Ratika Chopra was an early resister to the notion of equating long and thick hair as the gold standard of femininity.
“I’ve always been a rebel, and my hair games started that way because I don’t like being told what to do,” said the 23-year-old graduate student in Chandigarh.
Although Chopra grew up in a fairly conservative environment, she picked up the scissors during her junior year of high school and concluded her stint as “the girl with the two long plaits.” In a quest for selfhood and much to her mother’s chagrin, Chopra cut off half a metre of her hair a week before turning 17.
Historically, hair’s ability to mold the female identity has been a well-sustained concept in India. From keeping uncut hair (kesh) in Sikhism to shaving the scalp (tonsuring) as a sign of humility in Hinduism, Indian women observe several practices to honour their religious beliefs.
Even today, the well-oiled plaits tick the conformity box for high-school girls, and the elaborately styled luscious locks equal a validation for traditional Indian brides. Women with shaved heads are usually considered too free-spirited to meet the beauty benchmark.
This whole long-hair preference being a way for a woman to seize power traces its roots into the Indian mythology. Goddess Kali, the preserver of nature, encountered much adversity, but her long, black hair represents purity, devotion, and freedom. Even today, Indian shampoo and oil companies comply with these centuries-old norms and advertise thick tresses as being synonymous with womanhood.
To safeguard the memory of her first hair experiment, Chopra preserved her long locks, which she’s kept to date, partly as a reminder of her journey.
“Whenever I chopped my hair, there was this sense of ‘Oh, is she trying to prove something?’ from the women around me. It was always absurd to receive an exaggerated reaction for something as temporary as my haircut.”
As the urban generation of Indian women rebels against the singular idea of beautiful hair, there are others, like 67-year-old Raminder Kaur, who take pride in embracing the conventional standards. Owing to her familial and cultural Punjabi-Sikh roots, Kaur has always known women to wear long braids.
“Growing up, the women in my family –- my grandmother, mother, and aunts would sit in the veranda of the house and narrate ancient fables which symbolized long hair as an emblem of femininity and grace.”
In general, homogeneity has never been a way of life in India because multiple religious, cultural, and social influences have shaped its world view. For the most part, these have co-existed symbiotically. However, the Indian media have revered long tresses and seldom viewed short-haired women as attractive. Their usual media characterization in Indian cinema has been rebellious, athletic, or career-oriented.
Tanya Sandhu, an anthropology professor at Panjab University, Chandigarh, in her book, “Hair: Its power and meaning in the Indian culture,” describes how the ancient Indian scriptures wield a blunt bob or cascading waves as indicative of a woman’s marital and moral status.
Identifying herself as part of the conventional majority that wears a thick mane, Kaur said, “My hair comes off as classic, but this is all that I have ever known because the women in my family never made a salon appointment to chop off their tresses.” Aligning with Sandhu’s metaphor, Kaur furthers the traditional Indian belief that long hair is symbolic of a woman’s cultural faithfulness.
Presently, as an ode to her late mother, who founded the All India Women’s Conference Hostel in Chandigarh, Kaur holds Sunday hair care sessions for hostelers. She teaches women homemade recipes for hair conditioning. One of her unique hacks is heating some coconut oil with cloves and making an amla (gooseberry) paste.
Although most women who take lessons from Kaur don funky hairdos of pink and blue, she never feels outdated.
“If anything, the way these bold women flaunt their unconventional tresses, I learn how to feel comfortable in my rather conventional-looking Rapunzel-like cloak.”