On the morning of 26 February, video footage of an Indian Air Force pilot, bleeding, blindfolded, captured by Pakistani forces across the Line of Control, began to circulate on social media. So did unease, doubt and disbelief. Half-truths and falsehoods about the likelihood of war with Pakistan had flooded the internet in previous weeks, produced by partisans enthusiastic about India’s prospects in a military confrontation.
These forwards had encouraged strong, simple emotions, such as anger and nationalist pride. In contrast, the video of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman released by Pakistani officials had a disorienting effect on many Indians. Confusion arose on Twitter, and focused, briefly but intensely, on the angular and unorthodox gunslinger moustache visible under that blindfold. Surely this was against IAF regulations, many protested. Didn’t the moustache prove the video was fake?
This was patently false. Forty-eight hours later, Wing Commander Varthaman was not only a free man, but also a hero, and evidently a trendsetter. News channels sent reporters to barbershops around the country, from Assam to Ahmedabad and Bengaluru. Everywhere, it was reported, men were getting “Abhinandan” moustaches as a tribute to the soldier who had fought so bravely, and adhered so calmly to military protocol in enemy territory.
The Indian moustache had ceased to be cause for fear and suspicion. Now that Varthaman’s life is no longer at stake, and the India-Pakistan conflict returns, for the moment, to the realm of policy and strategy, we may acknowledge with a light heart that moustaches have always played an essential role in Indian culture, though in diverse and paradoxical ways.
“All men in India wear moustaches,” the colonial travel writer Fanny Parkes wrote when she arrived on these shores in 1822. “They look on the bare faces of the English with amazement and contempt.” She could not have divined the fierce and sometimes competitive attitude to facial hair that marked how Indian men announced their caste, religion and class.
Over a century later, Mulk Raj Anand’s piercing short story, A Pair Of Mustachios, observed that every moustache belonged in a foreordained pecking order, just like its wearer. The sultans wore lion moustaches, and the peasants a “mouse moustache”. Anand, an early practitioner of social realism in Indian English fiction, saw deep into the insecurities connected with the mooch, but perhaps even he could not have foreseen how deeply the moustache would remain embedded in our images of social hierarchy. In some parts of India, Dalits who grow and groom moustaches have faced extreme violence. As late as 2017, dominant-caste men were attacking young Dalits in Gujarat for growing moustaches, prompting a campaign on WhatsApp called “Mr Dalit”, in which local Dalit men changed their display pictures to the graphic of a big, curling moustache with a crown under it.
Every state, even every district, in India is likely to yield a distinct sociological argument about moustaches. But in nearly every case, they ultimately embody virility and martial aggression. The British, colonizing India while fighting simultaneously in eastern Europe and western Asia, appear to have got the message quickly. Even as Parkes was writing her travel diary, military adventurers were getting orders to grow facial hair to stay fighting fit in cold climates like the Crimea and to command respect from their new subjects in Asian colonies. Some British units mandated moustaches for their soldiers, an order that stayed effective until 1916, when it was overturned during World War I.
The modern Indian military is not unaffected by this history. “After independence, the rules and regulations that we follow evolved from what was in force during the colonial period,” says military historian Squadron Leader (retd) Rana Chhina. Like many Westernized forces, its strictest regulations regarding facial appearance have focused on the beard, which requires a religious exemption. The Indian Navy only places grooming restrictions on facial hair, banning neither the beard nor the moustache, and Sikh servicemen have always been exempt from the beard ban.
“Beards were not permitted in the air force or army,” Chhina explains. “In training institutions, certain regulations were enforced for moustaches. At the National Defence Academy, for example, you weren’t permitted to grow a moustache until you passed your drill square test—and good luck to you at 17, trying to grow one.”
Muslim soldiers in the Indian Air Force have occasionally faced controversy when asking for religious exemptions, although rules permit them to retain a beard and moustache if they entered the service wearing these.In 2016, the Supreme Court, rejecting an appeal from a serving Muslim officer who came to be discharged, ruled that the beard was a non-essential element of Islamic practice.
Indian Muslims aren’t alone in navigating these norms. Across the border, many Pakistani servicemen are allowed to keep beards, but some have clashed with their superior officers, and even gone to court, over service rules that rigidly control the length and style of these beards.
Cold comfort for the nervous tweeters who hoped, in the first few hours after Varthaman’s capture, that he wasn’t an Indian pilot: for a moustache is within regulation, although, as Chhina says, “You see quite magnificent whiskers in certain army units, like the Madras Regiment and the Rajput Regiment. In the IAF, it’s more unusual. I’m guessing he must have his CO’s permission.”
His whiskers even amused and pleased veterans from my family, who spent an anxious day hoping for his safe return and counselling the rest of us to refrain from watching or forwarding videos of his captivity.
