Changing fashions: Hair today, gone tomorrow?

Long, flowing beards and handlebar moustaches have long been a source of pride in India, but that may be coming to an end. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent Online

Tarloch Singh was hiding from the sun beneath the awning of his rickshaw, half asleep and half with an eye for a possible customer. It was hot and humid and Mr Singh's thick, unkempt grey beard did not look particularly comfortable. But the look on his face made clear his disdain for the suggestion that he shave it off.

"I've always had it. I'm used to it. I've had it for 30 years," said Mr Singh, who as a Sikh, wears both a turban and beard for religious reasons. "I don't cut it. I let it grow. But I wash it every day with soap to keep it clean."

South Asia is the home of remarkable facial hair. From the long, trailing beards of orange-clad saddhus to the astonishing handlebar moustaches, the subcontinent has them all.

But are the days of such superlative sights on the wane? The team behind a new book of photographs celebrating the beards and moustaches of India believe that such facial accoutrements are losing their attraction for the younger generation.

"I look around and I see younger people and I don't think that facial hair is so popular," said Richard McCallum, co-author of Hair India: A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan. "But I'm sure the doormen at the five-star hotels will continue to have them."

Mr McCallum, a British entrepreneur based in Delhi, hit upon the idea of plugging the "deplorable gap in contemporary Indian pogonology" (the study of beards) after meeting a photographer, Chris Stowers, at a party in the Indian capital. They began talking about some of the stranger sights of India and one of them mentioned the idea of a book. "We had to call each other up the next morning to check whether we'd agreed to do the book about facial hair and we had," said Mr Stowers, who is based in Taiwan.

To ensure they found as many fabulous beards as possible in one location, they decided to target large gatherings. Among the festivals they visited were the Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, the Sonepur elephant fair in Patna and the Kila Raipur rural Olympic games at Ludhiana in the Punjab.

"The big challenge was for Richard to break the ice and start a conversation," said Mr Stowers. "Then I would be trying to explain what we wanted to do. Shooting in the street was also a challenge because the light could change but also because you could find yourself surrounded by 40 people all looking at what you're doing."

To aid their work, the two men both also grew facial hair. Mr Stowers grew a moustache that topped seven inches by the time he came to shave it off, while Mr McCallum opted for a beard that he worried made him look like a tramp. They claim the move instantly helped build camaraderie with the people they were photographing and interviewing.

Their labours resulted in some intriguing finds. In Rajasthan there was a world record-holder for the longest moustache – it was about four metres long and its owner had apparently appeared in the 007 movie Octopussy. In the southern state of Karnataka, the pair discovered the moustache weightlifting champion, a man who had used his moustache to pull a 40kg sack of rice up a flight of stairs.

Mr Stowers said that while their book may offer a snapshot of India, because of changing fashions he believes it will not be possible to find some specimens of beards and moustaches in 20 years' time.

A straw poll among beard and moustache owners in Delhi tended to support such a view. At the Shahi mosque in the Vasant Vihar neighbourhood of the city, the gateman Mohammed Firoz said he too wore his beard because of his religion. "My god also has a beard so I wear a beard," he said, tugging at his thick dark facial hair. "It says so in the Koran."

But Mr Firoz, 40, said many younger Muslims were not interested in beards. "Everyone can have one but the younger people do not care so much," he said.

His friend, Ram Abtar, a Hindu who worked as a gardener at the mosque, said he was content with his short, neatly cropped moustache. "It is not the young people who have the big beards, it is the old men," he said.

Asked if, when he was older, he too would grow the sort of beard suitable for inclusion in a book such as Hair India he snorted: "I will not have one, I don't like them."