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Barber Community – A Constant Struggle for Dignity and Sustainable Livelihoods

Barbers have played a vital role in the fabric of community life in India for an extended period. They provide essential grooming services, including haircuts, shaving, and overall men’s grooming, contributing not only to personal care but also functioning as informal social hubs where people gather for conversations and stay informed about community news.

The socio-economic status of barbers varies widely, with some managing small, family-operated businesses, while others work in larger salons or establishments. In rural areas, traditional barber practices endure, while urban centers witness the emergence of modern salons.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that communities and professions undergo transformations over time. In this article, we will delve deeper into the struggles faced by the barber community, exploring their quest for dignity and livelihood amidst evolving societal and economic landscapes.

Barber Community in Odisha

Barber communities in Odisha have been categorized under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. This is one of the socially excluded and economically poor communities in the State. Barbers are a serving caste. They represent the lower or the intermediary between the upper castes and scheduled castes.

Barbers render services to the members of the upper castes and even the Muslim community but not to the members of the scheduled castes except the fishermen community (Kaibarta caste). 

The barber caste is divided into sub-castes – Kanamuthia, Jamakhadia, Benamuthia, and Pathania. Kanamuthia barbers render services only to upper castes. Jamakhadia barbers render services to members of the lower caste and kaibarta community. Benamuthia barbers render services to the shuddha (purified) castes; which are the result of intercaste unions, where the father is from an upper caste and the mother from a lower, yet untouchable caste.

Pathania barbers render services to Muslims. There has been no previous history of intercaste marital alliances between these four sub-castes of barbers. Sub-caste hierarchy is determined by which upper caste is being catered to. These members of the upper castes were the ones who had trafficked the barbers and housed them in their villages for generations. 

Brahmins remain in particular villages, which are generally established by Kings and landlords, where no other non-brahmin castes are allowed to stay – except for barbers. The barbers are provided with housing and some cultivable land owned by a Brahmin community known as “heta”.

Barbers are allowed to cultivate this land to feed their families as long as they render the required services for upper castes villagers. Similarly, landlords belonging to Kshatriya, Khandayat, and Karana castes have housed barbers and provided them heta land to have access to their services throughout their lives. When a barber dies, his son is simply required to carry on the profession of his father and does not have the right to choose an alternative profession. 

When land reform measures were carried out in the post-Independence era, the lands cultivated by servicing castes, were in, some cases, recorded in the name of the barber castes. In most of the cases, the poor barbers, living under the custody of the upper castes, were too afraid to get the land registered in their names, which is why the land remained in the names either of upper castes persons or in the name of the village communities (other castes).

To date, the barbers in many villages are rendering services to the upper castes which are given to them as heta, or the land owned by the village deities. On the other hand, even though heta lands are recorded in the names of some members of the barber castes, they are rendering their service to the upper caste members, the village community as a whole, and the village deity without any financial compensation in pursuance of customary and social obligations. 

In villages resided by both lower and upper castes, barbers who render various types of service under certain local customs and traditions have been trafficked and housed in the villages. One such tradition is that of bartan. It is a payment in paddy, which is calculated according to the number of married males in an upper-caste family.

For each married male, the family has to pay the barber four to six gouni, i.e., 10 to 15 kg of paddy per year as bartan. It is customarily paid in advance annually at the time of the festival of dolapurnami. But the customs differ from village to village. No further monetary compensation is received after that by the barber.

Though bartan is paid only according to the number of married males in a family, the barbers are to render their services to the entire family. If an upper caste man remains unmarried, as per the custom, he is entitled to free services from the barber community throughout his life. Bartan is given on an annual basis.

Thus, if a barber is unable to work in his old age or illness or death, his descendent any member of the family, or any person dependent on him to render services to the particular upper caste family for the rest of his/her life. The cycle continues generation after generation.

The primary work of the barber is the cutting of hair. Having a box in his hand with shaving instruments inside it, he moves from door to door and cuts the hair of males at least once a month and shaves their beards at least four times a month. He cuts the hair of boys and girls and shaves the heads of old men and women. At the time of cutting hair, he also cuts nails. 

In some families, when the head of the household, i.e., the man dies, the barber attached to the family shaves the head of the dead body, after which the body is cremated. Similarly, when a married woman dies, leaving her husband alive, the wife of the barber paints a border of two feet around the dead body with alata (red liquid), after which it is cremated. 

Funeral rites in caste Hindu families take place for 12 days. On the tenth day, members of the family and their kin including men, women, and children, as well as those who cremated the body go to the bathing ghat. The barber accompanies the men and his wife accompanies the women with oil in hand for a bath.