“Looking aggressive is good, isn’t it?” a retired brigadier of the Indian Army said. “Sometimes, regulation sizes may be breached in close-knit communities—like the fighter pilots.” Chhina agrees this is true. During his own service, he used to wear an Arab headdress when flying over desert terrain. “If you’re cranky or eccentric enough, the Armed Forces will leave you alone, within limits,” he says.
Abhinandan Varthaman comes from the small community of Samanar Jains in Tamil Nadu, a region with a history of glorious meesais, or moustaches, in pop culture. It is the land of Suriya’s Singham whiskers—the closest comparison to Varthaman’s—and Kamal Haasan’s half-bandit, half-Dalí upper lip in Virumandi; of the sparse pencil styles of young M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi; and the thick, twirling moustache of the poet Subramania Bharati, which lives on today on the face of Thol Thirumavalavan, president of the left-wing Dalit-led party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.
The Tamil moustache is patriarchal, and also often a marker of non-Brahmin identity. Tamil films in particular, but south Indian movies in general, have always featured more moustachioed heroes than their Hindi counterparts. In contrast, Bollywood’s biggest male stars tended to be clean-shaven in their heyday, all the way from Dilip Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. All three have played roles which required them to be moustachioed, but, in nearly every case, from Mughal-e-Azam to Khuda Gawah and Chak De! India, they did so to downplay their own stardom—to signal to audiences that they were playing someone other than themselves, so to speak.
How did these men succeed in a Hindi-speaking landscape where the moustache is so significant to maleness? As recently as this January, the Uttar Pradesh police increased its “moustache reward” for certain members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary to encourage—no pun intended—the fuzz. UP isn’t alone in this; Madhya Pradesh instituted an allowance to police constables for the same reason in 2004. So why did the Hindi movie industry de-emphasize the moustache for much of the 20th century?
The answer must be complicated, but the spirit of the national movement, so central to the consciousness of the modern Hindi movie industry, was arguably a key element in this deviation from the norm. As with many elements of appearance, the male face too needed a way to look cosmopolitan and “Indian”, rather than identifiably Hindu or Muslim, or upper- or lower-caste.
If the moustache complicated this search for a new identity, it was best let go. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, addressing Parliament on Indo-China relations at the Himalayan borders in 1956, even remarked: “We seem to think that we are going to decide these major matters by, let us say, what they did in the old days. Two persons would fight if a moustache was a little longer or shorter or a little higher or lower. That kind of thing does not apply to these grave national problems.”
Things are changing now that the movie industry’s hippest young male stars, such as Ranveer Singh and Vicky Kaushal, are falling in line with global trends in male facial decoration. Even here, however, the trend intersects with Hindi cinema’s generally sharp awareness of public bellicosity. In his 2008 book, Seduced By The Familiar: Narration And Meaning In Indian Popular Cinema, the scholar M.K. Raghavendra pointed out a discontinuity between two war films, Chetan Anand’s classic Haqeeqat (1964), lamenting the 1962 Indo-China war, and Border (1997), J.P. Dutta’s rousing military adventure, set during the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
“Border is much more aggressive in its tone than Haqeeqat and is even belligerent in its patriotism,” Raghavendra wrote. “To cite a less obvious symptom of the new hostility, while most of the soldiers in Haqeeqat are clean-shaven, those in Border usually sport moustaches or beards. The actors playing some of the major roles (like Suniel Shetty and Akshaye Khanna) actually wear false moustaches. The moustache is a traditional symbol of masculinity in India and I interpret this aspect of Border as deliberate and intended to convey the new aggression in Indian patriotism—while Haqeeqat was about a nation defending itself.”
Cut to this year’s big hit Uri, whose protagonist is called Vihaan Singh Shergill. His name is Sikh, and, while the character isn’t turbaned, he does keep his facial hair quite in line with Vicky Kaushal’s offscreen style. In any case, the movie’s interpretation of protocol is accurate for more reasons than one. The elite Para SF, to which Kaushal’s character belongs, does not impose the usual grooming restrictions on its soldiers. Uri is a slick departure from earlier Bollywood “defence” stories. Consider: In 1998, the film Major Saab required a pre-credits explanation from its star, Amitabh Bachchan, that his character’s beard was a piece of creative liberty from army regulations.
The moustache signifies authority, but not necessarily elitism. There is something roguish about its civilian avatars, perhaps for historic political reasons. In the mid-19th century, as left-wing politics was ascendant around Europe, men from the underclasses began to grow facial hair in defiance of convention. Parisian clerks and British working-class men—“the vulgar clever,” as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine sniffed in February 1843—were heckled and frowned upon by the elites of their countries when they started sporting beards and moustaches. Aristocrats, with their arcane rules of grooming, had nothing in common with the fuzz newly sprouting on proletarian cheeks and chins.
No less a rebel than Friedrich Engels, future comrade of Karl Marx, is known to have shocked his bourgeois family when he chose to wear moustaches as a university student. After him came the deluge. Whoever saw a clean-shaven Bolshevik?
