“those are not haircuts, i don’t even know what to call them,” elam seliam says with a shake of his head and a wry smile, referring to the unisex hair salons that today’s youngsters like to frequent. the 54-year-old indian barber holds firm to the belief that a good cut, neat trim and a clean shave are what make the man and at his 36-year-old saloon in taman tun dr ismail, he delivers just that to a loyal stable of customers who have stayed with him through the decades.
elam comes from a long lineage of barbers and growing up, he always knew that he too would someday make it his calling. he saw barbering as an elegant profession and admits that he was also enticed by the crisp white jackets that barbers traditionally wore. “they looked so smart in them,” says elam. “and the customers were such refined gentlemen.”
after completing his ‘o’ levels (now known as spm) in 1973, he trained at his father’s saloon in batu road (today’s jalan tunku abdul rahman) for about a year and stayed on to gain experience for two more before venturing out. he and his older brother elam poorranan set up kamahl hair cutting saloon in 1978, in taman tun dr ismail. the name was a tribute to a popular indian singer in australia at the time. while kamahl himself never set foot in the shop, his family members used to frequent elam’s father’s saloon.
the location was an easy choice for the brothers, who grew up in a nearby chinese village nicknamed cowboy town that was located where glomac damansara now stands. houses then were wooden shoplots that hosted small businesses downstairs while families occupied the upper levels. “we were among the earliest establishments in taman tun and the first indian barber shop here for a long time,” elam recalls. “the only other surviving business that i remember from that time is restoran ismail. the wet market didn’t open until about 10 years later.”
kamahl, in fact, was originally located in the same row as the restaurant and stayed there for a good 29 years until the rental went up beyond their means, in 2007. his brother was also running another saloon nearby at the time, so elam decided that he would set up his own. after resting for a few months, he re-opened kamahl in the current location.
b y poh remembers that period well. he had been frequenting kamahl at the old premise for as long as he could recall and was taken by surprise when it closed down. “he didn’t even inform his customers, i was so angry!” says poh, but with a twinkle in his eyes as he settles into one of three vintage barber chairs that elam inherited from his father, for his regular trim. “i went around trying other barbers but was not satisfied.” as luck would have it, one day poh chanced upon a flyer that elam had distributed around the area – pasted on a tree. the rest is happy history as the two resumed their barber-client relationship.
the previous kamahl was not only bigger and busier, poh recalls, but also “much neater!” elam responds with a smile, explaining that he had to settle for a first floor unit as rental for ground floor lots are too high. he transported everything from the old shop to this second address but with less space to move around, things became understandably cluttered.
mirrors are embellished with stickers while rows of pink bay rum and yellow ice eau de cologne, contained in recycled liquor bottles, sit above. the tables are covered with a myriad barbering tools and hairstyling accessories – everything from scissors to blades and old-school talcum powders (remember cuticura and holiday on ice?).
like the walls flanking the entrance and staircase that leads to the saloon, painted barber’s poles pop out against a rich turquoise background. altogether, it’s colourful and chaotic but is not without its charm. not that it matters to his customers, mostly malay and chinese men in their 40s or older who have been frequenting his saloon for years, and include prolific personalities and public figures. many have become friends. in fact, as poh tells it, “i always call ahead before coming for a cut because this fellow has many friends so he has many appointments.”
poh also remembers that back at the old shop, elam barely had to lift a finger himself as he had a stable of “about 20 staff” to tend to customers; elam says he only had five staff, all from india and they have since returned to their home countries. today, he works with just one employee.
on average, it takes elam about 30 minutes to complete a haircut. working in silence but letting his hands do all the talking, he takes his time to ensure that every bit of unwanted hair is trimmed or shave and the side cut – the hairline behind the ears – are neat. this is the traditional indian barber style, he says, which is about doing everything properly and with an attention to detail.
elam usually finishes by applying a splash of cologne to the forehead or running it through the hair and also pats it on the back of the neck. then, holding a towel in both hands, he cradles the customer’s head gently and carefully but swiftly gives their neck a twist in each direction.
“this is to help them relax and loosen their neck muscles, but one must be precise and well trained to do it,” elam explains. “the customer also needs to stay relaxed. if i feel that their neck and muscles are very tense, i won’t do it.”
shaving is done the old-school way: a face brush, first sterilised with dettol, is used to apply shaving cream onto the face before elam gets to work with a small blade. a hot towel, kept warm in a steamer, is used to pat the skin and then to finish, a light dusting of talcum powder is applied to the face.
elam shares an important tip about barbering: “stand tall and firm, keep a straight posture and your hands steady – this is what we call a barber’s class. only then can you do a good job and give a good cut.” elam’s proudest moment was when his late father, who died of colon cancer a few years after kamahl opened, visited his saloon to not only give his blessings but told elam that he had indeed mastered the barber’s class. watch him at work and you will agree.
> kamahl hair dressing saloon is at no 4a 1st floor, jalan tun mohd fuad 2, taman tun dr ismail, kl
tel 012 219 6430 opens 8.45am-8.30pm prices rm12 for a cut, rm10 for a shave or get the combo for rm20
this story first appeared in the malay mail online and crave