A tonsorial artist for over 40 years… Tullahram Dass is a ‘Special Person’
“In order to become a barber, you have to have love for the profession…a dedication; a passion to please each customer that sits to have themselves groomed. You have to fully appreciate what a person’s appearance means to them. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong business.”
By Rabindra Rooplall
Those of us who enjoy an old-fashioned trim with scissors encounter great difficulty when searching
for a reliable individual with this ability. There is one such person who has been around the city of Georgetown for decades.
Fifty-five year-old Tullahram Dass has been “cleaning up heads” for the past 41 years, and can be considered one of the most senior barbers in the country. His perspective of local barbering is impressive.
Even before I began my interview, Tullahram felt it necessary to define the word barber. Its meaning seemed obvious but, after listening to him, the profession took on an even greater importance.
The man who started to cut hair as a teenager, first described the vocation as tonsorial art. Yes, he and others like him can be referred to as tonsorial artists. But we’ll leave that for a bit later.
Dass started off by emphasising that not all barbers can “properly cut or deal with” varying types/textures of hair and shapes of heads, and opined that the reason for this limitation is due to the newer generation’s almost total dependency on appliances such as the electric trimmer.
“The older men who have grown accustomed to the scissors trim have fallen prey or victim if you will, to the abundance of barbers who have abandoned the scissors-and-comb style. You need to have some flexibility or your work will be ordinary. You can’t restrict yourself to one thing.”
Dass said many present barbers have entered the profession not for the love but for the monetary benefit.
Then he spoke of the respect…
“In my time and how I know it, barbers never wore anything else but a white gown… in any part of the world. But now if you go around and check barber shops there are all different colours that have no meaning.”
“It may sound unbelievable, but in the olden days, barbers performed some surgeries.’”
“The barber and the doctor used to wear the same colour gown, and this was because in ancient time barbers did a lot of the cutting of patients and not the doctor, as some doctors never used a blade. I was trimming a young man’s hair who worked in the medical profession one day, and he was wearing a green outfit. When I asked if he knew that green was supposed to be only used in a theatre to perform surgery and the white gown for the office. He said it didn’t matter. Then I told him that’s why things are how they are, because there are no standards.”
He continued to reflect: “Take for instance, the use of a barber pole, which I once had on my shop. This was to let persons know where they could find a barber shop. No one needs to know the language of any country they are in to figure out that where the barber pole is, is where they can go and get a hair trim. You could go and check it.”
I did later learn from research on the internet that the two spiraling red and white candy stripe ribbons around the pole represent two long bandages, one twisted around the arm before bleeding and the other used to bind it afterward. Originally, when not in use, the pole with a bandage wound around it, so that both might be together when needed, was hung at the door as a sign. But later, for convenience, instead of hanging out the original pole, another one was painted in imitation of it and given a permanent place on the outside of the shop. This was the beginning of the modern barber pole.
It was clear that this ordinary man had not only spent over four decades of his life, trimming the hair of thousands of clients, who trusted and believed in his expertise. He has in many ways made it a study
“Let me tell you…I had a sign on my barbershop that said ‘Tonsorial art done here by Tullah’ and the amount of questions I had to answer from clients about the meaning of tonsorial art, and who is doing the art, and what is the art, I decided to take down the sign,” Dass said with a smile.
He explained that tonsorial art relates to the work of a barber, and alluded to the fact that many persons don’t know the significance of specific hairstyles. Giving an example, Dass underscored that making parts in the hair has great significance, “when a man got married, for instance, he carried a middle part in his hair, when a man is a master he has a left part in his head, when you are a widower there is a right part in your head. But now people put a part as a style. It is the same thing with people wearing rings on their fingers. Each finger has a meaning, but people just wear rings for style, without understanding the significance.”
Noting that the maximum period he would spend on trimming or cutting a customer’s hair is 15 minutes, the traditional barber was quite intent on stressing that he is healthy and is not troubled by any ailments since he takes preventative measures in caring for himself.
“I have been standing on my feet for hours every day for decades, and I have no sickness. That (good health) is very important for a barber, trust me.”
Briefly, on the personal side, Tullahram told me that he was born on November 3rd, 1956, has been married for the past 38 years, to Carmen Dass, and their union produced two children, a boy and a girl.
Dass, who currently operates in Alberttown, noted that his intensions were influenced by senior barbers who took pride in their talent.
“I learn from the old-timers and I am very glad about that. I think they were the best. My styles have varied over the decades, yet, they keep some resemblance over time. The thing is that the same styles would come back every decade or so, with a different name. The fade as you know it now was called the tapered cut, but it’s really the same thing.”
He recounted that decades ago, neighbours in the countryside would trim one another’s hair, usually going for the style known as the ‘round cut.’ Dass said persons know it is now as a “tapered fade”. He also spoke about the cost of haircuts, then and now.
“Back then customers paid 25 cents to trim their hair, now the average price for a trim is $500. We’ve really come a long way,” he reflected with a broad grin.
And what about rest?
“Rest? The only day a barber gets a relief is Sunday. Normally a professional barber works all day sometimes without rest.”
The conclusion of the interview had an interesting comment from the decades-old barber.
“During the 1970s, the sanitary inspector would visit the barber shop three times every week. That in itself tells you how strict things were in terms of hygiene and systems. It was no-nonsense. That’s why I said before and I will always say, in order to become a barber, you have to have love for the profession…a dedication; a passion to please each customer that sits to have themselves groomed. You have to fully appreciate what a person’s appearance means to them. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong business.”
That’s good advice from a dedicated tonsorial artist.