The extravagant beards and moustaches proudly sported by generations of Indian men are under threat, said two men who studied the country’s finest facial hair.
As India rapidly modernizes, clean chins are becoming the rule among young people, said author, Richard McCallum, who spent months on the road documenting the bushiest bristles he could find before they disappear forever.
With photographer Chris Stowers, McCallum scoured markets, festivals and remote villages to gather specimens now collected in their book Hair India — A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan.
“It was an idea that started out as a bit of fun but turned into a labor of love,” said McCallum, 30, a British travel business operator who has lived in New Delhi for four years.
“Beards and moustaches tell the story of modern India — how it is becoming a more Westernized, homogenized place, but also how the great traditions and the love of display still exist,” he said. “Male grooming is important to Indians, and facial hair proved a topic that took us to places and into conversations with people we would never have met otherwise.”
The book, lavishly illustrated with hundreds of color photographs, divides facial hair into categories including “the chin strap,” “the soup strainer,” “the wing commander” and “the walrus.”
Among those pictured are both the world’s longest beard, measuring 1.6m long, and the world’s longest moustache, at 3.5m.
The record-breaking moustache is a big earner for Ram Singh Chauman, 54, who charges modeling fees and whose whiskers have starred in Bollywood films and even had a cameo in the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy.
But the stars of the book are perhaps the ordinary stall-owners and rickshaw drivers showing off moustaches and beards that are cut, dyed, waxed and preened in an endless variety of shapes and sizes.
“Some people were confused when we first told them why we wanted to take their picture, but they soon became very keen,” said Stowers, who has worked in more than 50 countries and several war zones. “One photograph might take hours, while others were just snapped in seconds.”
McCallum and Stowers’ search took them from camel fairs in Rajasthan to the Himalayan town of Leh, and from the banana groves of the Western Ghats to military tattoos in New Delhi.
Along the way, they demonstrated their commitment to the job by discarding their razors, with McCallum growing an unruly black beard and Stowers sprouting a moustache which he tweaked into sharp upwards curls.
“We found one guy with fabulous wavy, gray muttonchops in the backstreets of old Delhi via a hand-drawn map by someone who had spotted him,” McCallum said. “In Mysore we chased a guy with a bunch of bananas on his head for three blocks only to discover that his moustache was very ordinary, but he took us to his warehouse where we discovered some of the finest examples in all India.”
Sikhs, for whom kesh (uncut hair) is a religious principle, feature heavily in the book, and moustaches remain a professional requirement for the doormen of five-star hotels.