S Chinnappa has been carving wooden combs for the past 40 years
George Town’s NCS Bose road thrums with the din of traders selling their wares, potential customers making enquires and vehicles cutting through the sea of people trying not to get run over. In this burst of colour and sound, S Chinnappa, clad in white, sits chiselling away unaffectedly in his corner. Having worked on this street for 40 years, he is attuned to the chaos.
The 69-year-old sells wooden combs that he fashions himself, cutting the teeth on the street. “This is my family business,” he says, waving his hand over an array of six different kinds of combs. His rough palms bear multiple scratches from long-forgotten injuries. “Both my parents were comb makers, they taught me. I have been making combs since I was 10. It’s all I know,” he says.
Every morning, Chinnappa starts sawing blocks of wood and chiselling them to the shape of combs. He then comes to NSC Bose Road after noon, picks a spot and lays down his wares on a mat in front of him. It is now that he saws the teeth in, finely — nearly 140 on one of them — and sharpening them to points with a filler chisel. Other combs are wider-toothed with elaborate handles.
“Wooden combs are good for your scalp,” he says, “It is easier to untangle your hair, reduce hairfall and keep your hair less frizzy.” He earns about ₹500 a day, selling these combs. Despite working with wood for over two decades, he refuses to make anything other than combs. “Those things require creativity… This job, I know,” he shrugs.
For a brief while, he recalls, he tried being inventive. “I once saw a man selling combs that would oil your hair automatically. I designed similar combs, adding a narrow hatch on one side to pour oil in the comb. The gaps between the teeth had pores for the oil to leak onto your hair,” he says. The creativity did not pay off, though. “The earnings from that were just was not worth the hard work that went behind it,” he says.
After his parents’ death, Chinnappa, then a young man of 18, made his way from Padaiveedu to Vyasarpadi in the city along with his brother and sister and has lived there since. “There was nobody to feed us there, we thought Chennai would have something in store for us,” he says. Though he rarely goes back to his hometown, it is where he sources wood from. Until seven years ago, before his health worsened, he would personally go there every year to collect wood. “The wood we get is from the poovarusa (portia) tree. The one with the yellow flowers. It is beneficial to our health,” he says.
Chinappa will be the last of his family to make combs; his three sons have more itchy feet than him, preferring to do odd jobs around the city that easily pay better. “They don’t seem to have the patience for sitting at one place for so long,” he says, wiping away sawdust and wood shaving off his veshti.
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