It’s a sight barely visible on the urban horizon now. And yet in the city of bridges, a wall-mirror adjacent to a wooden chair and scattered shaving kit retains some of the shades of the classic conurbation.
In the ‘smart city’, Nazir Wani’s street saloon is an old charm. But the seasoned stylist appears disconsolate with his daily devotion. Many of his clients have long fallen for the sweeping change triggered by the non-local saloons, but the gaunt-faced barber is never out of action. He keeps shining the cold-bitten faces of city conductors, drivers, passengers and passersby.
On Srinagar’s KMD busyard terrace, Nazir attends people from dawn to dusk. At 65, with 40 years of hairdressing experience, the man is no spent-force. His untiring spirit makes him a commoner’s barber.
In the early 1970s, Nazir first arrived on the Srinagar’s saloon scene as an apprentice of his maternal uncles. It was an era of ‘hip culture’ where barbers were busy mavens. “I was 16 and my main job was to assist my uncles,” he says, with a wry smile. “Being a quick learner, my uncles put me on a monthly wage of Rs 400.”
A tailor’s son, Nazir had to fight for his professional identity in the times when barbers would cater to Bollywood styles including the Johnny Walker moustache, Amitabh Bachan’s hairdo and other movie monikers.
Being the first Hajam (hairdresser) from his father’s side, the boy resorted to the cinema-sparked sway that his tribe was then enjoying in the valley. Hajams weren’t merely into rituals, like tonsuring and circumcision, they were into fashionable styles as well.
The Street Setup, Photo By Zeeshan Ahad For The Himalayan Post
As transporters frequent his workplace for clipping moustaches and unwanted facial hair, Nazir recalls how his trendsetting styles eventually motivated him to leave his maternal uncles’ hairdressing centre. “I had to move on,” he recounts with a rapt gaze. “I wanted to grow and create my own space.”
He next joined some noted urban barbers. Their saloons were retreat zones for many because of the smoke and speculative ambiance.
But following his mentoring from the ‘best in the business’, Nazir’s skills and income improved. “Everything was hunky-dory,” he recalls. “Despite daily disturbances, Kashmiris were living like romantics. They would find joy in small things before their street outings were curtailed by the disturbed decade of the 1990s.”
To manage his family during that harrowing period, the hairdresser switched his profession. He became a bus conductor. “Time keeps no friends,” Nazir describes his career shift. “I had to put food on the table for my family. And hairdressing had become a hard means of survival.”
But the wages he earned as a bus conductor in due course fell short to support his family. He then decided to return to his profession. He made his comeback with a street saloon on the bus-yard terrace and catered to a new reality.
Unlike the bygone cine-goers into chic styles, his new clientele was travel-weary transporters. Some of them were uncouth and brazen, but Nazir braved it all to sustain his family and educate his three sons: Younis, Suhail and Gowhar.
His trio is now working outside the valley as salespersons after none of them followed their father’s footsteps.
But while young natives – most of them educated and unemployed – have turned their backs towards Nazir’s profession, the non-locals are making big profits as hairdressers in the valley. Their tribe is growing and so is the dependence of Kashmiris on these non-local barbers.
“From the last two decades, hairdressing has been completely overtaken by non-locals,” says Nazir, with a thoughtful stance. “Their influence is growing because unlike us they practice trendy hairstyles and different facial services.”
Grooming Time, Photo By Zeeshan Ahad For The Himalayan Post
Even though the dominance of non-locals has rendered native barbers redundant, Nazir is quite sanguine about his skills.
“I’m still able to hook some of my old customers with my hairstyling skills,” he says. “I’ve always given my best to it and that’s what is coming to my rescue during these changed times now.”
The winter sun is glowing over the KMD busyard—echoing with the cacophony created by motorists. Nazir looks at the hustle bustle while stealing looks at his vacant chair. The contrast is glaring, and so is the old shave in the smart city.
Zeeshan Ahad is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets @zeeshanjourno.