Mysore Palace, by Dinesh Shenoy How to trim a bushy mustache.
Mysore is about 135 kilometers southeast of Bangalore, the second biggest city in the south state of Karnataka, called the City of Palaces. I arrived here on Sunday morning and the taxi driver, the hotel receptionist, and the restaurant waiter insisted that I visit the palace which is lit up at six-thirty in the evening because the view was apparently spectacular. I went early in the afternoon to avoid the long lines, bought a ticket and went inside. The park, laced with numerous gravel-covered lanes surrounding the building, was impeccably arranged and spruced up. It was the middle of December. The light breeze made the air feel fresh and pleasant with the scent of the flowers and the freshly cut grass. Dusk was slowly settling in. The crescent moon came out and the sky was speckled with stars. A band started playing classical Indian music. Then the palace lit up. Hundreds and thousands of bulbs were lined up along the edges of the elaborate building structures to accentuate the exquisite architectural details. It felt like a scene from a fairy tale. The crowds coming in were dazzled by the view and overwhelmed by the marvelous tranquility of the place.
The next day I returned for a tour of the palace. To avoid getting lost or missing important exhibitions, I hired a guide who explained that the palace was unique because it was designed with Hindu, Muslim and Gothic elements organically intertwined on its façade and the interior. That was the result of a request made by the local maharani, the queen, when she hired someone to build a new palace after the old one was burnt down in a fire. She invited an architect from England to design the new complex including the main three-story residence, 12 Hindu temples and a number of administrative buildings. Nowadays only a wing in the back is left for the royal family to use while the rest has been turned into a museum. We moved through marble floored halls with expositions of the maharajas’ silk clothes and lush accessories from East Asia, jeweled thrones from the Middle East, palanquins and horse chariots from France, collection of paintings from Europe, and miniature art from India. We stopped to examine a rich collection of portraits of statesmen, princes, advisors, and courtiers made on paper and assembled in albums. The portraits used to be exchanged as gifts with symbolic political value. The collections consisted of hundreds of them. It was considered inappropriate for women to pose before the artists and therefore there were no female portraits. The design of the clothes and the way the turban was wrapped revealed regional styles and religious affiliations. I looked through a magnifying glass to admire the detail of the brush strokes depicting the patterns of the clothes and all the jewelry and faces of the statesmen. I noticed that all the men had a long slim mustache curved upwards and a small beard. The rulers used to spend a good amount of time to take good care of their looks in order to strike a fine balance between their male presence and aesthetic sophistication. We continued our tour through the collections of furniture from Italy, glass lamps and crystal chandeliers from Poland and Austria, numerous musical instruments, deadly weapons and private objects for personal use, such as pens, seals, aromatic oil containers and so forth.
I remember looking at a set of small scissors, tiny combs and miniscule brushes with curved handles. I was puzzled by these and asked the guide what they were used for. The guide’s voice started trembling and his eyes filled with tears. He told me that these belonged to the maharaja’s personal guards. He pointed to one of the photographs on display behind the glass. It was a guard in a uniform. It was his grandfather. He had died a month ago. He had been employed in the palace before Independence. I was still not sure what purpose these miniature objects served and he explained that they were needed to keep the mustache in good condition. It was a requirement for the royal guards to grow and groom thick and bushy moustaches and they received extra money with their monthly salary to do this. The moustache was considered a symbol of masculinity, power and courage, the men who had them were worthy of respect and admiration, and thus they enhanced the regal image of the maharaja himself.
Today in the bigger cities facial hair is out of fashion, especially among the educated circles and the upper classes. However, in some communities especially in the smaller towns and villages, such stereotypes are still prevalent. Some believe that a clean-shaven man is not worthy of trust. In some areas the moustache is a symbol of prestige to such an extent that the dalits are not allowed to grow them. Some years ago the local press in North India covered a case of an untouchable man who wandered by mistake into a high class neighborhood and was tied up to a tree and beaten mercilessly because he had a moustache and was neatly dressed, and thus had offended the local residents. In the majority of cases when a lower caste man insults a person from the higher caste or somehow breaks the code of behavior, a less violent but equally dishonorable punishment is getting his moustache shaved in public.
