Habib Ahmed cuts through a thick mop of nostalgia to share with Anuj Kumar some gems from his heavily stacked cupboard
“It seems all these years you haven’t fiddled with the parting that your mother gave you.” Habib Ahmed speaks with the certainty of a hair stylist who has held his shears with honour for more than four decades. “And you,” he turns towards the photo journalist colleague, who almost takes pride in his sense of style, “You have less hair where it should be and more at places which should be clean.” Cheeky? Not quite, the grand old man of hair styling is pointing to his thick goatee and compares it with his crew cut! He promises sound advice in return retune to intelligent questions….Sitting at his Academy in South Extension, New Delhi, Habib turns nostalgic about the times he spent in Rashtrapati Bhawan where his father Nazir Ahmed was the official barber of Lord Mountbatten and later Jawaharlal Nehru. When former President APJ Abdul Kalam (one of his popular clients) invited his family to his official residence, he was surprised by Habib’s knowledge of the most sought after residence in the country.
“I told him sir, main to yahan khela khaya hoon.” “Rashtrapati Bhawan has a compound, where all the support staff lives. I have fond memories of playing football and going to the school which is also inside the compound. Lady Mountbatten often used to come to see the living conditions of the support staff. On Eid and Diwali, bigwigs would come with sweets. My father had a very comfortable life. He would go to give a haircut or shave and then the entire day he was with us. We led a non-materialistic life. I remember the entire compound had two radio sets and in the evening we used to sit together to listen to news and music. Lord Mountbatten had asked my father if he would like to go to Pakistan after Partition. He also offered him to go to England with him but he refused. He said, ‘Huzoor, he I would like to be buried next to my folks.’”
Habib recollects that at that time the staff that used to serve at Rashtrapati Bhawan also attended to affairs at Teen Murti Bhawan. “Once when my father was indisposed, I expressed my desire to fill in for him to give Pandit Nehru a hair cut. I was confident till I entered the room. Suddenly, the thought that I am going to cut the hair of Prime Minister of India made me nervous. Nehruji realised that and made me feel comfortable. He even folded his ears so that I had it easy.”
Around the same time Mountbatten came back to India to shoot for a documentary and asked for the services of Nazir Ahmed. One day he introduced Habib to Mountbatten and found him bright. “He asked me to come to London and that he would take care of my admission to a course in cosmetology. Later he put in a word for me to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Morarji Desai. Somehow, the news got leaked and the media came to my house. I had no money to buy an air ticket. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur advised me to learn some basics before going. So I joined Roy & James – the saloon in Connaught Place where Lady Mountbatten used to go – for a few days. Roy agreed to sponsor my ticket provided I sign a bond that I will work for him after coming back to India. In the U.K., Mountbatten got me the admission but I had to do odd jobs to sustain myself.”
There, the female students would make fun of his English and the fact that a student of cosmetology used to put mustard oil in hair. “I had no idea that there could be any other option for males! Slowly, I came to terms with the English weather and temperament and by the fourth semester I was one of the most popular students not only amongst teachers but also girls.” It is in the process of impressing girls that he acquired a taste for beer and braids. “I wanted to stay back but Mountbatten reminded me of the promise he made to my father. I was left speechless and packed my bags.”
But when he came to India he found himself jobless because Indian women didn’t want to cut their hair. “When I met Indira Gandhi she told me to spread my knowledge to Indians but those were the days when women loved wearing their hair in a bun and I had no clue how to do it. As a creative hair stylist I wanted to cut the hair but no lady was interested in short hair. They were almost paranoid about cutting the hair.” He recalls that back then mothers used to accompany young girls to prevent the barber from sweet talking their daughters into parting with their long tresses. “I was taught, hair style depends on the geometrical proportion of the face but nobody was ready to hear me out. It took Indian women a long time to come out of this fascination for long hair. In fact, at one time I used to hate these Urdu poets who have written reams about the beauty of zulfein and compared it with thick clouds.”
From a historical point of view, Habib says, Indian women never experimented too much with their hair. “The sculptures at Ajanta and Ellora prove it. The revolution came from the West which propagated that hair style is not something permanent and could be changed every few months. They came up with styles to sell their cosmetic products. When dyes went out of fashion, they introduced highlighting options….”
As he became popular at Roy & James, Habib claims some colleagues got jealous of him and when Indo–Pak tension was high, they started to use his religion as a ploy to get rid of him. “When they threatened me of physical harm, Roy advised me to look for another job. I joined The Oberoi.” There, he became the hair stylist of the rich and the famous with the likes of Gayatri Devi and Sam Manekshaw among his clients. “Gayatri Devi took time to develop trust in me but when she did she supported me like anything. She even made arrangements so that I could learn from her hair stylist in Paris.”
He never got carried away with Bollywood. “Sadhana cut was no great piece of hair styling. It became popular just because of an actress. The people who used to come to me had risen above the fascination for Bollywood actors, so I was not inundated by demands of following a particular actor’s cut. Amitabh Bachchan’s mother used to come to me and was a little finicky about the styling.”
Habib says he had a flair for words and during his stay in London he worked hard on his English accent. “For hours I would speak looking into the mirror but working with political personalities made me understand the importance of silence. We were told that you should not speak or indulge in talk about any other thing other than your field of expertise. Once, after a party, I revealed to a few journalists the secret of the white patch on Indira Gandhi’s hair and it didn’t go down well with the lady. It was the creation of a French coiffeur which I had to learn.” However, in the same vein he shares how he put his knowledge of Urdu to good use once when the late Prime Minister was about to go to address a rally at Nizamuddin and was struggling to find the right translation for a few words.
Over the years, he has also learnt that hair styling is not just about geometrical proportion but is also about an individual’s personality. “Often I ask a person’s surname and profession to understand his background and approach to life for everybody can’t handle experimentation.” He shares a story where a lady gave him a free hand and when he came with a new cut, she became so volatile that she threatened to commit suicide. “She said she will put my name in the suicide note. That day I could not sleep. However, after a couple of days she called up and apologised for her behaviour. At times, people take time to settle with a new hair cut.”
Today, he imparts training to young hair dressers coming from different parts of the country. “We have a franchisee model but it doesn’t often work. People get a photo clicked with me and that’s enough to gain credibility in their city. Once during a journey I stopped at a small place in Punjab and saw my photo in a barber shop. I asked the guy who is he? He said you don’t know him. He is the country’s biggest name in hair styling.”