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?