Hair can inspire so much poetry in the bosoms of Indian men. We've grown with images of 'suhaagraat' in Hindi films, where the coy bride is sitting pretty on the marital bed, and the groom as soon as he comes in, says a 'shairi' or two, and sets to work by first removing the face ornaments, and then unfurling the heroine/bride's long hair. The union of souls, had to begin with setting loose the hair!
Long hair has been so romanticized in our culture. Is it surprising then, that traditionally we've had so many ornaments for the hair made in gold, pearls, rubies and other precious stones? A peep into any dancer's wardrobe, or a bride's accoutrements, will reveal a rich treasure trove of 'parandhis' or 'kunjalams' to adorn the plait, and various other ornaments to adorn the hair and forehead.
When I was young, every South Indian family would have the Sunday ritual of massaging oil into the hair, letting it set in for at least half an hour, and then, washing it off with Shikakai. My Gujarati friends would have their mums or grand mums massage oil on their heads the previous night, and my Muslim friends would of course, henna their hair at least once every fortnight. Every girl in my school had a ritual for her hair. Love being poured into it. All the adult women in the family having such a close relationship with the girl-child's hair'keep it beautiful, to be seen as beautiful. At weddings and other get-togethers, other women would comment favorably on the girl's hair and mum's bosom would swell with pride for her efforts having paid off.
But sometime in our teens, when we had to start college, our attitudes to our hair became ambivalent. With the juxtaposition of Western images and a wish to be seen as 'modern', or 'with it', hair, or more specifically how you wore it, became a symbol of what you were, what you wanted to become, or what you wanted to be seen as. In many houses across India, it became a tool of rebellion.
No girl would want to be seen dead in neatly oiled, tightly tied plaits. It was every girl's wish to have it cut at least to a 'smart' length, which meant a few inches above the waist. Shoulder length might be just acceptable to grand mum, but a short bob would be a big 'no-no'! A fine hairline indeed, to tread between traditions and aspirations. The tussle, coming to a head at the time of marriage. Then, it was not confined to the girl's house alone. It was a tussle in the boy's house too. A tussle between the boy's mother, wanting a beautiful, fair 'bahu' with long hair, and the boy wanting, a bobbed, mini-skirted wonder, whom he could proudly be seen with, at parties and clubs.
Girl or boy, no one wanted a 'telu', or an oiled head and all it connoted, for a spouse. What did it connote? A traditionalist, a mama's boy, a goody-goody, a lack of adventure, a lack of imagination. Just as an unoiled head connoted smartness, daring, individualist, 'can-do' attitude.
In the history of mankind, has any one thing, a dead body part at that meant so much, said so much? Maybe it has always spoken very eloquently to Indian minds and imagery. Draupadi refused to tie her hair and knew its power to taunt her husbands, more than words could have done. Bhima when avenging the humiliation heaped on him, his brothers and their wife, smeared the blood of his enemy Duhshasan on his hands and tied Panchali's hair for the first time in years!
'Ashubh' even now for a woman/girl to leave her hair loose, a constraint we would get around by wearing artfully, clips and bobby pins. But what did any middle-class, city-bred, westernized girl aspire to? A power cut to go with a power suit of course. I remember the case study of a popular soft drink in India. For some reason, the brand was just refusing to take off. A brand-personality testing revealed that it was perceived as a sari-clad lady in a bun. Its nearest rival was perceived as a girl in one plait and the clear market leader, as a jeans-clad pyt (pretty young thing) in a short, loose bob! The megabucks are now behind short hair.
Does tradition have a chance? Specially as the generation that rebelled, is now the parent? Some clues to the answer can be found in the relationship we have with our children. I don't insist, but I do encourage oiling the hair, telling them in an informative tone, as distinct from a nagging one, how it nourishes the roots and helps give the hair body. Same old gobbledygook in terms that seem rational! Still too young to dismiss it out right. But I do my share by trying to look for oils that are non-greasy. Maybe it also helps that we are in multicultural Sydney. Plaits are as normal as 'hijab' and don't cause any adverse comments. Schools in fact insist on hair being tied, to prevent head lice problems. So, Indian or Aussie, girls tie up their hair. Coconut oil is even promoted as a natural repellent!
You've come a long way, baby! My ninety-two year old grandmother smirks. Not to be outdone, my mum and assorted female relatives join in. Again I try to rationalize and assert-"Of course, hair is their personal space. They have every right to wear it any which way they please..!" Brave new words of a fighting generation-a generation that believed it could turn things on its head!