Before bathing, the men are shaved while the women have their nails trimmed, which the barber and his wife cannot single-handedly operate. The barber and his wife therefore must gather other barbers, both male and female from the neighboring villages to assist them. However, barbers receive no monetary compensation for their work. At best, they are provided with a meal. 

On the tenth and eleventh days of the funeral rites, a number of Brahmanas and guests are invited by the host for lunch. As soon as the Brahmanas reach the house, the barbers wash their feet. Once the food is served and eaten, it is the customary duty of the barbers to remove the leftovers and clean the site for the next group. 

On the twelfth day of the funeral rites as well as on the occasion of a marriage ceremony, cooked food is served to all and sundry. The barber carries water and whatever is necessary for the feast. If he is unable to do so single-handedly, he is to gather other barbers from the locality to help him in rendering the services for the family he works for. The host does not pay any remuneration to the barbers. The barber’s wife is provided with food, she is compensated with rice, lentils, vegetables, etc., by the host. 

The customary service of the barber is obligatory in most of the village functions. Marriages are usually arranged by the village elders. The process of arranging marriages is quite complex. The decision-making is usually the responsibility of the family, kith and kin, and the village elders.

When one group, proposing the alliance, reached the house of the other party with prior information provided by the mediator, the barber attached to the family waits with a brass water pitcher full of water, a small jug, a low wooden stool, and a napkin on his shoulder. When the party reaches the doorstep, the barber washes and then dries the feet of the guests, after which the guests enter the house and discussions begin.

The barber prepares paan, distributes it among the guests, and helps the head of the family in taking care of the visitors. As often the selection of a bride or bridegroom is not done through a single such meeting, the barber has to provide the service each time a meeting of this kind takes place. No remuneration of any kind is provided for the same. 

When the decision is finalized and the date of the wedding is fixed, the barber distributes betel nuts and invitation cards with Prasad from village to village. He will be provided with a bus or train fare for reaching distant villages. The barber also constructs the marriage altar by bringing soil from outside and his wife washes it with water and cow dung. 

On the eve of the wedding, the bath water of the bride and the room in their own houses is purified with holy water. The barber’s wife collects the water for this purpose. With the pitcher full of water, she joins a procession of women with ban players. The barber also accompanies them with a bamboo winnowing pan with holy objects of worship.

The procession reached the statue of the goddess of the village where a brahmana worships the goddess. After the ceremony, the barber’s wife distributes a little oil and pounded turmeric to women in seven families, who in turn pour some water into the pitcher carried by the wife of the barber. This is the holy water used for the bride’s ritual purificatory bath. 

Two types of marriage systems prevail amongst Hindu families: tolakania and duaribibha. In tolakania, a member of the groom reaches the house of the bride in a procession with band players to invite her to the house of the groom. The barber also accompanies them with a box of clothes and cosmetics for the bride. The barber then washes the guests’ feet. Thereafter all of them return to the house of the groom where the marriage ceremony is performed. 

In the duariabibha system of marriage, a family member of the bride reaches the house of the groom to invite him to their house for the wedding ceremony. Accordingly, the groom reaches the bride’s house with family members, friends and relatives, persons of the same caste, and a brahmana in a procession with band players. As soon as they reach, the barber attached to the family of the bride washes their feet one by one. 

On the very day of the marriage, the groom offers a special handful of rice to the gods and goddesses of the village as well as to his mother. He is dressed in fine new clothes and a Punjabi shirt with a tilak mark on his forehead and an alata painted on the border of his feet. He moves on the village road in a procession with band players having unparboiled rice and betel nuts with the palms of his hands joined together.

The barber accompanies the bridegroom with a cane basket full of unparboiled rice and fills the palm of the groom with it. When the groom walks, the barber holds the end of the narrow folds of the cloth hanging in front of the groom with his right hand. 

The barber’s wife helps the bride walk to the altar with her face covered with a cloth. Both the bride and the groom sit on the altar, and the ceremony begins with the chanting of mantras by Brahmanas. The barber and his wife remain present near the altar.

In the final stage, the Brahmanas on the altar perform a yajna and tie the palms of both the bride and groom together with a knot. The ceremony ends when the younger sister of the bride opens the knot. The wife of the barber again helps the bride in walking from the altar. 

For all this work – which can take as long as a week, the barber and his wife do not get any monetary compensation. They only receive some incentives and his wife gets a saree and rice for her work after the ceremony is over.

During the first year of the marriage of the bride, on the four days of full moon, as well as on the other Odia festival days like Raja, Savitri, Dutia, Osha, etc., the barber carries loaded baskets of fried paddy and rice seasoned with sugar and gur, cakes, vegetables, etc., to the place where the newly married bride resides. That is from her father’s house.

