Forgotten healers: When barbers in TN were also medicinal experts

Barbers, Sulundhee, novel, medicine, surgery, history
In the 17th-18th century, hairstyling was a traditional profession taken up mostly by a community, who also acted as healers following the Siddha practice | Illustration - Prathap Ravishankar

When matinee icon Rajinikanth, in his 1979 film Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai (From Six to Sixty), discovers the secret love affair of his sister, he asks her what the boy does for a living. As the girl hesitates to respond, the brother asks, in jest, if her lover is a barber. In cinema halls across the state, this sparked off bouts of laughter every time the film was screened. For, that is how the society looks at barbers, often using the word ‘barber’ as an adjective of ridicule. The same society, however, is in awe of 'hairdressers' in swanky 'hair salons' who come from different caste groups and earn well, having even undergone specialised academic training in hairstyling.

But barber shops in Tamil Nadu earlier used to be more of a hangout spot for a generation nurturing interests in politics and films. Sadly though, while these shops were celebrated, the barbers were not.

In the 17th-18th century, hairstyling was a traditional profession taken up mostly by a community called Ambattan, colloquially known in Tamil as Naavidhar. They used to remove hair from the head, face, underarms and even private parts, besides acting as healers following the Siddha practice. Male barbers were called Naavidhar while female barbers were known as Maruthuvachi.

A novel tracing history

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