At an age when most kids look up to their fathers as their invincible protectors, Shiva’s was snatched away from him by a sharp twist of fate. He was only four years old.
His neighbours in Mumbai contributed Rs 365 (a big amount in 1959) to his mom, then a young widow left to fend for two kids. A kind man helped Shiva’s family return to their village.
“Today, his son works for me,” begins Shivarama Bhandary, as we chat at one of his 20 high-end salons in Mumbai.
When they returned to their village, his mother couldn’t live at his late father’s ancestral home, neither could she return to her own, since her parents had passed away. And so, they moved like nomads from one relative’s home to another.
“We were treated like outsiders. And despite the death of my father, my mother was a strong woman who did not want to be a burden to anybody. Help came to us from strangers, in this case, a humble Catholic family. I was five then. Although I couldn’t put everything I was feeling into words, I could understand my mother’s pain,” he says.
They moved into a makeshift shed, which had no electricity or bathrooms inside. But it was their home. Shiva was studying in class 5 in a Kannada-medium school. He dropped out of school while his mother sought menial jobs for him to keep the home running.
“I worked at a cycle repair shop. At the weekend market, I would even sell vegetables. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. But we were bound by circumstances. There was a struggle, but even as a child, I was taught to face it with a smile and take it in my stride. So I did,” he adds.
His uncle who lived in Chikamangalore even took him away from his family to find him a better job. But it wasn’t until October 1979, that he decided to return to Mumbai and take charge of his future.
“I worked for a monthly salary of Rs 30 at the local Ajanta hairdressers in the suburb of Bhandup,” he says.
From Bhandup to Ghatkopar, he worked at a string of salons and travelled to the Ramabai quarters to sleep at night. His big break came in October 1984, when he got the opportunity to travel to Qatar. Working for an upcoming sports club, he developed a penchant for innovative hairstyling for sports fanatics from Brazil, Korea, and Sudan.
“I was finally getting exposed to the various hair qualities that existed for people from across the globe, whether it was long S waves, coily hair or curly hair. I learned how each of these had to be treated differently. You couldn’t use a regular comb for curls; there was a special kind. Hygiene was given top priority, whether it was changing blades or keeping the mirrors squeaky clean,” he recalls.
He even did haircuts for the national football team there, who were so appreciative of his precision and styling that they would leave handsome tips, even their watches!
When he returned to India, Shiva was determined to start his salon in 1988 in Mumbai.
His mother moved to the city with him in the small house he built from his Qatar savings. “My sister has passed away by then, and I was all my mother had. So she moved in with me.”
In 1988, he started a salon in Thane. Procuring second-hand furniture at an affordable cost, he worked alone there for 50 days.
“I wanted to give it my best. Maintaining quality was my priority. It was only a matter of time till the word spread far and wide. People from as far as Fort would travel to get their hair done. There was hardly time to eat,” he laughs.
He continues, “By the grace of God, that place was always busy. Slowly, I started hiring more people.”
Waking up at 5 am, he would work until midnight. “It was tiring, yes, but you’ve got to love what you do,” he says.
It was one of his acquaintances who told Shiva how he should move to the Western line too. Today, the man has over 20 outlets in Mumbai with over 300 employees, all under Shiva Hairdressers Private Ltd.
At the Salon International event in 1998, he carved a sign of victory on the volunteer’s head under the Wild and Wacky Hair category, and won! At this, Christopher Mann, World Hairdressing Commissioner, told him to take advanced courses abroad.
“I could hardly speak fluent English. But I stayed in contact with him and went for a three-month trip to London, where I had the chance to interact with the world’s top hairdressers.”
From Shiv Sena Supremo Late Balasaheb Thackeray to A-Listers in Bollywood, Shiva became the go-to hairdresser for a number of celebrities.
“I remember Balasaheb Thackeray telling me he liked his haircut not just because of how it looked, but because my hands didn’t shiver,” he smiles.
Whether it was the football or cricket team, fashion weeks or beauty pageants, his work piqued the interest of the industry. Even till date, when he is called for any special assignment, no matter what time the clock strikes, Shiva never says no.
“I remember parents would often walk up to me asking me to help their unemployed sons learn the art. So I would talk to these young men and all of my employees and tell them that if they were passionate about the field, they should give it their all. Every foot set in my salon is a bohni to me, regardless where the money comes from.”
(It is a belief that the first sale of a day, bohni, establishes the luck for subsequent transactions.)
Shiva believes that learning is not determined by age or experience; he travels abroad twice a year to learn the latest advanced courses in styling and even sends his employees for the same.
The Central government had launched the innovative entrepreneurship and skill development programme called the Maulana Azad National Academy for Skills (MANAS).
Shiva’s academy played a major role in skilling kids from minority communities increase their livelihood opportunities. For his efforts, he was awarded by Dr Najma Heptullah (erstwhile Union Minister for Minority Affairs), and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
One of his employees, Raghu, refers to Shiva as the man with a heart of gold in the truest sense. “You don’t find a man who teaches you everything in the business and says, ‘Stand up in competition against me’ and become an entrepreneur. But he always encourages us to dream higher. He is one of the best teachers. Some of us as well as his clients have been with him for over 30 years. Life has pinned him down several times, but he bounced back each time,” says Raghu.
And while he is a father figure to them, Raghu adds how Shiva is a stickler for discipline when it comes to work. “He doesn’t compromise on quality. Everyone has to report on time and there is no compromise on quality and hygiene.”
In his message, Shiva says, “Practice your art with hard work and success will follow. Don’t set short-term goals, be farsighted. I always tell my employees, there is no shortcut to success. I am not highly educated, nor were my parents. We weren’t rich either. Right now, you are working for me, give it your best. But don’t restrict yourself. Aim higher and set up your own salon one day.”
Shiva is now in the process of publishing his autobiography. We are sure the story of this humble boy who rose from the depths of poverty will inspire youth to chase their dreams, no matter what.
To Shiva. May his tribe increase.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)