The small town of Pushkar is situated in the northwest of India, wrapped around a sacred lake that’s long inspired pilgrimages from around the country, as Hindus believe bathing in its waters will purify their spirit as well as their skin. But walk a block away from the lake’s northern edge, along one of its narrow, vendor-lined streets, and you may stumble across a miniscule storefront trimmed in faded gold paint. The sign above the door reads “BABA HAIR DRESSER.” There are two more signs flanking the doorway, listing a series of services (haircuts, shaves, henna tattoos) and a short bit of advice to passersby: “Ladies & Gents. DON’T MISS ME.”
This is where Baba Sen fell headfirst into a tidal wave of internet fame. Not for his haircuts or shaves, although Baba has the steady hand and confident speed of a skilled craftsman. This middle-aged Indian man, with his luxuriant mustache and wild, lively eyes, instead went viral for his signature head massage. So now, among a certain internet community, he’s simply known as Baba, the Cosmic Barber, purveyor of the “world’s greatest head massage.”
Whether or not it’s actually the best, Baba’s head massage is surely the most unique. He doesn’t just rub the scalp, he smacks, slaps, scratches and caresses it, all the while inhaling and exhaling with loud whooshes of air. His eyes narrow as he grabs invisible energy from the space around their bodies and sprinkles it on the customer’s scalp with a satisfied grin. Next comes massage of the shoulders and back, using his hands and also a small moonstone sphere that amplifies physical pressure and spiritual power. This is how Baba treats every customer’s seven Chakras, the critical energy points defined in a number of Indian spiritual practices.
Nearly a decade ago, three Western men who had met in Pushkar decided to explore the streets together and stumbled into Baba’s shop. The idea was for one of the men to get a quick shave. Baba offered the massage afterward, and another man decided to film it. That video rapidly racked up views, with 10.3 million total clicks as of today. Other videos of Baba have gotten millions of views as well, putting his total somewhere in the ballpark of 40 million.
In the online community of head massage video fanatics, Baba is the godfather, the originator of a viral trend that’s inspired a legion of YouTubers who specialize in capturing Indian barbers doing what they do best: shaving cheeks with straight razors and giving people head, face and sometimes even body massages. The barber shops themselves can be relatively luxurious, with big mirrors and plenty of electric appliances, or incredibly modest, with a patina of daily use clearly evident on the walls and furniture. Some barbers don’t even have shops, instead plying their trade under the shade of backyard trees or on the side of a roaring Delhi road.
These craftsmen are featured in channels like Pure Massage World, Indian Barber, Massage N More and many others on YouTube. Some, like The Nomad Barber and Haircut Harry, are Western travelers who frequent India to document its barbers. Many more channels are led by Indians who are tapping into a community of viewers with content that doesn’t cost much to create, but can lead to worthwhile profits over time.
A big part of the wonderment of Indian head massage videos is the surprise of seeing such unfamiliar techniques and treatments used in the barbershops. Unlike most massages in Western Europe or America that emphasize smooth, deep strokes to relax the muscles, Indian barber massages seem designed to invigorate. Barbers (and sometimes street massagers) usually start a treatment with a scalp rub but progress to using their fingers and fists to tap on the head, tugging on the hair itself, cracking the neck with a twist and pounding back muscles with an open palm. Sometimes there are face massages using fistfuls of colorful cream, or the use of vibrating gadgets for extra sensation. Part of the fun of witnessing these techniques on traveling visitors is seeing them squirm, sometimes literally, in their seats with each maneuver.
The biggest influence on the trend of YouTubers who document these barbers, however, is ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response,” a much-debated physical sensation that’s triggered by certain sounds like rubbing or clicking. Often described as feeling like a pleasant, addictive tingle up the spine, ASMR isn’t well researched or widely accepted by the medical science community, but the sensation is the focus of dozens upon dozens of channels on YouTube. Many content creators craft ASMR videos in their homes using specialized microphones and props, but other fans prefer natural, spontaneous settings like barbershops to kick-start their relaxation. Either way, ASMR is a global trend that’s seen rapid growth in the amount of internet searches and content, according to research from Google Trends.
Aditya and Akshay Jha, two brothers who live in Mumbai, weren’t familiar with ASMR when they first began exploring the idea of creating head massage videos in 2013. Akshay and a high school friend, Mrinal, had seen some Indian massage videos rack up big views on YouTube and figured they would have fun posting their own glimpses at Indian culture online. In 2014, Akshay (now 25 years old) courted his older brother Aditya (28) to start their own YouTube channel, which they dubbed “Pure Massage World.” It has 38.5 million views so far, and averages around 2 million new views a month, Aditya Jha says.
