NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - They add menace to the faces of Indian border guards and define the smiles of holymen and polo-playing aristocrats, and now the beards and moustaches of the subcontinent have inspired a guide to facial foliage.
For two years, Taiwan-based photographer Chris Stowers and businessman Richard McCallum scoured India from the mountains of Ladakh to festivals in southern Karnataka state for manicured upper lips and cultivated chins.
The result is “Hair India: A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan”, a book of photographs the authors say seeks to fill “a deplorable gap in contemporary Indian pogonology”, or the study of beards.
“Walking around India, you see the most extraordinary people, and great faces,” said McCallum, who runs an adventure tourism company in New Delhi. “We wanted to celebrate that.”
Besides, somebody had to document hirsute pursuits that may soon follow into extinction the “Piccadilly Droopers” -- a sagging moustache shaped much like a spaniel’s ears -- once sported on the streets of London, they said.
“If you watch Indian television or movies these days, the moustache doesn’t play such a big role. Maybe the evil guy will have one, but the heroes don‘t,” Stowers said.
“I don’t think you could do this book in 20 years time,” he added, as society’s ideas of how to express character, manliness or virility are changing.
Moustaches are still popular in India, though less so among the urban middle class, while for the many Sikhs in the book, hair is seen as a symbol of faith and usually left uncut.
To help break the ice, both men added some facial hair -- Stowers a slick, curling moustache that could have crawled out of a Raj-era bureaucrat’s bathroom and McCallum a beard which he says made him look like a tramp.
Their dedication brought rewards, landing them a Guinness World Record holder for the title of the world’s longest moustache, a 12-feet (4-metre) monster in Rajasthan which had a cameo role in the James Bond film “Octopussy”, and the biggest beard, a 6-footer living in Punjab.
Other gems had to be classified for the first time.
There’s the garden hedge-like “Deccan Bristle”, an Asiatic version of the Magnum P.I. made famous by Tom Selleck; the curling, surrealist “Dali”; and the “Wordsworthian”, thin wisps of white hair wandering lonely as a cloud over the cheeks.
In Karnataka, Stowers and McCallum discovered the moustache weightlifting champion, a man who lifted a 40 kg (88 lb) sack of rice tied to his thick moustache up a flight of stairs.
While in central Madhya Pradesh state, they found that police officers had been granted a 30-rupee (75 U.S. cents) monthly bonus to sport a moustache as their bosses believed it encouraged greater respect for the long arm of the law.
The authors’ obsession grew to match that of the most ardent bristle lover, eventually landing them up in Ladakh in the Himalayas to look for some high altitude specimens.
“We were told of a 90-year-old former head of a monastery a few hours walk away,” said McCallum. “We eventually found him, almost blind, sitting on a rock surrounded by cats and silence. But it wasn’t a great beard.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Miral Fahmy