The Legacy Of Delhi University’s Oldest Barbershop

The Legacy Of Delhi University’s Oldest Barbershop
Kirti Narain for Homegrown

For over 60 years, the snipping sound of scissors has emanated from Deep Chand’s humble barbershop in Delhi University’s north campus. A university landmark of sorts, the celebrated hairdresser’s shop has been a permanent fixture on campus since it opened in 1950. The modest off-white structure juts awkwardly onto the street, since the road, built much later, was laid out around the shop. Despite its unique geography though, the tiny shop hardly draws any attention to itself. Passersby on rickshaws drive past it every day without catching so much as a glimpse of what goes on inside. But its unassuming appearance is no judge for the kind of patronage it once received. In his long and illustrious career as the ‘University Barber’, Deep Chand had a vibrant list of clientele, from cash-strapped hostel students to the Governor of Delhi.

Today, however, the shop no longer books appointments with governors or vice chancellors. Deep Chand passed away in 2006 and took with him the once prosperous business. What’s left behind is his legacy, and two loyal employees who took up the mantle of keeping the business running in the face of unprecedented competition.

Master ji’s Legacy

When Rajkumar, 40, came in search of work from Uttar Pradesh in 1996, Deep Chand took him under his wing. “Bohot ache the humare master ji, apne bachon ki tarha rakhte the, (Our master ji was a wonderful man, he used to treat us like his own children),” says Rajkumar fondly of his former boss. His partner Jagat Narayan, over 50, joined the business even earlier. Both started their careers at Deep Chand’s University Hairdressing Salon in Kamala Nagar, which has since been sold by his family.

True to his moniker of ‘master ji’, Deep Chand taught the two men all they know about running the business. Rajkumar recalls how he always told them to be polite to all customers, even if they’re in the wrong – “Woh hamesha kehte the, ‘ladaai aur padhai ka koi anth nahi hai’ (he always used to say, ‘there’s no end to fighting and studying’)”. The hairdresser also taught them to ensure they have understood the customer’s preferences, even if it’s a small child – something Rajkumar demonstrates when a customer walks in for a head massage.

The shop retains much of its old-world charm with its old world rates. A Dettol shave costs Rs 30, while foam shaves and champis (head massages) costs Rs 40 each – perfectly affordable for university students, mostly boys, living in the area. Occasionally, girls from nearby St Stephen’s College would come for a trim but the two shy men would find ways to politely turn them away. “Ajeeb lagta hai, yaha zyaadatar sirf ladke hi aate hai (it feels awkward, we usually get only male customers)”, says an embarrassed Rajkumar.

Photographed by Kirti Narain for Homegrown

A Shop in a Box

The shop itself is hardly big enough to fit four people at once. There are two vintage chairs for customers and a small wooden bench at the back covers half the entrance. A framed picture of Deep Chand’s hangs over a small sink in the corner. The marble countertop is a new addition. On it rest a host of products – Old Spice Aftershave, Afsana Natural Gulab Jal, BaBa Attar-A-Mogra Talc and Lancet Shaving Foam among other things. A box of hair clippers gathers dust in a shelf above the mirror. The walls usually have framed news clippings and certificates of the legendary barber which were taken down when the shop was painted recently but the two are happy enough to take the frames out and show whoever asks.

In one photograph, Deep Chand can be seen cutting former Delhi Lt Governor AN Jha’s hair at his residence. Another is a framed letter from Murli Manohar Joshi’s office “wishing him well” and certifying that he has been an “expert hairdresser” for five decades. Narayan describes Deep Chand’s dependable scooter which never stayed parked in one spot for too long. “Puri Dilli ke chakkar lagate the logo ki hajamat karne ke liye, (he used to ride around all of Delhi on that scooter to keep his appointments)” he says.

Though the shop doesn’t see the same business as before, some old customers find their way back. There’s an ex-university professor who makes a trip every now and then all the way from Noida, Rajkumar says amazed. “Bas itihas se chal rahi hai, aur kuch nahi, (it’s running because of its history, nothing more),” he adds.

As the day progresses, the slow Saturday morning turns into a relatively fruitful business day. Jacob Cherian, a professor of Physics at St Stephen’s College, has been coming to get his hair cut from Deep Chand since 1992. “He had a great memory. Even if you came back after six months, he would remember your face, ask about work and your family,” says Cherian. “People like that always leave an impression,” he adds.

Photographed by Kirti Narain for Homegrown

Surviving in Delhi

The little business the shop makes, however, is not always enough to make ends meet. The shop belongs to the university, and Rajkumar and Narayan owe Rs 3,630 to neighbouring Gwyer Hall, the oldest hostel for post-graduate men in the university, every month. The two are behind on rent by a month. For every day’s delay, they are fined Rs 50.

Every month they manage to make five or six thousand rupees, some of which has to either be sent back home or has to pay for their ticket to go home themselves. Back in the village, they have some land to grow their own food but the shop in Delhi is their main source of income. At night, they stack up the chairs and sleep on the floor of their shop – paying rent in Delhi is not an expense they can afford. In summer months, only the fan (probably as old as the shop itself) has to suffice for ventilation. But food, of course, is taken care of in a university that caters to youngsters on shoe-string budgets.

Nobody from Deep Chand’s family came forward to take care of the shop after he died. For some time, they had an arrangement with Deep Chand’s daughter-in-law but in the last few years, the two have just dealt with the university directly. But they have no bitterness. There is security enough that as long as they pay rent, the shop will remain by virtue of Deep Chand’s legacy, which they are happy to take forward. Even on slow business days, the two can be seen sipping chai on the wooden plank outside their shop and chatting with friends. There is food on the table and their masterji in their hearts and despite all the hardships of the city that seems to be enough for them.

Photographed by Kirti Narain for Homegrown

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