Snip, snip since 1939: Meet Kerala hairdressers, one of the oldest in Chennai

Ensconced in the busy streets of Pondy Bazaar, Kerala Hairdressers is an heirloom craft started by V Sankunni Nair in 1939 and currently run by his grandson, Sandeep.
Snip, snip since 1939: Meet Kerala hairdressers, one of the oldest in Chennai
Snip, snip since 1939: Meet Kerala hairdressers, one of the oldest in Chennai
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For Sandeep, monthly visits to his grandfather’s salon in Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar, as a child, were more like a ritual. “My father would buy me an ice-cream after the haircut and one of the employees here would accompany me back home. I never came to the salon otherwise, but I liked the time I spent here,” recalls the now 40-year-old with a smile.

Seated on one of the straight-back plain wooden chairs lined on one side of the same salon, Sandeep, who now runs his family’s heirloom business in the city, which reminisces of the bygone years.

The wooden-panelled storefront that reads ‘Kerala Hairdressers’ in bold, lucid font, sits on the uneven pavements of Pondy Bazaar, flanked on all sides by stores that offer everything from watches and clothes to scrumptious food. Even among the clutter of nameboards and posters of models in fine-tailored suits, the old-world Kerala Hairdressers has managed to retain its quaint charm since 1939.

That Sandeep treats his salon as a place of worship is evident the minute one sets foot inside - prayer chants hum from an audio player, portraits of Hindu gods on the walls are garlanded with freshly strung jasmine buds and a hazy, fragrant smoke from the incense sticks floats in the air.

Kerala Hairdressers was started by V Sankunni Nair, Sandeep’s grandfather, who moved from his native town in Thrissur to Madras in the late 1930s. Before he could run his own place, Sankunni worked with the Kerala Hairdressers in Triplicane and later at Malabar Hairdressers, both of which no longer function today. 

Sankunni comes from a family of traditional hairdressers known as Valakatharas, who have been in this profession for generations. “I have been told that our families were the traditional hairdressers of the Thampuran Rajas in Kerala,” says Sandeep.

So what makes Kerala Hairdressers unique? “This is our kula tozhil (family business). You can call this a family salon while the others are more of beauty parlours,” smiles Sandeep.

The salon has distinctive wooden panels and doors made of teak, multi-hued enamelled glass panels with peacocks, Ashoka symbol and elaborate male and female figures replete with salon-style roller chairs.

Sandeep tells TNM that he plans to take down the false ceiling to reveal the original Madras roof. But the main attraction is the giant wall clock that is mount above the mirror panels.

“This clock was made by Venu mama, who was my grandfather’s customer-turned-best-friend. The clock’s frame was made by Vedhagiri, another close friend of my grandfather. One will not find another clock like this anywhere else,” he beams adding, “Someone from the USA had given me their number in case I ever wanted to sell the clock. I may have no need for that.”

This frame was apparently Vedhagiri’s first clock frame. Similarly, a number of other unique accessories, including steel water sprayer, were used in this salon during Sankunni’s days.

“Those days, salons used glass bottles. We were the first to use steel containers. The person who made it for us destroyed the mould soon after. I still have a couple of steel water sprayer at my house,” shares Sandeep.

Sandeep says in the early ’40s, Madras was ‘the’ place for south-Indian cinema and Pondy Bazaar was its Mecca. “You can imagine the kind of popularity we had back then. Many from the film industry would walk in,” he says.

Even today, veteran actor AVM Rajan of Thilana Moganambal fame, actor Sivakumar and editor Mohan are regular customers at Kerala Hairdressers.

As someone who has seen the landscape around his shop change, Sandeep shares that the reputation of his salon has remained the same. “When my grandfather used to run the salon, he would open it at 4 am. Even then, people would ask him to open an hour earlier. Today, we open at 7 am and we still have customers asking if we can open at 6 am,” he laughs.

Sandeep’s father Aravindakshan, who kept away from the family business, insisted that his son learn the craft if he wished to run the salon.

“I was too young to learn from my grandfather, who passed away when I was 13; and my father never learnt the craft. Besides, if you want to learn the craft properly you need to take a couple of beatings or three. Without failing at it, you can never perfect it. So I travelled to Thrissur to learn the trade from my uncle,” explains Sandeep.

Even after undergoing apprenticeship under uncle, Sandeep felt something amiss. “Something wasn’t quite right. I was doing well, of course; but I felt it wasn’t perfect. So I prayed to Tirupathi Perumal and tonsured my hair. Surprisingly, I had perfected the art of cutting hair by some miracle soon after,” he adds.

For long, such salons have remained exclusive to men. “Back then, most women preferred long hair. They rarely cut or styled their hair. But we never say no if a woman customer walks in, and we do see a few of them come here occasionally. Recently, we had a woman customer. I think it has more to do with styling. We stick to basic haircuts here, so our number of women customers are less,” shares Sandeep.

Talking about the hairstyles that were a rage when he took over the business in 1998, Sandeep says, “Then, people asked for either medium or short haircuts. The kind of tools we used was different. Now, I am amused by the kind of styles that are in vogue today. I needn’t have perfected my craft after all,” he laughs. 

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