Kochi: When Delhi-based artist Pallavi Singh walked into a men’s salon in Kochi, customers wondered what she was doing there. She wasn’t looking to get a haircut. Instead, she was intrigued as to why grooming for men—traditionally more popular among women—was still considered taboo.
Singh’s exploration of the grooming culture among Indian men is part of a two-month international art residency programme offered by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). Titled ‘Mudivettu Museum – Nirmanathil’, which means ‘Museum of Haircuts – Under Construction’, the artist is documenting the life and work of Kochi’s local barbers and hairstylists, which is part of the residency’s aim of opening up interaction between artists and the public. For the Uttar Pradesh-born artist, choosing a Malayalam title was a conscious decision. It was her way of establishing a link with the local culture of Kochi, while arousing curiosity among visitors interested in her work.
Her project is an attempt to put the spotlight on a peripheral community, mostly seen working out of roadside shops or makeshift setups under trees.
“The idea is to shed light on various aspects of a profession that otherwise won’t find a place in a museum,” said 30-year-old Singh, who is working out of a studio at Kochi’s heritage property Pepper House, where her work is being showcased for a week from July 28.
“In this show, I am exploring the transition among men from being traditionally alpha to metrosexuals. I am approaching this phenomenon through the lens of commercialisation and corporate market,” she added.
The idea of creating a museum about men’s grooming came to Singh when she visited the local barber shops in Mattancherry, Thoppumpady and other areas near Fort Kochi.
Her journey of understanding the evolution of men’s grooming began in 2011, and has been the subject of some of her previous works. Her research revealed that the focus of personal beauty and grooming has shifted from being hygiene-based to something that has an aesthetic value.
“Nowadays, you see equal number of products coming into the market for men’s grooming too. Armed with creative marketing and playing to the inherent desire of looking good, these products have successfully been able to create what can be considered a new race, which depends on these products to boost their self-esteem,” she said.
The process of creating a museum—with objects from the salon—involved spending hours at these shops, often befriending the barbers, and understanding the local culture of men’s grooming through their craft.
“They are good at the craft of recreating styles that are in vogue. They take cues from the pictures that clients bring for reference. Unaware of the original name of the haircut, these local barbers have coined names such as ‘sada’ cut and ‘slope’ cut for their convenience,” the artist said.
“During my research for this project, I explained the concept to these barbers and asked whether they could give their unused materials. The intention was to denote the relationship a barber shares with his tools. I could exhibit new ones, but there wouldn’t be any emotions attached to them,” noted Singh, who was funded by the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation to be part of the internationally revered Skowhegan residency in the USA in 2015.
She holds a master’s degree in painting from College of Art, University of Delhi. For the Pepper House Residency, however, she is experimenting with other media that will comprise a digital installation showcasing different hairstyles for men, an exhibition of items procured from the barbershop, and a small collection of drawings.
Procuring the specialised items for her work was no easy task. While some barbers were willing to donate their tools to the artist, others were reluctant to part with their prized possessions. Despite the odds, Singh has managed to put together a versatile collection of objects, including a manual trimmer, a scalp massager, a barber’s chair, straight razors, and a variety of combs.
The barbers who have contributed to Pallavi Singh’s residency, will get the rare opportunity of seeing their everyday tools as museum objects.