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It’s all about making pretty people prettier

BEAUTY BUSINESS Say ‘Shoba Kunjan’ and citywallahs will not ask you ‘who?’ Shilpa Nair Anand learns how she made a vocation of the beauty business in conventional Kerala more than three decades ago

Photo: H.Vibhu.

Pioneer Shoba Kunjan at her beauty parlour

This is the story of a wonderstruck little girl looking with awe at wedding photographs her classmates brought of their older sisters and aunts. It was a world of stylish ladies, elaborate hairdos and make-up and daydream about that world of beautifu l women. And while the teacher taught, she would doodle in her notebook – they would be eyes – big round eyes, small eyes, eyes with long lashes – all kinds of eyes.

“That was probably a sign of things to come. Even today, I love doing up eyes,” says Shoba Kunjan, probably Kerala’s first beautician, who runs the beauty salon, Live-in-Style. Asin flies in for her beauty routine, so does Nayantara. It is not just the stars, even the star wives such as Mrs Mammotty and Manju Warrier get pampered at Shoba’s place.

A chat with Shoba is not just a trip down memory lane but also a concise lesson in the evolution of the beauty business in conservative Kerala. Her memories crisscross the past and the present.

She talks of a time when the only beauty salon that Kerala had was the one at Taj Malabar, run by Leena Chen. Shoba considers Leena her guru. “She weaved magic with her long, slender fingers. She is the one who introduced threading to Kerala,” says the fond student of her mentor. Swank Mercs would deposit ladies at Taj Malabar for their beauty regimen. It is hard to believe Shoba is talking of a State where there is a beauty parlour at every nook and corner now. Women from all over Kerala used to come to Leena.” Although bridal make up in those days just comprised a bindi and kajal, a proper hairdo was important. “Today the preparations begin well in advance. On D-day itself it takes three hours.”

The three years spent as an assistant to Leena Chen are what she considers invaluable. “Even today when I begin work on a client I think of her,” says Shoba.

Having started very early at 17, when the beauty business was in its nascence, she had to face stiff opposition from her family, particularly her father. “His friends used to tell him not to let me do what I was doing. But my mother supported me. Imagine in those days a young girl going to a five-star hotel to work,” explaining those raised eyebrows. But that is how much she loves doing what she does. Then came her stint as chief beautician at ‘My Fair Lady’, probably Kerala’s first parlour for plebs. That probably was the beginning of the average Malayali woman’s tryst with beauty treatments outside home. “We had college students, housewives besides celebrities dropping in. We had to educate people about facials and other beauty treatments. Today it would be tough to find a woman who does not at least thread her eyebrows,” says Shoba. During the course of the chat she says how hair straightening and perming were done even then, “the clients either brought the required creams from abroad or we would ask people to get them for us.” Marriage to actor Kunjan came, then came her daughter and finally Live in Style. “It was after our marriage that my husband asked me ‘Do you have any certificates?’ I said ‘no’. I had years of experience, of working with my hands, but I had no certificates. That is when he took me to Delhi and enrolled me at Blossom Kochchar’s ‘Pivot Point’.” Pivot Point then was the only place in India which offered a diploma which has recognition abroad; there she learnt cosmetology, aromatherapy and hair styling.

In 1986 she set up Live in Style in Panampilly Nagar on the ground floor of her house. After 22 years the business has grown to include the first floor of the house forcing the family to move out, laughs Shoba. The proud mother is just back from her older daughter, Swetha’s graduation from hair-style guru Vidal Sassoon’s academy in the UK. Eventually she will join her mother. Younger daughter Swathi studies in Class VIII.

The beauty business has grown into a multi-crore industry, with the arrival of branded saloons. “The beauty business is not so much about brands. It is about the quality of the product and the service,” she says. The new brands of beauty saloons are really no cause of worry for her. “I am confident about the service that my parlour provides, I use the best products available and my assistants are well trained. I keep myself updated on the latest in the business.”

After all these years, dressing up brides is what still excites her. “The passage of years hits me when I find myself dressing up a bride whose mother I dressed up on her wedding day. And that is such a nice feeling.”

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