30 Sep


Lakshmi Vishwanathan is a well known dancer and writer. She has authored several books, the most recent being the best seller : “Women of Pride – the Devadasi Heritage”.

From the beginning of Time, mankind (and womankind) has been hair-obsessed. Fashion, style and other statements were made long before “Vogue” came into the picture. Picture this: Adam and Eve were happily romping around when suddenly they came across a glistening pond of water. They bent over to examine it, saw their faces and exclaimed : “God! How ugly!” They quickly ran their hands through their dishevelled hair, bringing some order to it, looked at each other and fell in love! The rest is of course history!.

From the earliest rock paintings and stone carvings one can see the importance of “hair-style”. Would we stop to admire him if Michaelangelo’s David did not have riotous curls on his head? Forget about the rest of him! The Pharoahs knew all about hair-styles. Just see what Cleopatra did to her silken black Egyptian tresses. Elizabeth Taylor showed us Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” as a style icon in living colour. Afro braids are so “in” today that we wonder what all these girls did before they found stylists to give them the distinctive “look”. I see even little blonde girls braiding their hair and enjoying the new look.

Braids, or as we were taught in school -“plaits”, were always ‘in’ in India. There is something about the tropics that is good for the hair. Not only India, but all our eastern neighbours, right up to Bali can boast of black long tresses. The length and the sheen were traditional markers of style and beauty. Gaugin found it irresistible in the South Sea maidens and painted those belles with hibiscus flowers adorning their hair. His paintings, as everybody knows, are today, priceless.

Ancient Indian texts give many beauty tips. One of the most important “arts” that a good courtesan was supposed to master was the art of grooming. The Kamasutra, besides talking at length about the art of love, lists sixty four other accomplishments. Women of style knew how to make shampoos, perfumes and other herbal unguents. They were hair-dressers “by appointment” to the king, who rewarded them with much more than mere love!

In India as elsewhere men too made distinct style statements with their hair, or the lack of it. Just as women gawk at Amitabh Bacchan and his colourful lush wig today, in ancient times royalty who sported big wigs to support their heavy crowns, were the objects of adulation. Much like Sivaji Ganesan as Veerabahu the gallant warrior in a colourful film commanded admiring attention. Even shiny bald heads were stylish among the powerful Gurus and statesmen of India. In modern times Andre Agassi started the trend, accepting his baldness gracefully, and enhancing the look with ear-rings!

Lord Shiva, according to all available evidence in iconic images, was the ultimate hair-style-trendsetter. His hair, matted, long, twisted, bejewelled, inter-twined with snakes, curled, piled up in elaborate shapes….. had it all! He danced to show it off, and made his goddess fall for it…. again and again!

Sculptures and paintings of goddesses, queens and dancing girls give us a chronological survey of hair-trends in India. Just look at the murals in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Women must have spent more than a day for such coiffeurs. Those were the days when grooming was so complete that different perfumes and aromatic substances were used for different purposes. Some of those customs have come down to this day. Coconut and other oils for the hair before it is washed… drying the hair with aromatic smoke emanating from incense (Sambhrani), colouring it with henna, and perfuming it with jasmines. The Mughals who lived in dry hot Delhi and Lucknow, even devised hair-cooling methods. Much like Meenakumari in her Bollywood films, they spent the afternoons lying on cool marble floors, with their long tresses dipping into water that flowed from a palace fountain. Spas were obviously “in” in those days!

Surely there is such a thing as “hair power”. Forget about Samson and Delilah…. in today’s world how you sport your hair (or flaunt the lack of it) is important. Advertisements on TV scream out loud, to persuade you to swish your hair on to your lover’s face. All you need for such games of enticement is a plastic bottle of shampoo. Only evil mothers-in-law wear their hair in a chignon. But even they are shown in Hindi serials as well groomed, hair dyed with L’Oreal, looking younger than their nasty selves ought to be. News readers too have finally been given an allowance for dye, gel, re-bonding, etc. And for the man on the street, what better inspiration than his favourite cricket star. Musharraf could not stop Dhoni from chopping off his long tresses. He found it too hot, obviously. Now he goes to Bombay just to have a hair-cut with a style statement trickling at the nape of his neck, and everybody wants the same. There are many hairy-tales in the history of fashion. Most of them are inspiring and trend-setting. For, after-all, making an impression with your hair has been the norm from the time of Adam and Eve!

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