'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The 'Barber Problem'

"Agni, the fire god, invades forests and shaves the Earth, as the barber would a beard!" - from the Rig Veda

This post is on the sad and thankless story of being a barber.

A movie 'Billu', featuring a hairdresser protagonist, has just been released. The original name of the film was 'Billu Barber'; widespread protests caused the name-crop.

Wikipedia has an article on 'Barber' and it says:

A barber (from the Latin barba, "beard") is someone whose occupation is to cut any type of hair, give shaves, and trim beards. In previous times, barbers also performed surgery and dentistry. In more recent times, with the development of safety razors and the decreasing prevalence of beards, most barbers primarily cut hair. Some hairdressers consider the term derogatory.
The place where a barber works is generally called a barbershop, or simply the "barber's".

'Billu' is the remake of a Malayalam movie which has no 'barber' in its name, but freely uses the word itself in dialogs and especially in an 'introduction song' which went somewhat like "Meet Balan, the Barber with a difference!"

I don't think too many in Kerala protested the song (which, though quite silly, also had a few interesting phrases describing the barber's trade and how the hero is refreshingly different from other run-of-the-mill practitioners thereof). But, just as happened elsewhere in India, the word 'barber' has became unfashionable and slangy in Kerala. Barbershops came to be named 'saloons' long ago; now, one also sees 'hairdressers', 'hairstylists', 'men's beauty parlour' and so forth.

But Keralan conversation (and movie dialogs) continues to abound in very derogatory (often scandalous) remarks about what the barber does. It is standard to rebuke someone loafing around with "If you are good for nothing else, you could at least go and shave someone!". "If you win, I will be your barber!" is a standard rhetorical challenge between contestants. Even Mallu IT professionals, when describing what is 'shit shovelling work' to others, uses 'cherappu', a slang word which literally means 'knife work' (shaving, that is) (*).

Here is a bit of over-the-top dialog from the latest Mallu megahit movie 'Twenty-twenty': "You will pay for this! You have no idea about my uncle... he has been in politics for twenty years and mind you active power politics; he was not exactly shaving someone!"

In the former Hindu social hierarchy of Kerala, there probably was no single barber caste; indeed, everyone needed a shave of course, but due to the stringent untouchability constraints, members of one particular caste could not have shaved everyone - and one guesses there were several distinct barber communities. So, most probably, the denigration of 'cherappu' is of the trade itself rather than a particular caste.

Even the more egalitarian Muslim community of Kerala used to look down upon 'Ossans' - barbers, who were themselves Muslim. Indeed, these Ossans were the perhaps the only Indian barber community that used to do a bit of surgery - they used to perform circumcision operations (the source for this bit is 'Kunhayante Kusrithikal' by V.P Muhammad, a very interesting Malayalam story, which deserves a future post).

Leaving Kerala behind, I would like to quote two 'legendary' episodes, which illustrate, quite tellingly, the barber's plight, in an all-India context:

1. In the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas were in exile, king Jayadratha happened to pass by their jungle dwelling. He saw Draupadi at home and seeing that her husbands had gone out, tried to get fresh with her. Unfortunately for him, the Pandavas suddenly appeared on the scene and beat the hell out of him. After some debate, the brothers spare Jayadratha's life but decide to humiliate him in the nastiest possible way.

"Bhima took a crescent-headed arrow and randomly tonsured Jayadratha's head, leaving a few tufts here and there. The once-proud king looked downright ridiculous. Then having given him a couple more of painful smacks on the head with the back of his palm, Bhima told him: "Get lost! And if you meet someone, introduce yourself: 'I am the Pandavas' barber'". Jayadratha, trembling, agreed!"

(source: 'Mahabharata for Children' Mallu translation from Upendra Kishore Raychoudhari's (incidentally, Grandmaster Satyajit Ray's grandfather) early 20th century Bengali retelling 'Chheleder Mahabharat'. I am not sure whether that bit of dialog is from Vyasa's Mahabharata or was Upendra's invention - or for that matter, the Mallu translators')

Ridiculing the barber apart, giving an ugly tonsure has for long been a common abusive punishment. Elsewhere in mythology, Krishna gives his bro-in-law Rukmi a taste of this treatment.

2. Sometime in the 18th century, the Maratha Empire Peshwa, Baji Rao and his rival, the Nizam Ul Mulk had an encounter. The latter, having failed to outsmart Baji Rao, semi-mockingly praises him: "Ek Baji, aur sab Paji!" (There is only one Baji, the others are rogues!") to which the Peshwa replies: "Ek Nizam aur sab Hazaam!" (There is only one Nizam, the rest, mere barbers!)

(source: the Amar Chitra Katha volume on Baji Rao).

(*) The Mallu slang word 'cherappu' is a corruption of 'churappu' which in turn is derived from the sanskrit word 'kshuram', meaning knife/razor. The sanskrit word for barber is 'kshuraka', the knife-man. And even in Tamil the word 'serappu' has the same nasty connotations as the Mallu 'cherappu'.

An old Mallu (and even Tamil) word for barber is 'ambattan' which is now, while quite politically incorrect, freely used, including in (Mallu) movies. Interestingly, 'Ambashtha', which probably is the Sanskrit root of this word, is the name of a Kayastha (traditionally an upper caste) subgroup in the North. The same word is also said to be listed in Manusmriti as 'one of the upper subcastes resulting from inter-caste marriages', whatever that means!

Updates (June 2011): Bhima's barber remark from the 'Mahabharata' is probably an invention of Parukkutti Amma and Sarojini Nair, translators into Malayalam of Upendra Kishore's Bengali 'Chheleder Mahabharat' - I just checked in the original and therein, Bhima tells Jayadratha to "introduce yourself as Pandavas' *slave*" (that was a 21st century edition of the book so a bit of censoring might have happened!)

Irfan Habib's 'People's History of India' (volume 5) reports, quoting a pre-Christian Greek source, that the allegedly tyrannical Nanda kings of Magadha (4th century BC) were said to hail from a family of barbers. And according to the same book, one of the tribes encountered by Alexander in west Punjab were called the 'Ambashthas'!

Update (Jan 2012): I just discovered, the 'adhwaryu' the chief priest ('rtwik') conducting the 'Sagnikam Atiratram', a highly complex classical Vedic sacrifice, has to shave the 'yajamana', the principal sponsor of the sacrifice, as part of the cycle of rituals. The adhwaryu has to be a kushavan (potter) too - he has to personally mold and bake an earthen pot which is used in the ceremony. The kushavan's trade has been just as ridiculed in Keralan Hindu society as the barber's.

And I just heard the Panchatantra say: "Just as the jackal is the most crooked among beasts, so is the barber the most corrupt among men!"


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