New generation of men in India shaving off mustaches

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

KOCHI, INDIA -- Cheered on by his female friends, Nanda Kumar, 26, staged a small but significant rebellion before he left his family in this Indian seaport recently for a high-tech job in Hyderabad: He shaved off his mustache.

For generations of Indian men, a mustache was a must -- especially here in southern India, where fabulous facial hair has long symbolized masculinity. Among younger urban Indians, however, it's the cleanshaven men whom women prefer to kiss, date or just hang out with, according to a recent AC Nielsen survey conducted in eight major cities.

"Our fathers thought they were not men without their mustaches. But 'hairy Hindustan' is over," said Kumar, using a time-honored nickname for the subcontinent. "It's old India. The mustache is for my father, not for me."

The number of women rejecting facial hair appeared to surprise many Indian cultural commentators, but they were ready with explanations. Some considered the disappearing mustache an indicator of youthful city-dwelling Indians' growing globalization. Others thought it was significant that the findings took women's opinions into account.

The survey found that 72 percent of the women who responded in Mumbai and 83 percent of those surveyed in the southern city of Chennai said they were more likely to want to kiss a cleanshaven man. The numbers were similar in New Delhi, India's capital, and in the eastern city of Kolkata, often seen as a center of tradition.

In "Hair India: A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan," Richard McCallum and photographer Chris Stowers chronicle their travels among the camel-herding tribes of Rajasthan in the north and the backwaters of Kerala in the south to find India's "facial foliage" before it becomes a part of history.

"The mustache represents all the aspects of old India -- the corruption, the baddie cop in an old film, the government job for life -- that the young generation want to leave behind," said McCallum, a pogonologist, or student of facial hair. "Besides, no one wants to look like their parents."

Still, he said, the big mustache may live on in India as a tourist attraction.

Indian barbershops have all sorts of names for the various 'stache styles, which they depict humorously on signboards. There is the "Handlebar," a classic twirlable curlable and a professional requirement for the doormen of five-star Indian hotels. There is the "Walrus," a large, droopy mustache that hangs over the lips. There is also the "Pencil Line" and the "Strap-On," or false follicles -- dyed black or stained pumpkin orange, oiled, conditioned and combed.

But ideals are changing. Some of India's cricketers, who command huge followings, no longer have facial hair, while many Bollywood stars sport the signature look of the global sex symbol: stubble.

Indian women's magazines have printed letters to the editor saying how happy they are that the great Indian mustache may be trimmed, a sentiment that many young women here say they agree with.

"No guy I liked ever had a mustache," said Vaishnavi Viraj, 18, a student at Delhi University. "My mum, though, thinks that mustaches are a sign of royalty and represent elegance and pride. As for me, I just don't like very hairy men."

"I relate them to 'uncles' and 'dads,' " Adishree Panda,18, chimed in.

Before the 18th century, only high-caste men were allowed to wear a mustache. During Mohandas Gandhi's peaceful uprising against the British in the 1930s, he asked Indians to grow beards as an act of protest against imported shavers and blades.

Sikhs wear kesh, or uncut hair, as a matter of religious principle, although a growing number of young Sikhs have shorn their hair, worrying their elders among the religious minority of 20 million.

Ram Singh Chauman of Jaipur claims to have one of the world's longest mustaches, measuring an impressive 12 1/2 feet. He had a bit part in the 1983 James Bond film "Octopussy" and was featured on a Lonely Planet magazine cover. He now charges modeling fees.

An Indian will swear on his mustache to demonstrate his sincerity. To say someone's "mustache is drooping" is to say he is sad.

Lately, though, even older Indian women are divided. Some say a mustachioed man is a sexy symbol of traditional India. Others say his time has passed.

"Many women never liked the mustache. It's too scratchy," said Pauline Hugh, 56, a hairdresser in a top Delhi salon. "In my day, Indian men equated the mustache with being responsible, respected, a real man. Meanwhile, the women suffered."

One of Hugh's co-workers, Rishi Kumar Neopani, 43, trims and colors dozens of mustaches every month. He rocks a thick mustache of his own, just like his 82-year-old father, a retired Indian army officer. But recently he has noticed his younger clients asking for a straight-razor shave, and his 23-year-old son balks at facial hair.

"I sometimes want to cut my mustache, but I can't until my father dies," Neopani said. "He would be very hurt if I shaved. The mustache is our Indian culture. Things are changing, but we can't deny what makes us Indian."

Special correspondent Pragya Krishna contributed to this report.

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