As we evolved from apes to humans (with maybe some alien intervention along the way, but that is a whole other story!), after coming down from the trees and standing upright, we also lost most of our body hair. It stays on in some places, including our head.
And instead of just ignoring it and getting on with our new evolved exciting lives, (standing upright!!! Larger fore brain!!! Speech!! Opposable thumbs!!!Music!! Art!! Science!!), we are still tangled in it. We comb it, oil it, colour it, crimp it, curl it, unfrizz it, perm it, straighten it. We add extensions, make wigs, put hairbands, pins, decorations.
When we want to show disdain we toss our hair. We relax by ‘letting our hair down’. Some of the most evil baddies from Bollywood have been made more evil by a shiny bald pate. Mogambo, Shakal, Sanjay Dutt in Agnipath.
We regulate children’s hair in schools by dictating the length and style. We regulate it at work and we regulate it in society. Which is why the first glaring visual of a ‘punk’ is the Mohawk and of a wild or homeless person is crazy unkempt hair.
In keeping with the personal being political, some interpret the recent spate of pixie haircuts as a wave of feminism in Hollywood. Granny hair is also a trend that took everyone by surprise with young women choosing to dye their hair in various shades of grey. For an African-American, their hair is fraught with political symbolism and so much has been written about the need to ‘tame’ it by straightening or shaving or tying it away.
In mythology across the world, hair has played an important role. When Ganga descended from the heavens, Mahadev Shiva agreed to hold her in his hair to prevent the earth from being swept away by her force.
A must read book ‘Devi’ by Mrinal Pande describes how the older ‘wilder’ goddesses of our country like Kali and Durga were always seen as powerful and terrifying with their open hair. Then the Aryan wave ‘tamed’ them and tied their hair back and made them into consorts of the male gods. (Lakshmi pressing Vishnu’s feet and other such symbols of domestication.)
From other parts of the world we have Samson and Medusa. Samson was a character of the Jewish Bible who grows up with a sacred oath to never cut his hair and he will be gifted with extraordinary force. He falls in love with Delilah, who is bribed by the Philistines to discover the source of his strength and then while he sleeps, she cut his hair and delivers it to the Philistines, who enslave him and make him blind.
Medusa was a priestess in Athena’s temple and when she was raped by Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, in her fury she transformed her hair into snakes, making her face so horrendous that the mere sight of her face turned people to stone. For Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of this as a castration fear symbol, read here https://newrepublic.com/article/122893/notes-toward-theory-hair
Back home, our Bollywood movies are full of songs inspired by the romance of ‘zulfein’. Zulfon ki ghata (impossible to translate since it is not just a cloud of hair but a more poetic ‘entangled tresses’ maybe), teri zulfon se rihaee to nahi mangi thi, yeh hai reshmi zulfon ka andhera, oh haseena zulfon wali and many more. And of course the evergreen Johnnie Walker calling people to have a champi tel maalish.
To keep these zulfein in mint condition, we seem to have a wide range of weird hair oils, advertised by good folks like Amitabh Bachhan (whose own baldness and wig is India’s worst kept secret). Tulsi oil, henna oil, cantharidine oil ( which my internet research told me is made of arachis oil and liquid paraffin.. So then I searched for arachis and it turns out it’s made of peanut oil………), bhringaraj oil, almond oil, something called “Aroma Magic Stimulate Blended Hair Oil”. There is black seed oil made of onion seeds and an article on it was appended by this amazing Q&A
Question: What is the use of this product ? Only vitamin ?
Answer: Black seed oil is very usfull oil as a medicine….it is used for almost all disease..except death….. By ayesha on 10 March, 2015
We have created so many rituals and customs around our hair. Hindu upper caste boys have it shaved when they reach a certain age, and only one lock is kept long at the back. The Sikhs will never cut it, both men and women. There are the Buddhist and Jain monks who shave it off as a voluntary giving up of the bodily image and desires. Whereas the sadhus and Rastafarians let it grow long and matted.
