April 11, 2021

Ambika Pillai on life and motherhood

Ambika Pillai is a celebrity hair and make up artist. She is a brand herself and an entrepreneur. In a heart felt confession, Ambika shares with Mums and stories her journey in life and being a mother to Kavitha Pillai.

“Kollam, in Kerala is my home. Yes, I was born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth. But it wasn’t the materialistic things that dominated my childhood it was much more. My memories are of me grappling with my inner angels and demons to make sense of the family and life I was born into.

God weaves intricate, amazing and unbelievable nitty gritties together and we call it our life. Incidents happen and sometimes it takes us decades to put two and two together… It all makes sense at the end.

Growing up, I was the second of four girls – As a child I often wondered about the most bizarre things and made mountains out of molehills. We had no brothers.

I fretted and worried about the million little things a little girl who had no brothers did. I was scared to cross busy roads, I was scared I’d fall from a ladder with no strong arms to break my fall, who would I go to when I had my very first heartbreak…basically I missed having a brother. We four girls grew up fighting and loving each other, over the years forming a bond that no one or nothing could break.

In my heart I felt intensely for my three sisters I knew I always wanted to be there in laughter and tears -wiping their tears and they mine. By ten, I knew these were the only three people in the world I wanted to share my childhood memories & grown up dreams with.

But, like Amma said the universe has a way of sorting major issues a child has, as the years went by.

My three sisters huddled around me and consoled and wept with me when I thought my heart had broken into a million pieces, never to be patched back again, when my divorce happened at a very young age.

Achan or Gopika, my elder sister, always held my hand crossing roads. When I did climb a ladder and fell and broke my tailbone it was Kavitha, my daughter, who rushed me to the hospital and sat by my side till the anesthesia from the operation wore off.

My 24-year -old unsettled, turbulent soul found peace when my cousin, Govind, one of four boys searched me out amongst the many cousin sisters he had and asked me if I could tie the ‘tali’ at his wedding. I must have had a tear that day knowing that in a way he was telling me, it didn’t matter that I was divorced; he still wanted me to be the sister he never had to perform that sacred ceremony.

My childhood, in short, was magical with its mysteries that somehow solved itself.

I was married at 17, divorced at 24 and had built a brand by 35. Truthfully speaking it wasn’t a well planned road I had chosen to take. On the other hand it all happened by default. All I ever wanted as a kid was to be happily married with 4 kids and a husband who loved me unconditionally and of course 2 dogs… But life doesn’t always turn out the way you want it… Being divorced at 24 wasn’t the easiest situation to be in, especially when you are from an extremely orthodox family. Where my dad didn’t believe in women working.

When divorce hits you at a young age and leaves your self confidence shattered, is when your ‘self preserve’ energies kick in. I wanted to start believing in myself again.. I would not let anyone break my spirit. I wanted to stand on my own strength. So I packed up and left with a two year old in my arms. Brave or stupid? You may ask? For me it was neither. It was to find my own path in life.

I left home, went off to far away Delhi, with every intention of doing a beauty course and heading back home to Kerala to open up my own little salon. Of course it didn’t happen that way but it was the foundation for my life as I know it now.

Young and divorced at 24..I was determined to stand on my own two feet so I had chosen Delhi, far away from Kollam (much against my fathers wishes) with a backpack and two thousand rupees tucked inside my back pocket and a two year old Kavi in my arms. My only dream was to put a roof over our heads, kavi’s and mine. Over the years I did so much more… I did buy our dream house but also grew in name and fame to become a name to be reckoned with in the beauty and hair industry. Having won ever national award my industry had to give out, I became a household name. Kavitha was with me in the initial years and she watched as I struggled to make ends meet.

After my courses at Shahnaz for beauty treatments and pivotal point for hair.. I got my first job that paid me Rs 2000/- Kavi always knew how much money I had in my bag. She never asked for anything she knew I could not afford. She watched me grow and learnt many tough lessons from my pitfalls and achievements.

I probably would have carried on being a small time parlour girl if I hadn’t been thrown out of my second job for a huge misunderstanding – I decided I didn’t want to work for anyone anymore.

I opened my first salon with a partner and worked as a shadow behind the very talented Sylvie the hair dresser. Once that partnership fell through, with my never say die attitude I opened yet another salon with yet another friend who was a billion times worse .

Basically I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. The partnership lasted for 13 long years and even though it took me forever to find out my best friend was swindling all the money. This is the time in my life other great things happened that would determine my path and take me to heights that was actually the beginning of my brand building exercise and making my brand a house hold name in Delhi. Through it all, Kavi and myself learnt to love and lean on each other. I am her father and mother rolled into one and she is the core of my being.”

On being asked on her opinion of marriage, she says, “I personally believe in the institution of marriage. I believe in true love, soul mates and dreams coming true. When one marriage fails, you are shattered and become skeptical. I chose to take the second plunge hoping and praying that this time nothing would go wrong. But it did. It was probably the biggest mistake cause now I feel a deep fear to step back into the ‘normal’ cycle of life.. Mine, I realize, is an off beaten path I decided to tread on.

As a woman I realize, in our land, majority of the men folk do not encourage the women to go out there and work. I know my dad used to say, “You don’t need to work, women in our families stay at home”. I guess I went against what he wanted. He wanted me safe at home but I needed to go out there and find my own space.

