To be a man in today’s team, one needs to wear a beard. Or so it would seem going by the thorny visage of so many in all walks of life. From Narendra Modi to Virat Kohli, public life is rife with men sporting large quantities of hair on their face. For some it has been an enduring part of their identity, while there are many others who have a beard because everyone has a beard. Like all forms of personal affectations, the beard is essentially a form of communication that broadcasts a sense of who one is and who one wishes to be seen as.
The sage’s beard, that Mr Modi has started wearing makes its intention quite clear. Whether or not it is a nod to Rabindranath Tagore, given the Bengal elections, the intended message is quite clear. Over the years Mr Modi’s projected image has moved from being a hands-on man of action, to being a wise oracle who is above the fray. Creating a persona that reminds Bengal of a favourite son does his electoral prospects no harm.
The sage’s beard communicates profusely by its abundance. White and overflowing, it is as if the flood of wisdom that emanates from the oracle is being allowed to flow untrammelled. Two otherwise opposing codes sit together- that of age and abundance. Normally, age brings in its wake sparseness and diminution. Things thin out, shrivel up and shrink, except notably for the flowing beard. The lushness of sage’s beard becomes a sign of one of the few things that are seen to be become more abundant with age- wisdom. In the sage’s and the guru’s beard, age becomes synonymous with baked wisdom, representing an effortless spring well of deep understanding that gushes out without any deliberate effort.
On the other end of the spectrum is the beard most in vogue today, the kind worn by Virat. After years of aspiring to hard-jawed gleaming chins, the tide turned a few years ago and it became mandatory of men who had come of age to sport a more hirsute look. The beard in vogue is carefully groomed, fastidiously maintained and scrupulously displayed. It is a sign of fussy self-absorption, rather than careless
disinterest in one’s appearance. It speaks of a masculinity intent on a fetishising itself, a uniform to be worn to be in trend.
Along with the modern pre-occupation with sculpting the body, this is a way of enacting masculinity, a performance that is carefully orchestrated. Like the bell bottoms of the 70s, the beard today is merely a sign of the times. It is worn on the outside in every possible sense. It uses a device usually seen as a return to a more primitive idea of masculinity to make a more contemporary statement. The hipster beard in particular is the ultimate expression of the idea of beard as costume. Across the many forms it takes, this beard is part homage, part parody, as it grafts another identity from another time and place on to oneself.
It is in many ways an attempt to reclaim the glory of masculinity, in a time when the men feel under pressure from the increasing presence of women in public life, but simultaneously it is so transparently a costume that it undercuts itself. While all masculinity is an act of performance, the beard today is much more consciously so. By amplifying what is a specific sign of maleness, and yet according to it the kind of careful attention that was historically associated with the feminine, the modern beard is an act of self-aware bravado.
On the surface, the current look is the polar opposite of the metrosexual, but structurally, the difference is not vast. This is masculinity worn on the outside, putting on an exaggerated display while confessing to its inadequacy. The modern beard, in all its varied forms, represents the taming of the beard and its conversion into a processed cultural product. A whole regimen of grooming products has sprung around the beard, which once languished in commercial wilderness.
There are several other kinds of beards. The activist’s beard is a site of restlessness, of active dissatisfaction, It is unkempt and straggly, determined to resist order as befits a dissident fermenting ideas and fomenting trouble for the establishment. Of someone too caught up in the weighty issues of injustice and discrimination in the world to bother with appearances. The beard is a sign of individuality, of not caring enough about the things that don’t count while caring deeply for the things that do.
Of course, given that it has been the time-honoured look for intellectuals, there is conformity, merely of another kind.
The stubble is an interesting creature for it revels in its neither-here-nor-thereness. At one level it is a sign of a masculine overflow that could neither be tamed nor get fully realised. The unshaven, under-slept look is a sign of a mind in turmoil, lacking equilibrium. The majnu look made popular by Bollywood captures this state. The designer stubble on the other hand, is an artful declaration of underpreparedness. I The graininess of skin and the roughness of texture act as an advertisement for a masculinity that is perpetually a work-in-progress, not having come to rest. The designer stubble is the beard in its Calvin Klein underwear, balancing raw masculinity with chic sophistication.
The beard was the refuge of the weak-chinned. Today it is the pride of anyone with a chin. The beard wearer has a deep relationship with his own facial hair, and takes it extremely seriously. While at one level, it is an outward sign that aligns itself with the times, it is also a deep expression of an inner felt reality. The current prevalence of the beard (virtually every Indian cricketer for instance sports one) will fade as most grooming trends do, but as gender turns even more liquid, the beard will continue to be both an anchor and a site for experimentation.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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