If she remains at the house of her mother-in-law or from the house of her mother-in-law if she remains in the house of her father. Though the barber carries the baskets without getting any compensation, he receives some incentives from the party who receives them. These are some of the services rendered by barbers to the upper caste families from whom they get the advance in kind known as bartan

When someone decides to call a village meeting, the person orders the barber to gather the villagers for the meeting. The barber then gathers the people by walking from door to door while beating a drum. The responsibility of informing those who were not present at the meeting of the decisions taken also lies with the barber. 

In Odisha, almost thirteen big festivals are observed every year to please the village deity. The barber is to render the services during such festivals as per the traditions. On some festival days, deities are brought outside the temple on palanquins. They are moved from village to village and from door to door of the upper caste households in processions in which bhog is offered. Barbers are required to catch the from in front of the deities. During this time, the barber gets a handful of bhog offered to the deity from each door. 

On some festival days, feasts are arranged in the temples. It is the barber who collects rice, money, etc., from the upper caste families and deposits them with the head of the village. At the time of cooking for the common feast, it is the barber whose duty is to cut the vegetables, ground spices, carry water, and help the brahmana to cook over the oven.

When the cooking is over, food is first offered to the deity after which the villagers eat. After they have finished eating, the barber lifts the leftovers with a leaf, throws them away, and then cleans the temple. Generally, all such work lasts until late at night. The next morning the barber will clean the brass utensils used for cooking as well as the site for cooking. No compensation is paid to the barber. 

Because of the Bartan, the barbers have to forfeit the freedom of other employment or other means of livelihood for one year, which then continues year after year, and is hence bonded throughout his life to render services to a particular upper caste family. It is not only to the individual upper caste family to whom the barber renders services but also to the other village communities. Because of such customary social obligation devolving by succession, barbers are forced to forfeit the right to move freely throughout the territory of India. 

Barbers render services to the upper castes, instead of heta or bartan, for no remuneration throughout their life. They are also forced to forfeit their right to appropriate compensation at market rate. The system compels them to live at the mercy of the upper caste family whom they are to serve. 

Also, linked to this customary bondage are a few shameful practices. At the time of customary annual ceremonies, the barbers’ wives move from door to door with utensils in which they collect cooked food. At occasional family functions, such as marriages, the barber and his wife are provided with new clothes, besides the cooked food, which the barber brings home after the wedding is over. 

In the case of a death in the upper caste family, on the tenth day of the funeral rites, when all the members of the bereaved family bathe in a tank or a river, for purification after having had their heads shaved, they leave their old clothes on the bathing ghat and wear new ones. The barber takes the old clothes home, sharing them with the washermen.

On the occasion of Dasahara, an annual function among the upper castes, the barber is also provided with a new pair of clothes by the upper caste family, as a result of which the necessities of life, i.e., food, shelter, and clothes are met by the villagers. 

A barber is also attached to the happiness and sorrow of the upper caste family, as well as that of the village as a whole. His attachment to the village is so deep that he always speaks of the village as his own. Despite this attachment towards the village, it is often the case that when something goes wrong within the community, the barbers are blamed and punished. There exists a proverb in the Odia language – “mar mar bhandariku mar” (Beat, beat, beat the barber). The proverb is used whenever a person is punished for the wrongdoing of others. 

There are also similar proverbs, which indicate the status of the barber in society. Another such proverb is – “Barika muthi, tanka chha…” (the barber has six rupee coins in his box). When a person with a negligible amount of money dreams of a big business, such a proverb is used.

“Bhoi Bhandari gauda rajak – emane samantabadara rakshaka”. (Bhoi is a scheduled caste working as a serf – Bhandari is a barber, gauda is a milkman and Rajak is a washerman). The above phrase means that the serfs, barbers, milkmen, and washermen protect feudalism. 

“Babu! Barika jatita bada kabu” (Sir! The barber as a caste is slave). Kabu may be defined as lumpen proletariat and this proverb signifies that the barber is a slave. 

“Panas khaila kie, Bhandari mundare atha” – (Someone ate the jackfruit but the gum is on the head of the barber). When a clever person uses an innocent person for his enjoyment without the innocent person being aware of it, such a proverb is used.  

“Kanhi Ramachandra kanhi Ramia Bhandari” (Where is Ramachandra and where is Ramia barber). When a person of higher social status is compared to a person with a lower social status, such a proverb is used. 

Byasakabi Fakir Mohan Senapati, the great novelist of Odia literature, in his famous novel – Chha Mana Atha Guntha has written – “Ati nunnuchhana andhara rati – ati nunnuchhana Bhandari jati” (The barber caste is hated and disliked like the night). 

Poet Radhanath Ray, who brought modernism to Odia poetry, has written in his famous verses Darabara, “Darabare thanti kete sevakari – tanka priyapatra gauda Bhandari” (There are so many servants in his court – but his dearest among all are the palanquin-bearers and barbers). 

