chat Hair stylist Habib Ahmed cuts through a thick mop of nostalgia to talk about his stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan and his tryst with great leaders
“It seems all these years you haven’t changed 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. Sitting at his Academy in South Extension, New Delhi, Habib turns nostalgic about the times he spent in Rashtrapati Bhavan 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 Bhavan 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 to take him to England with him but he refused. He said, ‘Huzoor, I would like to be buried next to my folks’.”
Habib recollects that at that time the staff that used to serve at Rashtrapati Bhavan also attended to affairs at Teen Murti Bhavan. “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 the Prime Minister of India made me nervous. Nehruji realised that and made me feel comfortable.”
Around the same time Mountbatten came back to India to shoot for a documentary and asked for the services of Nazir Ahmed, who later introduced his son Habib to Mountbatten.
“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 to. 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 his hair. “ 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 the 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 create awareness about hair styling but those were the days when women loved wearing their hair in a bun and I had no clue how to do it.” 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.”
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. She even made arrangements so that I could learn from her hair stylist in Paris.”
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 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 approach to life for everybody can’t handle experimentation.” Today, he imparts training to young hair dressers coming from all over 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.”
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