Hair talks. It has meaning — lots of hair, no hair, straight hair, curly hair, tamed hair, wild hair, black hair, white hair, uncovered hair, covered hair. A person’s hair conveys meanings about social and moral identity, including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, age, and more.
Like any form of communication, the messages of head hair are culturally defined and, therefore, you have to know the code in order to get the meaning. A shaven head in one cultural context can mean something quite different from another — like a religious ascetic or a cancer survivor who has been through chemotherapy. Long, loose, wild hair can mean divinity, being a menstruating woman, or someone in mourning. You have to know the meanings in that context, for the people then and there.
“Kesavinyas: Hair-styles in Indian Art”, was an important and intriguing photo exhibition mounted by the Archaeological Survey of India at the Red Fort in Delhi. The exhibit offered examples of a rich range of hair styles through Indian history, starting with Harappan culture and extending through the medieval period. Along with photographs of many works of art, it included helpful sketches of selected hair styles.
Social anthropologists note that “hair is good to think”. Thinking about hair refracts light on many other areas of life. For an anthropologist, the limitations on understanding hair meanings in the past are severe: We cannot be there in Mohenjodaro, to observe the context in which the bronze dancing girl lived. We cannot interview her to learn about her hair practices. We cannot talk to the people who watched her dance for them.
While her hair was ornately styled, it is likely that she was not a member of the upper class, not a woman of public power, not a woman with a lot of human rights. She wears nothing but several bracelets and armlets. She is on display for others’ gaze. Her hairstyle conforms to the iconic, Indian style for an adult woman: A centre-part with pulled-back and twisted or coiled long hair. But notably, it is not the equally iconic long single braid that still endures, especially in southern India, for a married woman.
Moving forward from the Harappan times, the knowledge base on hairstyles and practices improves as texts emerge to complement depictions in art. Still, it’s a matter of surmise in terms of the lived meanings and practices of hair. Even today, those meanings for contemporary people are elusive because hair, important as it is, is an understudied topic.
The exhibit catalogue raises the topic of “indigenous” hairstyles in India. Longstanding land routes as well as coastal routes provide ample ways for people and ideas to move both into and out of India.
That style bears no resemblance to what some might argue is a very indigenous female hairstyle, that of Toda women of the remote Nilgiri plateau of Tamil Nadu, whose long hair is twisted, not braided, into several hanging strands. Some elements of what might be considered indigenous for women include a centre-part, long hair and the addition of flowers, especially jasmine in the south, and jewelled elements for special occasions, and a smooth, oiled look.
I must mention the relationship between hairstyle and sexuality. Social anthropologists offer intriguing insights with a prominent line of thinking inspired by Freud. In this view, the treatment of head hair communicates messages about the person’s sexuality. Untamed, messy, long hair on either men or women may mean loose sexual behaviour — or something quite the opposite, the complete abandonment of sexuality, as among some religious celibates. Shaving off head hair, by men and women, generally connotes spirituality and asceticism.
All of these understandings are hampered by gender-binary thinking. India’s contemporary population, like any other, includes substantial proportions of third/ mixed gender and transgender people. Would that have not been true in the past as well? Can the messages in historic depictions of hair shed any light on a more complex gender and sexuality landscape?
Understanding hair messages in India in the present is difficult enough. The past is even more challenging. This exhibit was an exciting invitation to think about the messages in hair.