“At first we were creating videos, but we didn’t have much of a deeper understanding about the actual impact of the video. We received an email from one of our viewers where he mentioned how his sleeping patterns have improved and he’s found relief from his anxiety issues with our videos,” he says. “That’s when we thought, let’s make videos not just for fun but for an audience that’s benefiting from it. So we started to explore new cities, new salons, how different parts of India has its own massage techniques and style.”
Aditya has a full-time job with property management startup NestAway, while Akshay is a content writer for a media group, so the brothers don’t rely on video clicks for a living — but the payoff has become worthwhile nonetheless. On average, the videos churn up around $500 a month, with peak months generating $1,000 to $1,200, Aditya says. The low overhead costs of their equipment (basic digital cameras and phones) and the price of the massages, which range around $.50 to a dollar at most shops, make it easy for them to continue pumping out content.
Aditya points out that the growth of their channel has coincided with an internet boom in India, where data access is cheaper than ever before and smartphones are within reach of middle-class consumers, with more than 300 million users around the country. The number of Indian YouTube content creators has surged at the same time, with more viewers to go around. In the first year of Pure Massage World, the majority of traffic came from the U.S., Aditya says. Now, India ranks №1 for the channel.
Beyond making money off a surging online trend, Indian content creators are buoyed by worldwide interest in what’s been an essential aspect of Indian culture, particularly for men. Similar to what you might find in old-school barbershops in America, Indian men treat their neighborhood salon as a venue for gossiping, shit-talking, watching reruns of Crime Patrol and the occasional afternoon nap. The cheap and common convenience of getting a quick shave and a head massage belies the real technical skill that these barbers possess, which often transcends the modesty of their decor.
Debjyoti “Rintu” Biswas, the 23-year-old behind the YouTube channel ASMR Clinic, is motivated by his belief that Indian barbers are deserving of more attention and appreciation. He started his channel in October and has already racked up more than 41,000 subscribers and nearly 15 million views. It’s a conduit to highlight people who have trouble gaining exposure because of poverty or a lack of tech resources, says Biswas, who is an electrical engineering student living in West Bengal.
“Indian barbers are treated as lower caste people in India, but they have amazing talent. Their fathers and grandfathers were also in the same profession, so they were learning those techniques through their childhood,” Biswas explains. “They need some recognition too because they’re earning too low for their talent. I’m creating ASMR videos so the world can know their talent, and they can get some recognition for it. If more barbers become famous than the [idea] that barbers are ‘low caste’ people will change, slowly but definitely.”
As Biswas says, local barbers gaining more respect in India is a slow sea change, but something that “Haircut” Harry (who declined to use his last name for privacy reasons) noticed when he returned to India 18 years after taking a video of a barber giving him a shave and massage. That initial video was taken in 1999, on a clunky Canon digital camera in a salon in Aurangabad, India, where Harry grimaced and laughed his way through a surprise head massage. Harry uploaded the clip in 2006, in the early days of YouTube, and then re-edited the footage for a cleaner clip that went up in 2012, gaining nearly 900,000 views on the second iteration. He returned to Aurangabad in 2017, and went block to block looking for his old barber before finally finding a new storefront.
“That barber, Ramesh, was kind of destined to be a barber because of his family and their financial struggles. In 1999, when I visited, the social caste system was much more in play, too,” Harry says. “But what I saw when I returned was that more barbers today want to do the work rather than just being forced into it because of tradition. I talked with a young woman who’s taken a high-end British barbershop idea and wants to franchise it, for instance.”
Still, the vast majority of Indian barbers aren’t earning much money, which is why content creators like Biswas and Aditya Jha make sure to offer some extra compensation for the videos they create. (“I end up giving them 10 or 15 times what they normally charge,” Jha says). Jha and other content creators like to return and make multiple videos with some favored barbers, which helps bring them extra attention as well as tips. Hardcore fans in videos often call out barbers by name, with comments like “Sarwan, the man himself! Greetings from South Carolina and the Southern U.S., sir!” Or: “Benny, you work hard, so you deserve a great massage too !”
Some barbers seem to have caught onto the opportunity themselves — one barbershop owner in Tirupur, who goes by “Sakthivel C.” on his account, runs a weirdly creative channel called “ASMR Saloon and Massage” that has more than 33 million views since its launch in 2012. He also appears to run a much newer YouTube channel focusing on the cooking of his rural village called “My Country Foods,” which is roughly doubling his views each month.
Even Baba Sen, the godfather himself, has taken to the trend. He was late to make his own channel, but he’s now done so with the help of two American travelers who visited him in Pushkar to make their own video. The duo “donated” their initial upload, and while Baba has only put up nine more videos since the channel’s launch two years ago, he has more than 45,000 subscribers waiting for new content and a Paypal where you can send him money.
“My healing, my chakra, I give people. I give also thanks for views to YouTube. I don’t know about what YouTube is, but I give you people many, many thank yous,” Baba says in a video interview with the Nomad Barber. “You and everyone coming to India to see me, thank you.”