As Christopher Oldstone-Moore observes in his Of Beards And Men: The Revealing History Of Facial Hair, the rise of liberal politics made the moustache a “heroic” acquisition in the West. Yet after the failures of egalitarian movements all over Europe in the 19th century, “they also carried an air of impracticality and tragedy”.
It was this very failure, Oldstone-Moore argues, that made facial hair an acceptable civilian commodity in the imperial capitals of the Western world, where it survives to this day, reputation intact. Today, as leftist politics experiences a new surge of popularity in the US and Europe, facial hair has less in common with Marx and Lenin, and much more with the prevailing fashion among hipsters and their full but tightly groomed whiskers. In 2017, a report by market research firm IMARC Group pegged the global market for men’s grooming products at $57.7 billion (around ₹4 trillion now).
In India, the moustache as a symbol of power is not straightforward. It has no great political currency, although its capacity for political signalling is growing. The Ambedkarite leader of the Dalit-Bahujan organization Bhim Army, Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”, wears a chevron moustache that looks like an act of assertion. The breakout YouTube star “Grandmaster Shifuji”, whose nationalist, army-loving videos are a viral success in the Hindi heartland, wears a borderline-comical twirl.
Unlike beards, the moustache is rarely a sign of orthodoxy or religious inclination. In Hindu mythology, the art historian B.N. Goswamy observed in an interview three years ago, deities don’t often wear facial hair, because “the gods are meant to be youthful—18-20 years—and always remain like that, except for one, Brahma. Brahma is always referred to as a pitamaha (grandfather) and never shown without a long beard.” The dwarapalakas, or guardian sculptures, of south Indian temples tend to wear moustaches too, perhaps as a relic of older religious norms.
Goswamy also points out that communities such as the Rajputs, where military prowess is linked to power, are historically depicted with moustaches rather than beards, because the former is more of a norm. Muslim rulers, “right from Emir Timur”, are depicted with beards. But the quality of their moustaches varies. Through artistic depictions, as we see the faces of Mughal emperors change over time, we also see trim moustaches grow. It is perhaps an unconscious signal that their culture, much like their bloodline, expanded from its Central Asian origins to include Rajput, Afghan and Iranian influences.
A beard is always serious. But a moustache can be mischievous. Complaining about colonial impositions on the Indian way of life, the Urdu poet Akbar Illahabadi wrote, waggishly, “Sach yeh hain insaan ko Europe ne halka kar diya /Ibtida daadhi se ki aur imtihaan me mooch le li (The truth is, Europe has made us of little consequence/Having started with the beard, they took our moustaches in the end)”. In the relief over Varthaman’s return, consumer brands, much like barbershops, displayed no hesitation in piggybacking on his resplendence. Amul resurrected a four-year-old commercial, encouraging Indians to drink milk and dedicated it “To Abhinandan”. It was capped with a slogan that’s also a popular Indian maxim—“mooch nahin to kuch nahin,” or “there’s nothing without a moustache”. The sweet, childish gag is the milk moustache. Nothing could be further from the first sight of Varthaman’s gunslinger, a jagged lightning bolt on a serious, wounded face. With his return, the photographs of his smiling face allowed his new fan following a certain playfulness. Few could have foreseen this on the tense morning of India and Pakistan’s air battle. But the moustache, a mark of military rectitude, sometimes also means freedom.
THE MARCH OF THE MOUSTACHE
In Turkey, beard-less moustaches were mandatory for the Ottomans’ elite infantry corps, the Janissaries, perhaps due to their origins as child conscripts from Christian families.
1600s Peace compacts among Japan’s feudal lords ended the era of hige, samurai facial hair signalling the martial prowess of the wearer. Menpo, samurai masks that often depict fierce moustaches, indicate the importance of kuchi-hige, as upper-lip hair was known.
Peter the Great, hoping to Europeanize Russia, imposed a tax on beards in his empire. However, moustaches escaped this penalty among soldiers of the Russian army. He himself wore a well-kept pencil moustache.
Both British and French hussars in the Napoleonic Wars wore moustaches, among the first modern soldiers in Western Europe to do so, although no other British troops did. In Spain, only officers were permitted moustaches until 1845.
Lieutenant General Nevil Macready, arguing that the British subdued Napoleon with a largely clean-shaven force, abolished the British army’s long-standing moustache requirement. To “set an example”, he had his own shaved immediately, “glad to be rid of the unsightly bristles”.
US fighter pilot Robin Olds grew a handlebar moustache that became iconic during the Vietnam War. It was, he said, “the middle finger I couldn’t raise in the PR photographs”. The US Air Force now annually observes Mustache March, a light-hearted protest during which servicemen defy prohibitions and grow moustaches for a month.
With inputs from Bhanuj Kappal.