From Mangal Pandey to Nathulal: Why Indians Love Their Moustache!
Ek mooch ki kahaani — here’s a hairy history of the Indian love affair with the moustache.
All legit names for your next pet kitty.
Also, these are legit names for that upper lipsholstery.
Yep. The moustache – call it what you may (one glossary dubs it a ‘cookie duster’ and a ‘crumb catcher’, God bless your baker’s soul) – is a versatile thing of beauty. North Indian men with a ‘mooch’ will often be called a ‘moochad’; but hey, a moochad didn’t appear out of thin air. In fact, there’s a long, laborious, well-groomed, airbrushed tale to the hair.
Here’s how it all started in India…
Akbar Ki Kahaani
Now, fair warning. The tale of the ’stache has been around for centuries — most historical records trace it back to pre-300 BC, according to an ancient portrait which shows an Iranian man sporting a shaved head but a sharp moustache riding on a horse in all glory.
But those are tales far from home, and long before the fuzz started to grow anywhere else.
Bharatvarsh adopted it early, and quickly became the beholders of pretty fine moustaches, but let’s start with a story that really stands out from the archives of the Mughals in the 16th century. Mansohi Bhattacharya, author of The Royal Rajputs: Strange Tales and Stranger Truths, pens this beautiful account:
“The story goes that Emperor Akbar, who was influenced by Hindu thought in more ways than one, asked the members of his court to shave their moustaches as a sign of mourning for Empress Jodhabai had passed away.
The royal barbers were instructed accordingly and they made their rounds of all living accommodations in the city of Agra.
But when they reached the Hadarao's palace they were chased out. Rao Bhoj's enemies carried the tale to Akbar. Flying into a mighty rage, Akbar ordered Bhoj be pinned to the ground and relieved of these tokens of manhood.
He may as well have asked for a tiger to be shaved for the Hadas flew at once to their swords. Wisdom dawned on Akbar and he went to visit the Bundirao in person. The Rao put forward an emotional plea – this was one privilege granted to his father. Akbar bowed his head in acquiescence.
‘Besides,’ added the Hada, ‘How can I, the unworthy eater of pork, accept the privilege of baring a lip in honour of the empress?’
The emperor and the rao embraced each other.”
As interesting as this tale is, it also raises two talking points still prevalent in contemporary India:
One, that Rajputs have traditionally sported moustaches as a symbol of pride. This, harking back to old Rajputana classes who looked at the mooch as a warrior’s stamp.
Here, for instance, is the Indian Rajput who holds the world record for the longest moustache:
Two, a large number of Hindu communities across the country still follow the practice of having men shave their heads, moustaches and beards if an elderly male member of the family dies.
Of course, it must be said that for the longest time, moustaches remained completely monopolised by the ruling classes – the Rajputs – who were the Hindu military class. You’d be hard-pressed to find the lower classes or communities sporting one.
The Brits may have served as an equaliser...
Jab British Yaha Aaye…
…they didn’t fare too well, I’m afraid. No, we ain’t talking about the Mangal Pandey uprising and his band of merry men (although Pandey did sport a rather generous handlebar moustache, now that you mention it). See, the thing is, the Britishers squirmed rather uncomfortably as they sought to lead the Indian troops. Reason? They didn’t fit in, facial-hair-wise.
Now, Indians, at the time, held the belief that moustaches were a sign of virility — and therefore, these new invaders, with their clean-shaven faces weren’t to be taken too seriously.
The British Army immediately sought to right things and ‘mooched’ off of the invaded class — meaning, they now began to grow moustaches, beards and sideburns to create an impression of authority. So mooch so, that by 1854 it was compulsory for every European soldier in the British Indian Army to have a moustache. In fact, very soon, all soldiers in the Army were mandated to sport one.
Civilians back home, of course, followed hirsute, er, we mean soot, and got cracking on the latest hair fop to look more like their army men.
And that’s when the East India Company really dug in their roots. In the country, we mean.
Videshi Villains and Apne Dons…
Now, moustaches began to droop and wane post the two World Wars. Historical accounts put this down to army men beginning to miss the luxury of a shave in the war trenches. They soon began to associate a stubble with the stringency of war, and craved a shave to wash off the battle grime.
It must not have helped matters, of course, that dictators of the time such as Hitler (with the toothbrush mooch) and Stalin (with that walrus mooch) rose to power, collating scared countrymen under the sweep of their ‘stache.
Closer home too the ‘stache was gradually getting a little scary… gangsters (far before gangster movies became a Bhatt dominion) were erupting on the scene. The 80s and 90s were filled with tales of Dawood Ibrahim, Arun Gawli, Karim Lala — each sporting a mooch as unique and different from the other as it could be.
And let’s not forget nefarious brigand and dacoit Veerappan, whose gigantic moustache was so famous that in 2015, a US moustache wax company put him on the lid of a jar of wax!
“Add a daring and debonair twist to your facial hair with our vegan moustache wax,” the company’s US website said. “Veerappan works wonders to soften split ends too.”
Irony went and drowned itself in the same wax.
So, What About Movies?
Now, you could argue that a large amount of this influenced our cinema too and you might be right. Think of the bunch of Bollywood movies with larger-than-life villains with larger-than-a-school-bus moustaches. You know, the kind that laughed like a hyena on crack and rammed his car into your living room before taking you hostage. The mooch in those movies was a symbol of evil, although, granted a few mainstream heroes like a Jackie Shroff or an Anil Kapoor attempted to change that, in all their hairy glory.
Er, that the hairy-ness usually ranged to other parts of the body too, is a tale for another day.
Amitabh Bachchan’s famous “Moochein ho to Nathulal jaisi ho, warna na ho” of course gave the poor, neglected mooch some much-needed celebrity, but it didn’t last. In fact, it’s safe to say the ‘crop’ was ‘cut’ post the early 90s. While a Shatrughan Sinha and his ilk twirled a ‘stache with pride, the trend soon faded. The current male star pack in Bollywood – made of the Khans, Kapoors and Kumars – shy away from the shadow.
The south, of course, tells a different tale, with main leads still sought after for their grand facial foliage! Malayalam superstar Mohanlal was once famously quoted to have said in the Times of India:
I know it’s a craze in Bollywood to have six-pack abs, but here, it’s not the abs or the biceps that make us feel or look macho. Down south, the moustache still works for us!
So it does, my fair-feathered friend.
And therefore, good sirs, do with your lipholstery as you please. Keep it or cut it, twirl it or shed it, but let no passerby censure you for your choice.
You are ‘baal’come.
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