair cutting and styling.

This eventually crushed their customer base even more, leaving them to serve an insignificant section of the society.

The Street Kit. [FPK Photo/Muzammil Bashir.]

The impact of non-local barbers on street barbers and even local barbers also played a role in accounting for the decline of their business.

“Non-locals started getting more popular because they were able to style hair in a way the locals couldn’t and so their demand grew, suppressing us further,” says Nazir.

Weary from the day’s work, the street barber starts packing all his items back in his ‘nayud khyus’—barber bag.

He quietly wraps the mirror back with the curtain cloth when a million thoughts rush through his mind. With his legs barely able to hold the weight of his body, he starts peddling his way back home, thinking about the chocolates he wished to buy for his grandchildren from the Rs 360 he earned during the day. He smiles a disheartened yet grateful smile.

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