“The streetside barbers have always been an integral part of street life in Mumbai, where I grew up,” photographer Yuvan Kumar tells Dazed Beauty. His series of portraits documenting the barbers (or “nais”) who make their living cutting hair on the city’s pavements offer a moving insight into this little talked about aspect of India’s rich street life. “The barbers often carry on from generations before them,” he explains. “And a low income is what keeps many from opening their own salons.”
Kumar’s vibrant and beautifully composed images depict all the poignant details of the barbers’ make-shift roadside stalls. “Visually, their stalls and tools are so interestingly put together,” he tells us. “One of the barbers didn’t even have a stall – just a stool outside a stationery shop where the customer had to hold up the mirror. Whether it is stickers of gods they worship or the colourful combs and hair products, I was drawn instantly to documenting their situation.”
Taken in late March and early April 2021, his images highlight the precarious lives of India’s daily wage and migrant workers who have very much been left “to fend for themselves” during the country’s devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. “The first national lockdown was announced with about three days’ notice, meaning thousands of migrant workers had to make their ways back home from the big cities. As transport routes shut down, tonnes of people were forced to walk home – some as far as two or three states away,” Kumar tells Dazed. “With no proper food and drink or support, several died on their journeys. Daily wage workers in the city – street-side barbers, food stall owners, parking ticket collectors, and cart pullers – were also left to fend for themselves. And conditions became dire for many.”
“Seeing what havoc the pandemic had wreaked on India’s daily wage and migrant workers in 2020 made me curious to know how this community had been affected,” Kumar reflects. “It was important to show what they have to do to survive on a day-to-day basis and communicate the originality and resilience of these nais. As such an integral part of street life, they are constantly fighting to survive. Whether it’s ongoing urban development, riots, or even a global pandemic. There is a resiliency that keeps the barbers afloat no matter the calamity. They may be overlooked, but these everyday Indian heroes are never forgotten.”
Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of Yuvan Kumar’s portraits of Indian street barbers.