Pallavi Singh was an artist-in-residence at Pepper House from May to July, 2018. During her residency, she created ‘Haircut Museum – Under Construction’, an installation that recreated a museum exhibition space. Towards the end of her stay, Pallavi shared some thoughts about her work and practice with the Kochi Biennale Foundation team.
Haircut Museum – Under Construction
I work predominantly on grooming culture, in context of Indian men in Indian society. It is a subject I have been exploring for the past 7 years. In Kochi, I was very interested in exploring this because of the several communities that inhabit the space. In my first month here, I just wandered through different areas, looking for community influence – but what I ended up finding was the influence of popular culture. During conversations with the various salons, I witnessed that the haircuts and names for styles that they were using had “local” names. I wondered where the references for these came from. Observing the expert flourish, I began to research the different cuts and styles and found that these are already pre-existing cuts with precise instructions – not at all the frame of reference for the barbers. And that made me question the ways in which “style” is said to be circulating in elite sections of society only. I then moved from just techniques to the actual tools and material objects that make up the space of male beautification. I then thought of the museum.
I went to the different salons and asked them to donate (as patrons) objects that are old or out of use – for the purpose of the Museum of Haircuts. I tried to be persuasive, but was careful about not intervening in their personal space – this was entirely a matter of choice. I realised slowly that the barbers seemed to be most attached to their oldest tools because of the ways in which it fit their thumbs, the ways in which they seemed to move with precise ease.
I managed to get around 70 tools from 10 shops that I shortlisted, and categorised them according to their use. Throughout this process, I wanted to question the concept of the museum, especially with regard to power and politics. What happens when you broaden the definition of patronage in a museum?
One of the more fascinating aspects of this project, apart from the diversity of tools, was the way that the employees at different salons came from varying cultural backgrounds. For example, a man called Ramzaan runs a barber shop in Jew Town, and he’s from Goa. His main assistant is from Bihar – it’s quite a confluence! They were also emphatic that their products and styles were unique because they were from Goa. Another important characteristic of these salons was the newspapers and magazines they displayed – old magazines like NANA Cinema, and Kerala Shabdam. It was around these that conversations were spun in the space, forming essential parts of a barber shop.
In my student days, I worked mostly on desire within desire, or desire based on lust. For example, I would notice the way in which a lot of middle-aged men would be eve-teasers in DTC buses, and I wondered why it was predominantly in that age group. It made me wonder why an “adult” would express desire in this way.
Around the same time, I also became fascinated by men’s desire to look good. These were the two random series I was working on together. I then began to be drawn to a particular concept – the desire to be desired. Around 2010-2011, “unisex” salons had begun to pop up everywhere. It struck me, during my observations, that while men spent considerable time grooming themselves – they weren’t as open about it. They want to cover up a rather obvious desire for beauty products with machismo. There is this view that gossip is something that only “females” do, but if you sit at any parlour with a group of men – they’re constantly poring over gossip magazines!
“Metrosexuality” in the Indian Context
Apart from my research, I encountered the popular use of the term “metrosexuality.” The writer who coined this term, Mark Simpson: I randomly emailed him in 2012, and he responded. I believed that what I was witnessing here, had already sort of happened in the West, and had appeared in India in its own form. Lots of cosmetic companies and salons began to take on this image. It is a confusing term, often misinterpreted. What was interesting was the number of men that had begun to pursue careers in the beauty industry. Yet, it was definitely more pervasive in the more elite sections of society – and the limits related to how much you can afford. At first I would draw mostly on the writings of Mark Simpson but I perceived a gap in the way that grooming culture played out here. I then began to explore Indian mythology, and how grooming and beautification functioned in Indian society for Indian men.
Myths & Stories
On the surface, it felt like the emphasis in India was always on beautifying the women. With men it seemed to be some kind of a footnote, even in the commercial arena. So I started reading between the lines. There are stories which you can see in that light. I was intrigued by the accessories that Kings and Gods wore, and the use of the local product called ubtan (a mixture of turmeric, gram flour, and herbs is combined with water as a beauty treatment). It moved from its purpose of hygiene into the domain of aesthetic value.
In Hindu mythology, there is a god called Ashwani. They’re actually twin brothers, but they’re also called the Ayurvedic Gods. They help God to, and here I’m translating, to look beautiful – like plastic surgeons. Who are the Ashwanis in our times? They can be your stylists, barbers, plastic surgeons. In a similar vein, I found a local salon in Delhi that was called Vishnu. There is a story where the Saint Narada goes to Vishnu, and expresses that he wants to marry a princess – requesting him to grant him “a face just like Vishnu’s himself.” Jokingly, Vishnu gives him the face of a monkey. Narada is furious, but says “wait and see – this face is going to help you” (and we all know how Hanuman is instrumental in the Ramayana for Ram, Vishnu’s avatar). I am interested in this kind of fluid morphing in mythology. In salons, sometimes experiments fail and sometimes they can be completely life-altering (literally). I started picking these kinds of examples – Sringara Mala, for example. Sringara in aesthetics has two meanings – beauty, and its rasa, which is love. It automatically creates an image of women, and I thought therefore of doing a Sringara Mala series on men – through ubtan and ear piercings.
I got a scholarship from INLAKS and went for a residency to the United States. The perspective I gained there was moving beyond personal desire into the domain of corporate and commercial desire. In particular, “false desire,” and the people that are running behind it. I explored how Fair & Lovely began to include Fair & Handsome. For women they would advertise getting a good husband, or a job. For men it was about moving beyond your insecurities and basically attracting a lot more women. I also just felt the intensity of commercialisation – it’s like they’re trying to create a new race, where everything is focused on your appearance.
During a residency in Orissa, I went to the Chausathi Jogini Temple with sixty-four Goddesses – forms of Kali. I collaborated with a theatre practitioner there to make a box with sixty-four interactive sections – with images of Yogis (not Yoginis). Drawing on the traveling theatre (jatra), I wanted to show the performance of beauty, or beautification as theatre. Within my practice, I am currently working on the ways in which gods and mythological beings can be mediums to explore contemporary grooming culture. And then I want to question the segregation between femininity and masculinity – and the ruptures within.