Of all things that have gained unprecedented attention in our times, hair is a most conspicuous one. The public parade of numerous trendy hairstyles on our mortal scalps compels us to rethink the ways we had considered hair earlier. Considering this vast and picturesque dominion of ‘hair-cultures’ in our times, one is forced to wonder how these clinically dead cells have assumed an unavoidable importance in our modern life.
Hair is no more a biological waste, rather a cultural marker – a slim synecdoche for strong representation of our age, status, class and culture. Both as an object of fashion and commerce, hair has galvanised itself well into our modern culture. It is the most substantial thing, much like our computer, currency, food, fabric, or any other tangible matters that enjoy our modern gaze.
It is also irrefutable that hair enjoyed an antique credulity, when many modern accessories were not available. In fact, hair and hairstyles enjoyed the most admirable classical popularity in ancient times in literature, art and architecture. Subsequently, it also dominated popular imaginations in different historical periods in the most approved historical manner. The popular history of hair is scattered across the Greco-Roman as well as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro civilisations. Even across world scriptures, hair is represented variously – sometimes as monuments of beauty, wisdom and knowledge, and, at other times, as fountain of death, violence, and destruction. Thus, Helen and Shakuntala’s hair represent grace and beauty – “Helen of the lovely hair,” writes Homer. Draupadi and Samson’s hair become the symbol of power and destruction.
But there is something more about hair and hairstyles in our times; particularly, the way they are commercially done on our scalps. The liberty of experimenting with ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) art on our poor head is best manifested in the hairy carnival of shape, colour and design. If there are crew cut, spike cut, flattop, sideburn, dreadlocks for men, there are many such as bob cut, pigtails, ponytail, chignon and perm for women too. Also, think of all those spectrum of colours – blonde, brunette, auburn, grey, sandy, as well as tools, such as hair ties, brushes, hairdryers, hairnets, hairpins, hairspray and hair gel, besides many others.
Hair is not only our statement of styles, but has become a medium of modern mind – both for love and hate. We have somehow contrived to express our likes and dislikes through our hairy designs.
I also wish these artists of hair knew about the beauteous designs that our ancestors had. In a suburb of Bhubaneswar, Odisha, there is a constellation of 64 Yoginis which display as many as 64 hair designs, and not a single one is a repetition. Bharat Muni in Natya Shastra prescribes different hairstyles for men of different characters. Also, recall those oriental hyperboles immortalising the hair of a coy mistress in the most platonic and poetic ways. “Aah ko chahiye ek umar asar hone tak; kaun jeeta hai tere sulf ke sar hone tak” (Sighs of a beloved take a whole life to show its effect, but who can stay alive forever to conquer the effect of your hair!),” Ghalib thus immortalises hair.
In fact, hair in our times is an absurd art, much rooted in consumer culture. You could very well discern the capitalistic mantra of ‘production-distribution- consumption’ of all these metamorphic hairstyles. The mushrooming of salons, spas, hair designers and all those cosmetics for the protection and welfare of hair are the ocular examples of commercialisation of our hair, not to mention of our head. These dead cells which were once enlivened in poetry, both in the world of occident and orient, have now been reduced to a merchandise. From a thing of beauty, it has now fallen to be a thing of trade and experimentation.
There is a soaring economy of hair business hovering over the glorious heritage of hair. We are not connoisseurs of hair; we are its mere consumers, who are in a perennial hunt for a perfect hairstyle – as if it is the only thing that would make us perfect men. “Shaving is my daily act of hypocrisy. It enables me to feel a better man without being one,” the English essayist, Robert Lynd, admitted ironically.
A Greek proverb says, “A drowning man takes hold of his own hair.” Should we then infer that our modern obsession with hairstyles is a sign of our cultural drowning? And if the Russians believe that “no one is dragged to heaven by the hair”, why are we then so religious about our haircuts and hair designs, which, I think, has no relation either with heaven or salvation whatsoever? Well, the question could be absurd, but the answer to it definitely lies in the commercial scissoring of our head and hair.
Dr. P. Dalai is Associate Professor, Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India.