The hair dressers of Madras

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Back in 2012, I had written a story on Kerala Hair Dressers, a 75-year-old salon in Pondy Bazaar, in T Nagar. I had lost the story during the Chennai floods and couldn’t trace it again. Recently, when I wanted to get a haircut, I decided to go back to that place, for old time’s sake. The owner Sandeep recognised me the moment I stood at the doorway and welcomed me inside. The salon closes by 8.00pm, as the employees had to get back home by bus.  I was their last customer for the day.

The quaint salon has antiquity written all over it – rows of wooden chairs, wooden framed mirrors and a wide door that opens to the busy thoroughfare of Pondy Bazaar. All these have remained unchanged over the last 75 years.

It was in 1939 that V Sankunni Nair started Kerala Hair Dressers at this location. “My father arrived in Madras in 1930 and did odd jobs for the next few years. When he had saved enough, he approached Subramania Chettiar to rent out this property,” says S Aravindakshan, who has been running the salon from the time his father passed away in 1970. “Pondy Bazaar back then was not the busy shopping avenue that it has become today. It was a small market area with around 10 shops. I took over from my father and my son Sandeep has been running it since 1998,” he says.

There is a glint of pride when he recollects the early days of the salon. T Nagar was home to several leading personalities from the film industry, who frequented this place. “Superstars like NT Rama Rao, Nageswara Rao, Nagi Reddy, Rama Naidu and LV Prasad were regular here. Later, when the state of Madras split into Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, many of them moved to Andhra. Even the Kannada superstar Raj Kumar and former president VV Giri often came here,” says Aravindakshan. Yesteryear actor Sivakumar, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty and the late Lalgudi Jayaraman were regular customers. Like any old-school salon, the barbers still go to the homes of some of their customers.

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The chairs and the mirrors are over 75 years old

Even when new-age salons mushroomed all over Chennai in the last one decade, Kerala Hair Dressers never thought of modernising the interiors. “The only major change we brought about was to tile the walls. We also installed an AC for the summers. Else, everything remains the same. Remaining old has added to our charm.”

Many filmmakers have approached Sandeep to let out the premises for film shooting but such requests have been politely turned down. “It disturbs the old set-up. They will move about all the chairs and mirrors and hinder our routine,” says Sandeep.

Surprisingly, even after 75 years, it still remains a rented property. Aravindakshan has no plans to buy it either. “This place cost nothing back then but today, will run into crores. We cannot even dream of buying this place. Our clientele is also restricted to the old-timers, mainly those who have been here for a while and come here for old time’s sake.” The owners take a lot of pride in their barbers. “But for them and the support of our loyal customers, we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off for so long,” he says.

My haircut was done and in the past 10 minutes, no one tried selling me a bundle of expensive hair products nor did anyone tell me how dry my hair was! The sounds of the bazaar were the only background music. As I paid-up and got up to leave, Sandeep asked, “Are you still with The Times of India? We still have the article you had written about us,” and pointed at the wall, where a framed copy of my story was hanging. I had found my story again and this time, I might never lose it.

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