The wooden combs are traditionally used to disentangle hair and also to comb out the tiniest of lice. These were an essential part of dressing up. The small combs were also used as hair-pins for ornamentation. Over time, the versatility of the combs have led to its multi-faceted usage. These combs are now also used to hold some oil and massage it into the hair. The Rajput and Sikh men use the small ones, which are handy to brush their beards with.
In ancient India, women applied a mixture of Multani mitti (Fuller's Earth) and Kali Mitti on their hair for nurturing their mane. A wooden comb was always used to massage the hair along with sesame seed oil. This combination, the localities believed could initiate hair growth. Grooming with the wooden comb is also believed to ease labour pains amongst pregnant women. Another enthralling native narrative suggests that women who carried cakes of dry cow dung on their heads over long distances were often troubled by problems of ticks and lice in the hair. The fine bristles of the comb were vital in driving them away.
The wood that is utilized to craft these combs is obtained from trees such as Sheesham, Babool, Kadam, Ker and Ber, which are also reputed for their health benefits.
It is believed that using these combs prevent hair fall. Being made of wood, the combs do not create any static electricity like their plastic counterparts. Therefore, according to many craftsmen and users, the hair breakage is less and it also does not meddle with the neurotransmitters and electricity in the brain.
Grooming with the wooden comb is also believed to ease labour pains amongst pregnant women. The combs do not have sharp edges and the bristles are rounded just the right amount. These provide a great massaging sensation while combing and keep the head cool. The many innovative designs are expanding its usability. A few have a piece of mirror inserted onto the body to help take a quick look at, during grooming. These craftsmen have also come up with an ingenious variety of wooden combs which have a cavity at the handle portion, in which oil can be filled and corked. The oil then seeps out into the hair through miniscule holes between the bristles while combing.
Myths & Legends
Hair dressing has always been an important part of grooming from time immemorial around the world. In India, hairdressing and ornamentation holds an important place and depicts different cultures, beliefs and even social status. Kesh Shringar (hair dressing or ornamentation) was an art and can be traced back to around 2000 BC. It is also one of the pegs in the Solah Shringar or the 16 beautification steps in Indian tradition.
Many paintings and sculptures depict hairdressing. There are famous depictions of Lord Krishna lovingly combing the hair of his consort, Radha (2 & 4). To this day, one of the first gifts for a newborn or young bride or from a husband to a wife includes hairbrushes with silk soft bristles. In the Muria tribes of Chhattisgarh, the boys gift either wooden or brass combs to the girls of their choice and the status of the girl is enhanced by the number of combs she possesses. These convey that apart from being an element in daily routine, there is something sensual, appealing and comforting about having the hair brushed. Comb making therefore remains a significant industry. According to the craftsmen, the Kangsi craft tradition is more than 400-500 years old. Many tribes are adept in this craft. The members of these tribes used to make combs and travel around selling them, sometimes bartering them for grains and other essentials. They also used to make combs and ornamentation for royalty with ivory. Different tribes are known for their unique designs.
The Chotamal Banjara tribe still carries on this craft tradition. The Banjaras were native to Marwad, Rajasthan, but economic hardship subsequently forced them to break up into smaller communities and disperse to other regions within India.
The combs are carved out of blocks of hardwood. Different kinds of designs cater to different uses. The most commonly seen designs are the square shaped ones with teeth on both sides - wider ones to one side and the finer ones to the other. The sides of the small combs are slightly convex shaped to provide better grip. The other type is made from a flat block cut in a semi-circular shape, with teeth on one side and the curve forming the grip.
Many a times these wooden combs have patterned handles. Consequently, these have the teeth bristles to only one side. The patterns occasionally tilt towards elaborate details of animals or abstract inspirations from nature. The combs purchased by the tribals for their personal usage are very decorative. They favour the ones adorned with mirrors, threads and sequins.
Many innovative designs have evolved for decorative and functional purposes. One type of comb has a cavity above the teeth bristles into which oil can be filled. The oil spreads onto the hair while combing.
Kesh Shringar is a dying practice with the fast pace of lifestyle today. The need for a comb in the dressing set, which massages and pampers the tresses, is zilch with the salon trends. The people are more directed towards picking up easily available and cheaper plastic combs. The number of craftsmen practicing the art has also diminished and the older Banjaras can be spotted sparsely in fairs or exhibitions.