Man with the golden scissors

As his biography hits the stands, hairstylist Habib Ahmed tells us how he cut through negative perceptions to make it to the top

May 27, 2017 01:50 pm | Updated 01:50 pm IST

Synonymous with hair styling, Habib Ahmed has achieved an iconic status in the subcontinent. The sheer artistry of his profession has now been brought to light with “Habib: The Man who built an Empire” (Vitasta) by Hritu Pawar.

“I am deeply honoured and humbled by this biographic account,” exults Habib as he prepares to open chapters of his long career.“I have had a very eventful journey withups and downs, bitter and sweet memories, setbacks and achievements. All this I wanted to share with people with some memorable incidents which this book allows.” He feels besides graphing the evolution of hair styling in a country where it was virtually non-existent, it will motivate youngsters not to give up on their dreams .

“Forget about negligible presence, hair styling was seen as a menial job, and those who indulged in this profession were deemed to be low in the social order. That really hurt me when I returned after training in cosmetology from England,” he reflects. Eager to change that attitude, Habib was determined not to just achieve acceptability for his work but also winning honour. In this process, he reveals many influenced him. “When Lord Mountbatten, who had arranged for my studies in the UK, learnt that I intended to stay back after the course, he exhorted me to return to India to take care of my father and do something for the country. Likewise, Indira Gandhi, sensing my disappointment with the way my career was shaping, asked me stay put and teach people the value of hairstyling.” Choked with emotions, Habib says, “Itni bade logon ki baatein mere dil ko chhoo gayi. They virtually changed the course of my life.”

A portrait of Mrs. Indira Gandhi taken during the year 1971.
Photo: The Hindu Archives/Staff

A portrait of Mrs. Indira Gandhi taken during the year 1971.
Photo: The Hindu Archives/Staff

But all this was not enough as Habib had to put in plenty of hard work. Starting his career in a hotel, he continued to hone his skill and doing more courses steadily building a loyal clientèle. “In those days, women would want styling of hair without reducing their length. There was a completely negative mind-set about cutting hair. On numerous occasions, a newly married bride would not just be accompanied by her husband but also in-laws. And all of them would insist not to reduce the hair length,” he says with a good laugh. Patience paid as he made them understand that hair styling is a geometrical art, depending on facial structure, hair texture, cheekbone and forehead size.

Sensing a quizzical look, he elaborates with some examples. “Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket captain has a wide jaw, squarish with naturally wavy hair. So I kept his hair short in front and long at the back. On his bowling run-up, it gave prominence to the strong jawline while the bouncing long air created an aura.”

Pakistan cricket all-rounder Imran Khan. 
(Published in The Hindu on November 26, 1980)
PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Pakistan cricket all-rounder Imran Khan. 
(Published in The Hindu on November 26, 1980)
PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Habib is quick to point out that it is not just celebrities, everyone is studied likewise. Recalling the instance of one Mrs. Puri who had been visiting him for more than three decades, he says, “She had knee length hair which she refused to cut. After a long time, she agreed to give me a free hand. I immediately made them neck-length. Her hair texture was good as was her cheek bone and her forehead was normal. Her facial structure required to be enveloped by hair so short hair suited her. Returning after a week, she profusely thanked me.”

Warming up on his favourite subject, Habib recalls attending to Indira Gandhi who gave him ample freedom. “Short hair was right for her busy schedule as she hardly had time to set them. Constant movement of her head never spoilt her hair do. The prominent white patch was not dyed to add to her elegance and it became her trademark.” After so many years of her demise, he still fondly remembers her impeccable manners and gentle disposition. “Despite paucity of time she would never hurry me up.”On the other hand, Maharani Gayatri Devi, well known for her imperial looks, insisted Habib to follow her instructions completely.

Among the Presidents Habib attended, he has a special word for APJ Abdul Kalam . “Down to earth, he was fond of sporting long hair. He would not lose his cool even if we cut them slightly short remarking ‘Habib, I like it but next time please keep them long’.” Before becoming the President I dared to ask him why he had not married to which he promptly replied, ‘I was married to my missile programme’.”

The President Dr. A. P. J.Abdul Kalam, addressing the Nation, on the eve of 59th Independence Day from newly built State of Art Multi Media Studio at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on August 14, 2006.  
Photo : Rajeev Bhatt

The President Dr. A. P. J.Abdul Kalam, addressing the Nation, on the eve of 59th Independence Day from newly built State of Art Multi Media Studio at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on August 14, 2006. Photo : Rajeev Bhatt

Harsh words

Just as there were commendations there were harsh words too. Habib distinctly remembers the lady who after a hair cut threatened to commit suicide. “I could not sleep for days and it is after a week when she came and apologised that I felt relieved.” According to him willingness on the part of a person is vital. “That is why before a new cut, I ensure knowing about age, profession, social status, etc which gives a fair idea about the requirements and whether he or she can carry the new look.”

With passage of time there has been a distinct change in how people perceive grooming.

“Everyone is eager to look good and willing to experiment. That is the reason you see people sporting shag, blunt, wedge and even bald pate. Moreover, grooming is no longer confined to women. Men too are game for a manicure, pedicure, facial and waxing. The idea is not to just look elegant, handsome but also feel and be confident with your appearance.”

More than hair styling becoming fashionable and finding acceptance, Habib is happy with younger generation taking it up as a profession.

“When I started my academy it was disheartening to have only four students. Those days I used to conduct free workshops and seminars in distant places about cosmetology but now I am invited.” The art has helped specially-abled and those from marginalised sections, to be independent. “Every person owns a responsibility to his art and society. By teaching others, I fulfil both these.”

Keeping himself busy, Habib continues to take classes and visit different outlets while spending his idle hours with grandchildren.

“Amidst all this I still read books on hairstyling. Knowledge is what is essential to keep one’s art alive.”

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