Initially I did step on my dad’s toes. It took him forever to come to terms that one of his daughters had divorced, moved in and out of home to head to the capital of India to spread her wings.

As a mom I’ve always believed that my time with Kavi cannot and will not be compromised. When she was little I used to work around her school timings.

I never used to travel on assignments until I shifted her to Kollam to study under my parent’s guidance. She left in 3rd standard and returned after her boards those were the 7 years that I worked very long hours relentlessly and that did pay off.

My dad and the family wealth, I knew, was always a cushion for me to fall back on if ever I desperately needed it and that knowledge is probably what gave me the strength to fight against all odds. Even though I have hit rock bottom many times, it was a burning need within me to struggle to the top once more – knowing deep in my heart that I did not want to depend on anyone but my willpower. I strongly believed in ‘me’.

It was more to prove a point to myself that I could stand on my own two feet and look after Kavi and myself. The need to give Kavi the life I grew up in. The struggle to put our own roof over our heads, to make Amma and Achan proud of me.

All has been a driving force. I grew up as a rich kid, did my boarding in Ooty, holidays in Europe and the states. A world people only dreamed of. Many think mine was a rags to riches story but that’s not true.

My journey itself might have been long and tedious but nothing beats the satisfaction of having made it on my own.

We have 6 salons… 4 in Delhi and 2 in Kerala. It was a natural progression as a makeup artist and hair dresser to bring out my own products. By now people know how finicky I am about, just about, everything. Nothing was good enough.

No brand gave me the effect or colours that I wanted nor the use of natural ingredients. No brand satisfied my thirst to make the Indian skin and hair look the way I wanted it to. So I worked on colours, textures and problems people face, to put together products that are meant to suit every Indian skin tone and hair texture and both skin, hair and scalp related problems….It’s a long drawn out process and it’s a monetary struggle to bring out the full line but someday, in the near future, I know I will.

I always tell Kavi you will never know the love of the parent until we become a parent yourself. All through my growing up years I heard my Amma say wait till you have your own kids then you’ll understand … She was so right. Kavi sent me this phrase by an unknown writer. ‘The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never.’ That’s probably the truest phrase I’ve ever read.

I am my daughter’s greatest fan. She is my best friend. I couldn’t replace her with another. I am very proud of her. Maybe I don’t say it enough but I know there’s no doubt in her mind and heart of the depth and strength of my love.

I am the mother I am to Kavi because of my mother. For me every morning and night, I get up and sleep with a prayer to keep the two women in my life safe and happy, the two that made me who I am. My mother and I am a mother to the other. Every memory is worth saving and relishing.

You may ask me what the turning point was… Well, it takes a lot of hardships you struggle through to overcome to finally make something of your life. But if I was asked to pinpoint one incident then I would have to say it was winning my first national award for an ad film where I did the then ruling miss world Aishwarya Rai s face. The press gave it everything they had and it became every girls dream to sit on my chair and get their hair and make up done by me… I’ve done things that most artists only dream of doing -I’d say as a so called achiever, I’ve reached a point where I can finally see my retirement on the horizon … And as a mom your desires never stop.

A well groomed person draws confidence from the fact that he/she can walk into any office, party, meeting etc without feeling embarrassed. I think it’s very necessary for women and men to be well groomed. I also strongly believe that mothers are the keepers of family tradition and history. Mothers work harder than anyone to keep the family together. Moms are about home, food, family, faith, love and affection, all those things that make life worth living and which teach us that the most important thing about life is not simply living it for yourself, but making it worth living for others too, by living your life for them… I know for a fact I live for my daughter.”

On a final note Ambika says, “ I never have a single boring minute anymore -.my page takes up all my spare time.. I answer hundreds of questions. I capture a moment and post it – I create videos some very informative some fun, for two reasons, one I’m having a blast doing it and two I think it benefits whole lot of people out there, those who are trying to reach me.”

An excerpt on her own take about her –
This is just me….
*Yes, I am from kollam, Kerala.
*Yes, I ‘ve been working in Delhi for 26 years.
* Yes, my family is the most important thing in my life.
* No, I don’t have 2 kids… Kavitha is my only precious one.
* Yes, my Hindi is as bad as my Malayalam … I’m just terrible with languages.
* No, I don’t smile all the time, I have my bad days too.
* Yes, ‘I am dyslexic and I have OCD.
* No, I m not into politics.
* No chappatis and dal for me .. I love my mallu food too much.
* No I don’t think calling a malayalee a mallu is insulting … I call myself a mallu all the time, because I am.
* Yes, I am a workaholic.. I love what I do.
* Yes, I follow my dreams and I m a fighter.
* No, there are no short cuts to success .. That’s what I strongly believe in.
* NO, NO, NO to child abuse and sexual harassment.
* YES, to respect and love for your elders.
* Yes, I am terrified of snakes and am fascinated with butterflies.
* Yes, I strongly believe in karma and life after death.
* Yes, Kavi, my Amma and sisters And their families are my backbone.
* Yes, I look, walk and talk like my achan.
* Yes, what I miss most in my life is my achan.
*Yes, I strongly believe in the institution of marriage… I just wasn’t that lucky.
* Yes, I count my blessing.. All the time.
And YES I believe in GOD.

Mums and stories is glad to have featured this story on the icon Ambika Pillai

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