It was Matthias who stumbled upon our second image on the home page, ‘Barber at Work,’ when buying old postcards on the internet. The rest of us agreed that this striking picture should form part of the website since it resonates with the several themes of the project.

This photograph from the 1920s captures a move from one state to another in medias res, focusing our eye on that ‘in-between’ stage that is so difficult to speak about. What fascinates me is the foregrounding of the body here, a body that is clearly experiencing a process of change… a body that is neither here nor there (or, even if one were to see it as a simple hair makeover, neither before or after), not yet anyway. What is this young man thinking as he sits on the mat with head bowed to the razor’s edge in the skilled hands of the barber?

Tonsure or the shaving of the head is an act of significance in several religious traditions of South Asia: Buddhist or Jaina monks are expected to undergo tonsure as a sign of renouncing the world and entering monkhood; in most Hindu households, performing a first tonsure marks a male child’s transition from infancy to childhood or a full tonsure may mark the change of ritual status incurred by the death of the father. But importantly, full or partial tonsure also mark the social significance of the body in India: high caste status, for instance, was traditionally marked by a full tonsure of widows in the case of Brahmin women or a partial tonsure of the head, retaining a central tuft or ‘kudumi’ (in Tamil) in the case of the male.

In South India, it is this ‘kudumi’ which often became an object of fierce controversy in the context of Christianity. The kudumi found supporters and detractors from amongst both missionaries and new converts to Christianity across denominations. Some missionaries, such as the Catholic Robert de Nobili (1577–1656) in Madurai, sported the kudumi himself, amongst various other bodily and ritual signs, to adopt the role of a ‘sannayasi’. Needless to say, his dress code did not appeal to his colleagues and his rationale that emphasized the social (and not religious) significance of the kudumi was investigated at several points!

As one might expect, men and women from across the caste spectrum converted to Christianity and missionary records from the various societies show that while some high-caste male converts wanted to retain their ‘kudumi’ as a marker of their social status, others very willingly had their kudumis shaved off at conversion or baptism. The controversy over exactly what the kudumi signified continued through the centuries attracting statements for and against it. One I find amusing is when Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814-91) of Tirunelveli treats this “tuft of hair” as a bad fashion statement: “It is a matter of indifference to me how people wear their hair, provided they take care to keep it clean. All I argue for is that it should be regarded as a matter of taste, not a matter of religion, and that if we dislike the kudumi and wish natives to cut it off and to shave their heads, we should appeal, not to their consciences, but to their wish to improve their looks” (Indian Antiquary in 1875: 173).

I’d rather not relegate the kudumi to mere fashion however. When Tamil converts to Christianity chose to keep or shave their kudumis, they were making visual statements through their bodies—statements regarding their bodies (and by implication their souls) that were taken seriously by those around them. Although we focus on textual accounts in this project, this photograph is a reminder that converts “spoke” of their conversion in different ways, signalling the complexity of their transition. So what tools can we use to study and compare such ‘in-between’ moments that are so difficult to grasp, whether in images that translate them into visibility or through narratives that attempt to recount them through writing?

1 Comment » for Speaking through Images 3: What might be left unsaid…
  1. Matthias Frenz says:

    I have found a German source that underscores what you say, Hephzibah. The letter points to a serious cultural misunderstanding between Indians and Europeans in the south Indian ‘mission field’. Their definition of the ‘red line’ to be crossed by a religious convert differs significantly.
    European missionaries are puzzled how Hindus can accept Christ as their teacher but remain in their ancestral believes; Indians are shocked that Christians demand their ‘social death’ symbolised by the removal of their tuft.

    Here is what Herman Gundert (1814-1893) wrote in a letter to the Mission Committee at Basel, dated Tellicherry 20 November 1844. He reports on the baptism of Paul on 15 September 1844:

    “[…] Das Aufsehen in der Gegend ist gross. Einmal hiess es, die ganze wenig zahlreiche Kaste (der Mugayer) dort wolle Paul folgen; so schnell geht es aber nicht. Er war Arzt und Priester, andere haben jetzt s[eine] früher beträchtlichen Einkünfte, und diese widerstreben. Hauptsächlich ist es aber ein Götze von dem man in deutschen Pantheons von Indien wohl wenig weiss, der aber der Aufnahme des Worts gewaltig im Wege steht. Dies ist weder Herr Brahma noch Frau Cali. sondern ein kleines Haarbüschel, genannt “sikha” im S[üden] und “kuduma” im N[orden].
    Pauls älterer Bruder, ein Esau, hat nehml[ich] nichts gegen Jesum Christum, Glauben, Taufe usw. einzuwenden; kann aber um alles nicht verstehen warum das Aeussere ein anderes werden soll. Ein Hindu wird nehml[ich] nur dann als aus der Kaste gefallen betrachtet, wenn er den Zopf verloren hat; und Paul, der doch von Natur einen überlegenen Geist hat […], gestand als er mir auf meine Bitte 2 Tage nach der Taufe den Zopf abtrat, (solange hatte ich gewartet, ob ers nicht von selbst tue), ja es sei etwas Grosses darum, um dieses elenden Dinges willen werden ihm jetzt Land und Leute fremd; aber jetzt erst sei er auch ganz frei. […]
    In Tinneweli macht man keine Kahlköpfe, kriegt aber auch die Kasten-teufelei nicht weg. Auf dieser Küste habens Nasranis und Mapillas eingeführt. In Madras höre ich, folgen die Schotten unserer Art. Die Zöpfe der Knaben namentlich sind ein wirklich netter Schmuck; aber erst nach ein Paar Jahren Aufenthalts merkte ich wie viel Leben in diesen Zierraten steckt. Es ist als ob der ganze Hinduismus drin stecke.
    Letzthin hörte ich eine lange Unterredung zwischen Paul und s[einem] Bruder, alles über “Das Lob der Welt”, Ansehen vor den Leuten und dergl[eichen] dessen Gegenstand einzig und allein der Zopf war. Dies ist also der neue Götze.”

    If you don’t read German, here is my English translation of the German original:

    “The sensation caused in this area is significant. Once they said, the whole small cast group (of the Mugayar) wished to follow Paul; but it will not happen so quickly. He was a physician and a priest, others receive now his formerly significant income, and they resist. It is mainly an idol, however, that is hardly known in German pantheons of India, that massively obstructs the reception of the Word. It is neither lord Brahma, nor lady Cali, but a small tuft of hair, called ‘sikha’ in the south and ‘kuduma’ in the north.
    Paul’s elder brother, Esau, has no objections against Jesus Christ, faith, baptism etc.; but he can never understand why the outward appearance should change. A Hindu will only then be considered to be seceded from his caste when he has lost his tuft; and Paul, who by nature has a superior spirit […], confessed when he on my request removed his pig tail 2 days after his baptism (I had waited whether he would not do it of his own accord), yes, there is something grand about it, for this miserable thing he is now alienated from his country and people; but only now he’d be completely free.
    In Tinneweli they do not produce bald heads, but do not manage to eradicate the devilish casteism. On this coast the Nasranis and Mapillas have introduced it. In Madras, I hear, the Scots follow our practice. The pig tails of the boys are really a pretty decoration; but only after having stayed here for a few years I realized how much life these ornaments contain. It is as if they contain the entire Hinduism.
    Recently I overheard a long conversation between Paul and his brother, all about the ‘praise of the world’, recognition by the people etc. that focused solely on the pig tail. Thus, this is the new idol.”