The Hill Barber

Certain jobs like that of a barber have been denigrated by society to a level that not many youths from Generation Next are willing to inherit this profession. Shams Irfan visits a barber in remote Uri to see how the haircut has changed the hands in Kashmir after the currency notes took over the barter and made barbers a sedentary service provider

Sheikh standing outside a friend’s barbershop in Boniyar market.

Abdul Ahad Sheikh, now 62, vividly recalls that warm summer day in 1971, when his father handed him a small leather bag containing a pair of scissors, a straight blade razor and a comb. It was the inheritance of the family’s three-generation old legacy of being ‘mobile’ barbers.

Since then Sheikh, a resident of picturesque Nowshehra village of mountainous Uri region in north Kashmir has been one of the famous barbers in the entire belt.

“Carrying that bag on my shoulder I used to roam from one village to another looking for customers,” recalls Sheikh. “Those were the days when barbers across Kashmir were operating like this.”

Sheikh retired from the profession in 2000. Now, he runs a small shop in main-market Boniyar where he sells brooms and other sundry items.

“This profession is now taken over by the non-natives completely,” said Sheikh with a sigh. “You will hardly find any Kashmiri barber even in the remotest village.”

This is the other barber in Boniyar. He also operates from his shop now. KL Image: Shams Irfan

Sheikh vividly recalls his first day as a barber when he accompanied his father, a second-generation village barber, to the areas where he had spent his life working. His father knew almost every village and its inhabitants like the back of his hand.

“Back then barbers were not just for cutting hair or for shaving, we were half doctors as well,” said Sheikh with a sense of pride in his voice. “From doing circumcision to small surgeries like removing foot corn we were called for everything,” said Sheikh.

With a smile on his face, Sheikh looks around the market-place, where young college boys were roaming carelessly, and said, “There is hardly any kid in entire Boniyar belt whose circumcision I had not done. I was the only expert before doctors took over a decade back.”

But being a mobile barber, as he would like to be called now, Sheikh knows the entire geography of the regions which is a border area. “I have mapped entire Uri belt on foot,” said Sheikh proudly. “I used to start early and visit a particular village on a set day. As people knew about my schedule, they used to keep themselves and their kids ready,” said Sheikh with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “It was kind of a festival for the villagers. Everyone would finish their work early and sit around me and watch me work my scissors and blades.”

At occasions, old women would hum songs of love, peace and prosperity whenever a young kid or a newborn was given a haircut. In Kashmir, like elsewhere, the first hair-cut of life is a celebration. It is called Zareh Kasean and families have small functions at home on this day. A section of the people traditionally takes their infants to the shrines for the maiden hair-cut of their lives. “It was sweet and simple. Life was not this hard,” said Sheikh with a hint of sadness in his voice. “Now people are not that simple anymore. They have become materialistic and greedy.”

A Barter System

This system of visiting villages instead of running a shop was in vogue since Sheikh’s grandfather’s days.  “The people or villages I used to visit were our permanent clients since my grandfather’s days,” said Sheikh. “There was no money involved. It was all done through the barter system.”

In October and November, when villagers were done with the farming, Sheikh’s family was finally paid in the form of maize, rice, or other available crops. “People used to pay as per their wishes. We would never demand anything on our own,” said Sheikh. “There were people who wouldn’t pay at all. But most of the villagers used to pay wholeheartedly.”

Abdul Ahad Sheikh, One of the oldest surviving barbers in Uri. Kl Image: Shams Irfan.

However, in the late 1980s, when hard currency slowly replaced the barter system in remote areas like Nowshera in Boniyar, Sheikh too started asking for money in return for his services as a barber. “But for us, barter system was better as people were not particular about the volume of payments as they are now,” said Sheikh. “We used to collect enough food grains to last us for over a year.”

This was a major source of sustenance for Shiekh’s family.

The Change

As one walks down the narrow Boniyar market, one cannot help but notice decorated barber shops standing out among rows of uneven shops. There are eight barbershops in Boniyar now: five run by non-locals from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and remaining three by locals from nearby villages.

During the early seventies, the only one barber’s shop in the entire region was in Boniyar market, which was run by Mohammad Akbar, a resident of Barnate. “Akbar died some 15-years back. He has two sons but none of them picked up their father’s profession,” said Sheikh with sadness in his voice. “This profession is not acceptable by the new generation anymore.”

Unlike Akbar, in 2000, when Sheikh hung his leather bag and quit the profession, he passed on his legacy to one of his two sons. “My eldest son runs a barbers shop in Gingel, Uri,” said Sheikh proudly.

In Sheikh’s Nowshehra village there are three barbershops now: two-run by locals and one by a Bihar based young barber. “One among the local barbers in Nowshehra is my brother,” said Sheikh. “He too picked up the art under our father’s guidance. He too had to quit his studies and work as I did.”

After Matriculation

After Sheikh finished writing his last examination paper of tenth class, his father handed that leather bag with scissors, straight blade razor, and a comb, and took him along for work.

“He took me to every single village and house where he used to go. The idea was to make me familiar with our family’s profession, the clientele and to carry forward the legacy,” said Sheikh thoughtfully. “I still recall there was a sense of pride in my father’s voice when he would introduce me to one of his clients. He was not ashamed of his profession like Kashmiris are today. He was proud to be a barber.”

Sheikh too is proud of his profession. “People used to respect a barber and treat him with dignity,” said Sheikh.

A traditional Kashmir barber operating in the periphery, busy in a hair cut on the roof of a single story dwelling. The photograph is undated and was accessed from open sources.

He recalls being invited to almost every marriage as he was the only barber in the area who could prepare the groom for his new life. On such special occasions, Sheikh was often compensated wholeheartedly. “I used to be as important as the groom,” said Sheikh flashing a smile on his aged face.

This helped Sheikh develop lifelong bonds with people who still pay him a visit whenever in Boniyar. “That beautiful era is gone forever now.”

With non-locals picking up where locals have left, Sheikh sees the barber’s profession completely taken over by them in coming years. “Young generation sees this profession with a sense of shame. That is why I am sure you won’t find a Kashmiri barber in the next ten years, even in villages.”

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