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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Pallavi Singh Is Exploring The Grooming Culture Among Men Through An Eccentric Museum

  • IWB Post
  •  August 8, 2018

Artist and photographer, Pallavi Singh was jubilant when Kochi Biennale Foundation approached her with their art residency programme and thus offered her the opportunity to be in different places to trace their grooming cultures. Already working in the field, and keenly studying Indian men and Indin society, Pallavi, readily took up the opportunity.

It was as early as 2010 when Pallavi detected the inception of a grooming revolution. She says, “Unisex salons had started coming up. It was also the year when fair & lovely for men was released. The men had finally started using products like conditioners and serums, that were earlier used exclusively by women. All of this was done behind the doors though.”

She adds, “While earlier grooming for men was restrained to being a merely sanitizing thing with time it became an aesthetical thing. All of sudden it became important to look a certain way. It was sometime around 2014-2015 that men became open about it all.”

Enchanted by the evolution and the changing dynamics of the grooming process and how it had started blurring the gender lines, Pallavi found her way to Kochi salons, owing to the place’s multi-cultural demographics, to assess its grooming culture.

Visiting these salons, she witnessed men’s personal desires manifesting and unleashing themselves, unabashedly. However, eventually, she found herself more intrigued by what was happening to the other side of this equation, i.e. the barber community.

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“The fact that this community and art had never come together and that the entire concept of a museum was an exclusively elite one inspired me to do something eccentric and thus I decided to bring the two together,” Pallavi shares.

Owing to their elitist bent, the museums had always been a platform for the flagbearers of societal power to showcase the society as they want. Pallavi thus began her pursuit to subvert these ideologies and started working for The Haircut Museum, her very first mixed-media project.

For her project, Pallavi extensively researched a lot of Kochi salons and zeroed down 10 of them to become a part of the narrative that she has created to put together at the museum. The salons that caught her gaze were far from the fancy international chains. They were all old, quaint and heavily influenced by popular culture.

In fact, the popular culture inflection was something that particularly fascinated Pallavi. She observed how the young boys would style the hair to add bounce to it or to create a side flap. “I wanted to know where were they getting all these references from,” Pallavi shares.

She thus started talking to the barbers at these salons. Initially, she struck as an intruder to them and they were hesitant to open up and talk but once she started frequenting their salons they started sharing things with her.

“They told me that they don’t refer to any catalogs or magazines for the haircuts. The youngsters show them on Google what they are looking for and that is how they start experimenting on their own,” Pallavi shares.

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Another thing that touched Pallavi was how proud some of these barbers are of their profession. She explains, “Some of these men have inherited the salons from their fathers or even great grandfathers. It is not just any another profession for them but way more than that. It is more like a culture or ritual for them. They are extremely proud of it.”

She continues, “Some of these barbers they are really old (up to 75) and the last generation from their respective families who are in the profession. Their successive generations have not taken up the professions. Their shops will get closed after them.”

An intrinsic part of Pallavi’s museum are the grooming tools that Pallavi has loaned from these barbers to put on display in her museum. Convincing these barbers to part with their tools was an entirely different affair, however.

“I could have very well purchased these objects but I wanted the ones with a story and a history attached to them. I wanted these barbers to become a part of this museum through these tools. One of them even said ‘no’ to me when I asked for one of his tools. I told him that I will buy a new one for him if he gives away the old one to me. To this, he replied, ‘This might be an old one but my hands are used to it.'”

Pallavi, however, convinced him to part away with one of his broken combs after she told him that she needed his presence in the museum.

Among these grooming relics, there are many which you won’t be able to find in the new age salons at all. Pallavi shares, “You must have seen the new age electric trimmers but during my research, I found a manual one. I also found a pair of thinning scissors, again something which is not used in modern salons anymore. I was fascinated to learn that quite a handful of these old salons also use alum instead of shaving cream or shaving foam.”

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Pallavi’s museum currently is a project which is “under construction” as she tells me and she aspires to do away with the term in future and is working hard for it. The museum has already been displayed for 10 days recently and would be again accessible for a stretch of 4 months this time from December 2018 to March 2019.

As I was about to conclude our chat I somehow couldn’t refrain from talking about the hair icons that the men in Kochi follow and approach their barbers with. Pallavi answered, “If you look at the North Indian hair icons then you’d generally find that these men are particularly influenced by Bollywood actors and even cricketers these days. However, when it comes to Kerala, the men literally revere footballers and are also influenced by Hollywood actors.”

Picture Courtesy: Pallavi Singh

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