The work of the barber involves handling dirt, and this makes the occupation ritually unclean. Handling hair and nails is supposed to defile the person handling them. The Brahmana caste is extremely particular about ritual purification after having their heads shaved by a barber. The spot where he and the barber sat is washed with a solution of “purifying” cow dung.

Though taking a bath after shaving is a must for Brahmanas, some of the non-brahminical castes are not particular about bathing after being shaved by a barber. Nevertheless, most upper-caste people perceive the work of a barber as inferior. The Brahminical caste hierarchy has used barbers for the continuance and maintenance of the caste system to date. It has kept barbers on the lowest strata of the caste system – just above the scheduled castes. 

Although education has become a fundamental right for all Indian citizens, the children of barbers, by and large, remain illiterate or at best semi-literate. A common observation is that not too many barbers are educated. A similar situation prevails in the public service too. Persons belonging to the barber castes are found as fourth-class employees in good numbers in the governmental sector.

They are barely visible as class three employees at the district level. But they have no or extremely little representation at the state level as first or second-class government officers, engineers, doctors, professors, judges, etc. Reservations have been made in government jobs for backward castes but for various socio-economic reasons, it is the higher strata of the backward castes who are benefitting from it, and nothing is left for the barbers remaining in the lowest strata of backward castes.

As regards representation either in the Odisha Assembly or the Indian Parliament, not a single person from the community has been elected in Odisha to date. Therefore, no debate has been conducted in the legislature for their release from hereditary bondage even after the enactment of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. 

Of late, the educated sons are no longer interested in carrying out their family profession and are moving out of their villages to take up other gainful employment opportunities. To help ease the lives of thousands of barbers, Gillette, India’s leading male grooming brand, has launched the initiative, Barber Suraksha Programme, as a show of solidarity with the barber community of India. Gillette is providing support to the barber community to help them slowly kick-start their business with the following:

Suraksha Education: Nurturing Safety in Barbershops

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining health, hygiene, and social distancing has become imperative. The Suraksha Education initiative takes a unique approach by leveraging educative videos featuring grooming expert Aalim Hakim. These videos offer practical insights on keeping barbershops and equipment sanitized, ensuring strict adherence to government regulations.

Aalim Hakim’s Grooming Wisdom

Quick tips and tricks for barbers to implement in their daily routine, ensuring a safe and sanitized environment for clients.

Suraksha Insurance: Shielding Barbers Against COVID-19

The program extends customized insurance coverage specifically designed for barbers, offering financial protection against the uncertainties posed by the ongoing pandemic.

Suraksha Kit: Equipping Barbers for Success

The Suraksha kit encompasses sanitizing equipment, essential products, and guidelines for their effective usage. Gillette India emphasizes not just possessing the equipment but using it correctly.

Gillette’s Community Contribution

From sanitizing shops to providing new grooming equipment such as razors, scissors, and PPE gears, Gillette is actively contributing to the welfare of the barber community.

Heartwarming Gesture: Gillette’s Initiative

Gillette’s initiative goes beyond business, reflecting a heartwarming gesture towards the barber community. It showcases the brand’s commitment to social responsibility.

Innovative Barbershop Renovation Grant Scheme in Kerala

The Government of Kerala introduces an innovative scheme aimed at enhancing the working conditions and materials in traditional barbershops.

Barbers can utilize the grant for purchasing instruments, furniture, germ killers, sterilizing instruments, and disposable towels. The scheme underscores the importance of maintaining hygiene in barbershops.

Beneficiaries can avail a maximum grant of ₹25,000 under this scheme, ensuring that even small-scale barbershops can benefit from the initiative.

The Backward Communities Development Department, Government of Kerala, oversees the implementation of this scheme in both rural and urban areas.

Conclusion

Barbers, belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), have been historically tethered by hereditary obligations, providing services to upper castes without commensurate compensation. This article has brought to light the discriminatory practices and social hierarchy ingrained within the barber community, demarcating sub-castes with specific roles and responsibilities.

The narrative has underscored the formidable challenges confronting barbers, encompassing issues of land ownership, limited rights, and societal biases that impede their educational and professional advancements. Despite their integral role in village life, barbers grapple with exploitation and social marginalization.

In conclusion, recent initiatives have been discussed, offering a glimmer of hope for the barber community. Initiatives like Gillette’s Barber Suraksha Programme and the Innovative Barbershop Renovation Grant Scheme by the government of Kerala aim to address education, insurance, and working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While these endeavors mark positive strides in alleviating the struggles faced by barbers, the article accentuates the imperative for broader societal transformations to eradicate discrimination and uplift the community. It emphasizes the vital need for recognizing the rights and dignity of barbers, paving the way for a more equitable and inclusive society.

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Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.
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