Before an official event, Jawaharlal Nehru needed a trim and Rashtrapati Bhavan’s official barber, Nazir Ahmed, was sent for. He was ill, came the reply, so his son would take his place. A pre-adolescent lad turned up full of enthusiasm. But, his scissors shook as it approached the head of the-then Prime Minister. Nehru — stoic expression unchanged — lifted a hand and covered his ear near the scissors. “He didn’t say a word and this is something I will always remember,” says Habib Ahmed, the young boy, who has become one of the pioneers of hairstyling in India.
Having catered to world leaders and society ladies, been credited with bringing salons out of five-star hotels into public places, Habib tells his story for the first time in a book, titled Habib: The Man Who Built An Empire (Vitasta; Rs 399), written by Hritu Pawar. Despite grammatical glitches and clumsy sentences, the 166-page biography presents a story of a man whose life changed when Lord Mountbatten asked his father, “Why don’t you send your son to London?” Today, Habib operates 65 salons as franchises, runs the Habib’s Hair Academy and works on a cosmetics line.
The book places Habib’s story in the context of haircutting in India, with anecdotes from the Puranas to the legend of Tirupati temple, where 600 barbers shave 20,000 heads every day. The barber was one of the chhatees peshewalon (36 professionals) that have traditionally been discriminated against in India, according to the book. “When I started working as a hairstylist, our profession had no respectability. We were treated as glorified nais, though my clients were Indira Gandhi, the Oberois, the Modis and Rajmata Gayatri Devi. I had to struggle a lot to create awareness about international hairstyling trends,” says Habib in the book.
His salon in Delhi’s South Extension-II market is full, quiet and busy at once. Set up in 1984, it was the first time Habib stepped out of exclusive premises of hotels to reach out to the larger population. One man interjects, “I have been getting my hair cut by Habib since I was young and he was a middle-aged man and now I am a middle-aged man.” Habib, 78, jokes that “it has been five years I have not come out of being 19”.
Habib says, “I had a difficult time because what I had learnt at the Morris School in London, I could not apply in India. Women did not want their hair changed. Girls would come for a haircut and their parents would stand on their heads and say, ‘no, no no’.” At one time, he gave a client his best creative cut. She looked at it and began to cry. “She said, ‘I will commit suicide. I’ll put your name in my suicide note’,” recalls Habib.
His answer is to tell such a client, “When you go out, don’t say anything but wait for people t tell you about your haircut.” The client called back to say her husband loved her new look. “Nowadays, style keeps changing. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime,” says Habib.
As he snips, Habib breaks into rich Urdu poetry. He captures the importance of humanity in a communal world with a sher, “Hindu hi bura hai, na mussalman bura hai, aa jaye burai pe toh, insaan bura hai.” An old client who used to enjoy his shayari was former President APJ Abdul Kalam. Once, after a hair cut, he had said, ‘The cut is good but it is slightly short. Mr Habib, next time, don’t cut my hair short,’” recounts the hairstylist.
Meanwhile, a portly client with thin hair comes over and Habib recognises a familiar face. Before he leaves, the hairstylist shoots off a sher by his favourite poet, Iqbal, about the idea of success. “Tarakki isko kehte hai, yeh ja ke pooch pathhar se, pare the jab toh patthar the, tarashe toh khuda nikley.”