Aqueel of Zulf Makers in Bombay is about to cut my hair using fire.
Photo credit: Frédérick Lavoie.
“I use small small fire. No big fire. Otherwise it will be difficult to control, very dangerous,” said Aqueel as he brought his candle closer to my hair in order to cut, or perhaps more accurately, burn it.
Just like the ear cleaners of Delhi and dabba wallah of Mumbai who deliver 200,000 lunch boxes to office-goers on an average day, Aqueel Kiratpuri has crafted a job for himself that most would never have thought existed. On a quest for a strategy to attract new customers twelve years ago, the man from Uttar Pradesh decided to play the wild card: scissors out, fire in! The natural way, if you ask him.
“But the technique wasn’t new,” confessed the hairdresser. “Back in my village, I had heard of a very old man cutting hair using mombatti and fire, but I never met him. I just did it on my own after inventing a type of candle that wouldn’t leak burning wax on my clients.”
The flame finally touched the lock of hair Aqueel kept in place with a lilac hairclip, thereby creating a crackling sound far louder than I had expected – much like if someone was slowly rumpling a piece of foil next to my ear. I couldn’t help but ask out loud: “Why the hell do I do these things?” Mr. Kiratpuri had an unequivocal answer to that question: “The Almighty gave you the daring to get your hair cut by fire”.
As the pungent smell of hair turning into ash slowly engulfed the room, I glanced at the counter hoping Aqueel had a bucket of water, just in case a mishap turned my head into a bonfire. Needless to say that my prayers intensified when Aqueel blazed through my sideburns, bringing flames close enough to my ears to get high-pitched squeaks out of me.
No pain, rest assured. It turns out Aqueel’s talent completely negated the need for water buckets: the man performed his work with the uncanny precision of the sculptor, knowing specifically where to set the fire and how intense to make it so it would extinguish right where he needed a trim.
More than anything else though, it was Kiratpuri’s composure that eventually led me to relax into getting a pyromanic haircut. The salt and pepper-haired man carries the kind of calm generally associated with the deeply meditative and religiously anchored. It then struck me that the long scar that runs down Aqueel’s left cheekbone – from his eye right down to his beard line – softens his traits instead of hardening his looks.
Aqueel Kiratpuri cutting hair with a candle and fire in Mumbai, India. Photo credit: Frédérick Lavoie.
Aqueel goes about his craft with utmost humility. The salon itself is a major understatement. In Canada or the U.S., a talent of this kind would be turned into a light and sound show with the flashiness of Las Vegas. Here, in the midst of a Mumbai suburb known as Andheri, Kiratpuri does his magic in an unceremonious, quaint, neon-lit salon that goes largely unnoticed by passersby. “We all need to do our work with the fire in our heart,” he said, before putting the last incendiary touches to his chef-d’oeuvre.
So how did haircut #149 turn out? Well, exactly the same as it displayed on Aqueel’s wall of hairstyles. Still in disbelief, I was running my right hand through my rugged hair when Zahab, Aqueel’s son, smiled and promised to throw in more chilies to the experience next time. He explained he plans on starting to cut his clients’ hair using a welding torch instead of the pieces of broken glass he’s been using to distinguish himself from his father.
“Only if you pay me, Zahab!”
Aqueel Kiratpuri owns and operates Zulf Makers Salon & Academy at:
Shop No 5, Marble Arch No 4,
Shastri Nagar, Lokhandwala,
Andheri West, Mumbai
Landmark: On the street across from the HDFC Bank.
Fire powered haircuts cost 1000 rupees (approximately $19).