I remember reading an article that in the state of Madhya Pradesh the employees of some police stations receive 30 rupees in addition to their salaries to grow big moustaches. The chief of the police quarters was present at a public event and noticed how the common people looked with reverence at mustached policemen. Consequently, this was the reason he decided to make it a requirement for his staff. However, once a month he would have them lined up for a moustache check up to make sure that all his men had the right shape. They should not be too bushy because then they would cause a frightening impression, and they should not be too small and hence create an ineffective image. In other places, the men with bigger moustaches are considered smarter and more noticeable and thus are thought to have more of a chance for career progress and promotion.
One of the most famous actors in South India is Prithviraj. He receives plenty of media coverage and his charisma is indispensably related to his perfect moustache. Many women consider men with moustaches sexy and alluring. Consciously or unconsciously, men stroke the moustache with their fingers or twirl it as if to accentuate their masculine attributes and virility. This is also a well-established symbolic malevolent gesture of the villain in the movies, theater and other performing arts. Conversely, pundits almost never grow any facial hair in unison with the concepts of purity, austerity and celibacy48.
I have a friend who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. She told me that when she and her sister were in elementary school, their father hired a new driver to take them to school, art classes and so forth. The man had a huge moustache and the father instructed him at the time of hiring to shave it off because he was going to be mostly around his daughters. However, the driver didn’t obey these orders. He didn’t even trim it. In a couple of days the father reminded him, however with no consequence again. On the third day when the driver pulled in front of the home to pick up the girls and came out of the car to open the back door for them, their father ran out of the house, slapped him on the face, called him a pervert and fired him right away. Certainly, his daughters didn’t understand what this whole ordeal was about, since they were too young to comprehend the sexual underpinnings of man’s facial hair.
Five or six years ago a court case against Indian Airlines made lots of noise in the local press. A flight attendant was fired because of his unusually long handlebar moustache covering a sizeable portion of his face. He was asked to shave it off or trim it down after customers had made complaints about him possibly compromising regulations related to hygiene. He didn’t comply. Later on a new appearance and uniform policy was established which required men to be clean-shaven. However, his position was that if Sikhs are allowed to make an exception because shaving was forbidden for religious reasons, he should be allowed to keep his moustache for identity reasons. His argument was that he had grown and groomed his facial hair for 25 years and had received so many complements and praise for it that it had become an integral part of his personality. When he was dismissed by the airlines after he had worked for them for 20 years, he filed a court case against them and won.
One afternoon I was in the Chandni Chowk shopping center in Delhi, an old complex built in the form of the crescent moon by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The mosque, Fatehpur Masjid in the western sector, was made in 1650 of red stone in keeping with his wife’s request. The commercial center has expanded a great deal over the years and is now famous all over the world with its numerous little streets and authentic little shops with traditional Indian merchandise and foods. You can find all kinds of delicious foods, sweets and spices, embroidered fabrics, shoes, leather goods, therapeutic oils, books, electronic devices and anything else one can imagine. The place was filled with music and noise, smoke and scent, stands and stalls, vendors and customers, heated bargaining, and turmoil that absorbed you for hours.
I went back to the parking lot looking for the cab I had hired for the whole day. Sometimes it took me more than half an hour to find it. There might be some kind of unspoken rule of behavior. When the client leaves the car, the driver parks it somewhere in shade, then pushes back and reclines on his seat, lies down with feet sticking out of the window and goes to sleep. When the client comes back there is no chance the driver will see him or her. Hence you have to shout the driver’s name, moseying among the numerous cars, until another driver hears you and out of a sympathetic impulse, gives you directions to get to your taxi. The taxi drivers know somehow each other’s names and locations where they might be parked.
