A glance through my social media timelines and I am bombarded with peers sporting or trying to sport a beard, awash with pictures of grim looking Indian men that let their beards do the talking instead of their expressions. Facebook too, has decided that it’s time I grow a facial mane and buy into this new range of ‘beard care’ brands, hitherto an unheard of phenomenon in India; until recently.
India is no stranger to beards, with men sporting dreadlocks, albeit often largely due to religious reasons. Beards also come with the associated symbolism of wisdom and aestheticism. When you think of saints and intellectuals from India’s historical past, doesn’t the image of men sporting great beards come to your mind? However, the post independence India has been about the clean shaven, white collared working man, reflecting the honest hard-working and bureaucratic nature of society.
For the patriarchal Indian man, more than the beard, it is the moustache that becomes the significant form of facial hair. Popular imagery of the curled up moustache signifies the virility of the man – probably the most dominant cultural trope of Indian masculinity that exists. However, when it comes to the beard, there is no such cultural heritage that anchors it to the faces of Indian men.
Therefore, sporting a beard, aside from religious reasons, is an unchartered territory for Indian men. Yet, it is catching on unchecked, with popular youth icons such as Virat Kohli and Ranveer Singh often seen sporting full beards, to chin straps, to extended goatees.
It all started with the 5 o’clock shadow gaining popularity and now things seem to have gone out of control. So, what has triggered this trend? Surely it’s more than merely aping the lumber-sexual trend that has taken over the west. According to popular psychology, growing a beard is often a sign of dealing with an inadequacy. It’s a masking of the face, like hiding behind a curtain. What might this inadequacy be that Indian men are dealing with?
The hint lies in the term often used to describe this phenomenon: Hipster beard. More than a specific style, it has come to symbolise a mind-set. He is an urban, open-minded explorer, not a rebel but a negotiator and accepting of the changing world. This group of men are the first ones trying to mentally transit from patriarchal roots to a system where there is more power equality between men and women.
Even though for the majority of Indian men, patriarchal values are deeply embedded, urban men coming from prosperous families have been witness to the rise of independent equality seeking women. Though they may not be fully accepting of this rise, there is enough peer pressure around them to consider this phenomenon.
The tension between deep-rooted patriarchal upbringing and the emerging equality narrative is causing an imbalance in his sense of self. From being the owner of space in social, commercial and traditional discussions to sharing that space, is affecting their idea of masculinity. With no concrete definitions to hold on to, there is a loss of masculine identity as they transition paradigms.
In this niche cross section of Indian society, the man’s role is no longer guaranteed. He may not be the breadwinner, his decisions across topics are getting challenged and the spotlight is not only on him.
To bring back Ranveer Singh’s example, his girlfriend – Deepika Padukone – is more successful than him, has broken social mores by coming out about her depression, and is presently foraying into Hollywood. Ranveer Singh accepts awards on her behalf and is genuinely happy with her achieving more than him.
The beard is possibly a sub-conscious attempt by the urban Indian man to visually bridge the inadequacy in his masculinity, which a still dominant patriarchal society points towards. An outward demonstration of his changing mind-set which he believes does not undermine his virtue as a man. Beards also have been given legitimacy by artists, poets, musicians and similar kindred souls as a marker of liberated thought and expression. By growing one, the urban Indian man may be appropriating this value.
Hence, is the emergence of beards a sign of threatened masculinity or evolving masculinity?
Though the roots of this trend seem to be anchored in a sense of threat, we should however celebrate this as a sign of evolution. Here’s hoping more Indian men grow beards. Let me end this by giving the disclosure that I sport, or am at least desperately trying to sport a Hipster beard and happily live in the shadow of a woman whose achievements and courage, far exceed mine.