KM Shamsudheen’s tiny barber shop has been part of Kochi’s Kochanagadi neighbourhood for more than 75 years. A family-run business, it was started by Shamsudheen’s grandfather and then managed by his father before Shamsudheen took the reins. The walls and mirrors of this nondescript establishment are stained with age, and a wooden dresser is chipped in places. But the loyalty of its customers has been unwavering. “Newer, more stylish salons have come up in the area and all over Kochi, but I know that my customers will keep coming back to me,” said Shamsudheen to Pallavi Singh, an artist and photographer.

Singh spent many hours at Shamsudheen’s for Mudivettu Museum-Nirmanathi or The Haircut Museum-Under Construction, her project for the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s art residency programme. It focuses on the evolving grooming culture among Indian men and is in the process of being set up by Singh at Pepper House in Fort Kochi. “I wanted to capture how trends are changing and the kind of hairstyles that the younger men, who can’t afford fancy salons, are choosing,” said Singh, who holds a master’s degree in painting from the College of Art, University of Delhi.

Photographs by Pallavi Singh.
Photographs by Pallavi Singh.

It was in 2010 that Singh first noticed how her male friends were using serums or conditioners, usually perceived as women’s products. “There is this overwhelming stereotype that women take very long to get dressed and use all kinds of products to make their hair sit perfectly,” she said. “But the truth is that men spend just as much time, if not more, grooming themselves. But this idea of masculinity gives them no avenues to express this part of their lives because it is considered feminine.” When Singh visited the Kochi salons she saw how the young men would twist or tease their hair to stand straight up, lie flat or curl to appear fashionable.

For The Haircut Museum – her first mixed-media project – Singh focused on 10 barber shops and salons in Kochi. Her previous projects, Desire to be Desired and Desire Lust, explored the subject of metrosexuality and masculinity. The paintings in these projects feature a pot-bellied man living in a metro and constantly experimenting with his physical appearance.

Photographs by Pallavi Singh.
Photographs by Pallavi Singh.

What Singh, 30, observed during her first couple of weeks in the Kochi salons was this little parallel world of hair grooming that had developed – popular looks borrowed from ramps and fashion blogs, but referred to by different names. The faux hawk hairstyle became the slope cut, while the buzz cut was described as simple cutting. “Men over 60 years of age are partial to simple cutting, while the younger lot will come with images pulled off Google of footballers, actors, models and ask their barbers to give them a similar look,” said Singh. “It is really fascinating to watch how these barbers make up in imitation skill what they lack in knowledge of the latest trends.”

Pallavi Singh setting up the Museum of Haircuts.
Pallavi Singh setting up the Museum of Haircuts.

The museum, set up in a small room, also has on display the tools of a barber’s trade – new-age trimmers, old metal scissors yellowed with age, a powder brush with a wooden handle, shaving brushes and even a manual wire head massager. “These objects are on loan from the various barbers I have been photographing,” said Singh. “They were curious about these requests and some were even reluctant to part with their tools, but I have invited them for the launch day and I think they will understand how their tools are important to track the small changes that have crept in into their businesses.”

Photographs by Pallavi Singh.
Photographs by Pallavi Singh.
Photographs by Pallavi Singh.
Photographs by Pallavi Singh.

Each object is accompanied with a metal plate engraved with an explanation of what the object is and the name of the donor. A hair dye brush donated by Nawaz Yusuf of Bombay Saloon on Lobo Junction sits next to the powder brush given by Nawab, owner of Belleza Gent’s Beauty Parlour on Bazaar Road.

“The smaller barber shops are slowly disappearing,” said Singh. “Most barbers I spoke to told me that they are the last one in their family to go into this business and while they are happy their children are branching out and getting high-paying jobs, the fact that the shop ends with them is a bittersweet feeling.”

Pallavi Singh’s Museum of Haircuts will be on display from July 28 to August 5 at Pepper House, Fort Kochi.