Traditionally, upper caste Hindu women were expected to grow their hair long and always have it tied up as a sign of good breeding and propriety. That is why when Kaikeyi throws her tantrum, the unforgettable image of her wild behavior in the Amar Chitra Katha comic is her open hair strewn all over the bed as she lay on it , crying in fury and despair.
Draupadi also left hers open as a constant reminder of her humiliation and attempted disrobing. Finally the revenge she sought was given to her 13 years later, after the battle at Kurukshetra when Bheem dipped his hands in Duryodhan’s blood and then tied it up again.
On the other hand, when a Hindu woman is widowed, it was expected that her head would be shaved and she would lose her hair along with all other signs of her marital status and therefore her sexuality.
In his famous 1958 essay “Magical Hair,” the anthropologist Edmund Leach developed a cross-cultural formula: “Long hair = unrestrained sexuality; short hair or partially shaved head or tightly bound hair = restricted sexuality; closely shaved head = celibacy.
If you have managed to avoid seeing Tangled, then just know that it is the Disney version of Rapunzel. The story and its portrayal is fraught with sexuality references. The uncut hair is a symbol of her virginity and innocence and the crown that Flynn wants her to give to him stands in for sex. And of course once she decides to wear the crown, she has to give up her freedom and become a family woman, marry, raise kids, manage the ‘kingdom’. Read these blogposts for more and decide if you agree!
In real life, I still remember the image of Persis Khambatta, who is the early 90s created a sensation by shaving her head off for a role in Star Trek! And then Nafisa Ali who also shaved her head and my gorgeous cousin Rama who lost hers but both have managed to grow it back in such an elegant and cool way. In US politics, there was time when Hillary Clinton made news for her bad hair days on a regular basis. With the email scandals I guess ain’t nobody got time for that any more……
In India we had Indira Gandhi, who not only had short hair but a very dramatic Cruella De Ville-esque white streak. Mayawati was famously called ‘baal kati mahila’ which was intended to be-little her but she doesn’t seem to have been hampered by the haters. Another baal kati mahila we can expect now on the scene seems to be none other than Indira Gandhi’s grand-daughter Priyanka, who sports almost the same haircut and is hoped for by the Congress party to someday wield the same power….
The other place where Indians give up their hair is to God, located in Tirupati, where it is believed that this sacrifice will please the powers that be and they will then fulfill your wishes. The annual turnover of Tirupati temple from hair sales is Rs 200 crores. (Today’s news is that Rajani Sir’s Kabali has made 200 crore already. A week before it is even released!! Wonder who is more powerful now…..)
Which takes us to the global hair industry, where such hair is procured (often at auctions) and where ‘virgin’ remy hair brings the highest price. This is basically from an Indian woman who is cutting her long tresses for the first time. There is a huge industry around this, with hair parlours, auction houses, factories with acid baths where this hair is processed, wigs are woven and sold.
This news from UK say that their extension industry is booming, with hair extension companies claiming it is worth between £45m and £60m (according to London based industry research firm IBISWorld, revenue from hair and beauty salons will be £3.64bn in 2012-13). Great Lengths Hair Extensions, who supply more than 1,000 salons in the UK, report a staggering 70% growth in the past five years. And according to Dawn Riley from Balmain Hair, which sells extensions to thousands of salons and hundreds of wholesalers, this is only the beginning. Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman’s hair, holding her down and cutting it off. When Victoria Beckham said in 2003 that her “extensions come from Russian prisoners, so I’ve got Russian cell block H on my head“, she may have been joking, but it was not long until the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform admitted it was possible: warders were forcibly shaving and selling the hair of prisoners.
Although most of these are bought and used by women and transgender folks, we know that balding men go to ridiculous lengths to regain the ‘symbol’ of their ‘virility’ with hair transplants, plugs, weaving, toupees. And all this for an exoskeletal remain which isn’t even alive…..
Perhaps Frank Zappa had the best attitude towards it:
“Interviewer: ‘So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?’
Frank Zappa: ‘You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?”