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An old craft’s greying hair

For nearly two decades, Chennai’s premier theatre actors could babble a mythic speech, slay with a rubber sword, fire a fake pistol, zip into a furry animal skin, shake their painted cheeks in anger, howl their amplified threats, and even, ‘saw the air too much’ – but, they couldn’t, shake, prattle, fake, battle, without a properly-set wig crafted by their popular wig-maker, Shankar.

“I joined because there was demand,” said Shankar. Just like he was cajoled and pushed by a friend from driving auto rickshaws to painting walls, another friend had persuaded him to drop his wall painter’s brushes for a wig-maker’s glue and comb.

There was a demand. But, that was the scene three decades ago, when Shankar joined the industry at its peak and became a reliable addition to the coterie of illusionists who worked magic to assist actors in their performance.

“It’s not just a skill,” he said. “It’s an art.” He dresses like an artist and goes to his small ‘studio’ on Devaraja Mudali Street in Sowcarpet.

Shankar, who is in his late-fifties, wears a green stud in his right ear and sports massive side locks. He smoothens and sets his overgrown French beard continuously, and his hand goes to it every time he pauses to think. His style – blue shirt and green pants, a steel watch and two big rings – is, perhaps, reminiscent of his days in the prop shop of theatres.

He who was selling wigs to actors is now selling them to beauty parlours. This fall was quick, he said.

“Mudi?” said a young woman, entering the shop. She was asking for a short length of hair, about a palm’s length, which could be pinned to lengthen the hair.

“A thousand,” said Shankar, quoting the price.

The woman laughed and started bargaining.

After a minute, Shankar relented. “Come later. It will be ready.”

Shankar sits on the stool outside his shop all day waiting for customers. The wigs and clip-on hair of various lengths hanging on three walls of his small shop need non-stop dusting and brushing. Although his short girt makes it easier to move from one wall to the next and then back to his seat, the endless attention the wigs demand tires him out, he confessed.

Seeing him brush the wigs with care compels one to think of him as a mythical mother constantly brushing and braiding the hair of her sixty playful daughters.

A mother who visited the shop asked for a ‘choti’ – a braided half wig. She needed it for her little girl who was taking part in a school event. The girl had got a bob cut recently.

The lady paid fifty rupees and before she left, remembered to ask the critical question, “Baal mein kaise set karenge? How do I set it in the hair?”

Shankar picked up the choti and a hair clip, walked to a board, took hold of a hanging half-wig and clipped the choti in and tugged at it. The lady was convinced. He offered a pricier rubber elastic half-wig. The lady refused.

“People shave their head at temples, as a show of devotion,” he said. “That hair is collected and sent to us.” Shankar explained the process of wig-making: “Once the hair arrives, I sort it, soak it in a tub, wash it using a conditioner, rinse it repeatedly,” and after following steps similar to those given at the back of a shampoo bottle, “they are placed under the sun to dry – for 3 – 4 days”.

He, then, selects the length, cuts them in 16-18-20-22 inches and glues them onto a nylon cap to make a full wig or binds them together to make a ‘Mudi’ or a ‘Choti’ – a half-wig. These wigs are then classified as first rate, second rate, and third rate.

Weft hair, big curling locks, clip hair are all manufactured in factories using Nylon which are usually priced between 50 and 1500 rupees. The price for natural wigs touch 3000 rupees and are much harder to maintain as they come with the same issues as those of natural hair – dandruff, hairfall, dryness!

Later, when two old women came looking for a full length half-wig, Shankar walked from wall to wall, let his hand slide down the hair looking for tangles, and returned with his selection. Every time, he shows it to the customer, for their approval. Then, brushes it, silkens it, rolls it, packs it, hands it.

“When I watch TV artists, I can easily tell you if they are wearing a wig,” he said. There is a row of wigs placed on bald wig holders near the front counter. Alongside the mattlock Lord Shiva wig were two unrecognisable ones, crafted to resemble the hair style of Tamil cinema actors from decades ago.

“I would wear a cap and try it on myself,” he said. “There were many more – Indira Gandhi’s, Amitabh Bachchan’s, of mythical characters – for fancy dress competitions.”

Now, business has moved to prop shops that cropped up around Ram Theatre in Vadapalani.  “Everyone goes to such shops and buy Nylon wigs and since they are closer to the studios, they get better sales.”

Shankar lives in Thiruvattur and grew up in Chennai, watching films, he adds. His daughter is married to an auto driver. His son works as a smithy in a bronze workshop casting gods and goddesses.

On the bleak future of his art, he said, “It is dying.”

Shankar has been selling wigs to cancer patients and to those who have lost all their hair.

“I need a wig for my mother-in-law,” said a young woman, stepping into the shop. “She has shaved her head. She needs to attend a marriage. She is worried about not looking good in the photos. Give me a nice wig.”

When Shankar uttered the price, she turned into a regular disappointed-by-price customer and gave the disappointed-but-interested Indian shopper’s answer, “I’ll come back later.”

Shankar gave an intent look and sat down on his stool.

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