That afternoon the parking lot was over-crowded. Motor-rickshaws, motorcycles, cars, people filled the place along with cows languidly chewing their cud in the middle of the alleys around which the drivers were making complicated maneuvers. I felt I was looking for a needle in a haystack, but certain caginess about hollering the driver’s name made me amble patiently around for quite a while. I realized that there was no hope and I was gathering strength to cork my embarrassment before I shouted his name when I noticed a green woodshack in one corner of the lot right under a big leafy tree. A few men were crouched in front of it, chatting and smoking. It didn’t look like a tea-stall. They weren’t drinking tea. It wasn’t a repair shop either; no tools etc. were spread around it. It wasn’t a telephone booth either, since the usual big tell-tale sign was missing. I was getting intrigued. I approached it. The small door was open, but it was dark inside. I couldn’t see anything without peeking. Suddenly a man emerged with an enigmatic smile on his face that made me think I could never guess what strange activity was going on inside. He lit a cigarette, drew a long puff and squatted to join the rest of the men sitting on the ground nearby; they all gave him a warm welcome. Then, one of them jumped up and swiftly entered the shack. I came closer, but it was impossible to figure out what was going on inside. I couldn’t help asking the men, who had already noticed my snooping around, what this shack was for. The men looked at me in bewilderment and simply said:
“This is a barber’s shop.”
“We get a shave or a haircut here, while our boss is at work or shopping. It’s very convenient.”
They saw my video camera hanging from my neck and said:
“Go in if you want. You can talk with the barber. He is a nice man.”
So I looked inside. It took me a while to adjust my eyes from the bright early afternoon sunlight outside to the dim interior. There were no windows inside. A naked bulb hanging on a wire, wrapped in cloth, attached to a hook in the middle of the ceiling, threw scanty yellowish light, making the space look dingier than what it probably was. It was painted light green. The barber was a skinny man probably about 50 years old. He was dressed in worn out white pants and a white collarless shirt with its hem cut short. He had a razor blade in his hand. He was working already on his next client who was sitting on an old wooden chair in front of a small cracked mirror. Below it a narrow untreated wood shelf was mounted on the wall to provide space for his instruments: small rusty scissors, a well-used comb, a bar of thin cone-shaped shaving soap, a round flat box of Vaseline, a glycerin cube for sterilization purposes and a tiny bottle of aromatic oil for head massage, all neatly arranged on the shelf. Hanging from a bunch of rusting nails on the wall were the few grimy, discolored towels that the barber used to wipe off the customer’s face. I didn’t see a sink.
“You don’t have water here,” I asked. “How can you shave people without water?”
He guffawed and surprised me by yelling:
“Chotuuuuuuuu! Come! Hurry up! Chotuuuuuu!”
A little boy, around ten years old, appeared at the door within seconds after he was called. He was carrying a big green bottle with a wide neck full of water and a small metal bowl.
The client who was almost ready to get off the chair smiled at me and said, “How is it possible to shave without water? Well, we have walking, no, actually, running water in here. Who will pay for a dry shave?”
I asked him if he would get a haircut which I would pay for and stay to chat with me a bit more. He agreed, but the barber suggested that he give him a trim and a head massage. It was fine with me as long as I had this smiling talkative driver in front of the video camera. The barber picked up the scissors and the comb, separated his hair carefully on the side and skillfully, with well-defined movements, cut his hair on the side and in the back. Then he took the tiny greasy bottle, sprinkled some oil in his hand, rubbed his palms to spread it evenly and started the massage. First he worked the roots of his hair with open fingers, his whole body shaking back and forth with every movement. I could hear the noise made by the rubbing of the scalp. I felt the client was in pain. His head bobbed back and forth vigorously. Then, suddenly, this procedure ended. Now the barber put his palms together, one hand down and one up and started hitting the head of his client at different spots while walking around the chair. I heard the slapping noise the joint hands made with every smack, and the head yanked in this direction and that. When he was done, he explained:
“We call this champi. It cures headaches.”
“Or prevents them,” the customer said. “And you feel so good after that. Sit, get one too.”
“Maybe later, but what about his moustache?” I joked.
“What, shave it?” the barber asked and the two men giggled.
“No, no, of course not! Just trim it for a neat look. Let me see how you do it.”
Facial hair styles
The barber smiled and proceeded to trim his customer’s moustache. Then he said:
“There we go! Done! Perfect!” and the other one ran his fingers over his moustache and exclaimed:
“Oh, my! Who knows how many more children I will have now!” and both men cackled again.
48 See for more Olivelle, Patrick. Language, Texts and Society. Firenze: Firenze University Press, 2005. 321-351