Business thins out at Goa's traditional barbers

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The Independent Travel

Laxman Arondekar, from the Indian resort state of Goa, has got to a point in life where he knows what he wants from a haircut.

Younger men can keep the latest trendy styles and swanky unisex salons, the 70-year-old says. For him, nothing beats a short back and sides and conversation with like-minded customers at the local "barberia".

"I know the barbers and they also know what kind of haircut I want," the retired civil servant told AFP in the state capital, Panaji. "There is a sense of friendship.

"They are also cheap, as some of the new salons are charging more than 100 rupees ($2.2) for a cut. That's an expensive proposition that no middle-class person can afford."

Goa's "barberias" date back to Portuguese times and have become as much of a tourist attraction in the state as historic churches, imposing ramparts and the other vestiges of 450 years of colonial rule.

But where they were once found in abundance in the bustling side streets of Panaji, the traditional hair-cutting salons are now becoming as thin on the ground as hairs on the head of a balding man.

Only a handful of barberias remain and are readily identifiable by names like "Indiana", "Real" or "Nova Sucursal", the old world feel of their fixtures and fittings, and the barbers in their traditional white uniforms.

At the Barberia Indiana, overlooking the murky Mandovi river, the same Japanese-made barber's chairs are still being used as when Vithal Kawthankar first started working there more than 30 years ago.

Tourist web sites and message boards frequently vaunt the quality of the haircutting experience in Goa, with one traveller calling it an "indispensable part" of a visit to the state.

Wet shaves using a cut-throat razor for as little as 10 rupees, haircuts from just 20 to 30 rupees as well as the old equipment and locations in protected colonial-era heritage buildingsare all cited as big draws.

"We get a lot of foreigners coming in for a hair cut," said Kawthankar. "They like the unique feel of the place and its sense of history."

The Barberia Indiana has been a fixture in Panaji for the last 80 years but how long it and other places like it will remain is unclear.

The oldest barberia in the state capital, Barberia Central, burnt down two decades ago and has never been rebuilt.

Datta Sakhalkar, who owns the Barberia Real and is now in his late 80s, remembers that customers were charged just 0.25 rupees for a shave and 1.5 rupees for a haircut when he started in the business nearly 70 years ago.

His salon is like a museum, with the same water pumps and five chairs still in use. The scissors, combs and mirrors, too, are all originals. The only modern-day addition is a television mounted on a stand.

Like most of the barberias, the shop is closed on Saturdays as it is considered an unlucky day for a haircut.

Competition and social changes have left Goa's barberias struggling.

Ramesh Chalwadi was one of many hair stylists who came to Goa from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s in search of work. Now he owns two salons in Panaji, both called "Dilkhush".

These newer, air-conditioned barbers' shops, with music and stylists in the latest fashions and with trendy haircuts, are a sign of the growing preference for style over functionality.

"We thought we wouldn't be able to get the customers... but we managed, as we started offering massages and also facials, which weren't offered by the barberias," said Chalwadi.

"Now, most of of the barbers in Panaji are from Andhra and many of them are related to one other."

For modern men in Goa, as increasingly in the rest of India, it's no longer enough just to have a neat haircut like their fathers or grandfathers. Now, it's all about the complete package.

"The newer salons are better as they offer facilities like massages," said Mayabhushan Nagvekar, who works in the media in Goa.

"Men, too, want to look better now, so they can get facials which aren't offered in barberias," he added.

The barberias as a result have become a tourist novelty or a habit that older folk find hard to break.

"Business has certainly gone down," admitted Kawthankar. "We used to have queues stretching out of the door. But now we have to wait."