Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hair and the Indian

Hair now and gone tomorrow. That’s the story of hair, in short, for most Indians. In between (one is telescoping time here), there is a long struggle to hold on to the heritage one is born with it. Most fail at it, but some go to incredible lengths to preserve the luxuriant foliage on one’s pate.

Both Indian men and women love their hair, but women obviously love them more. Long tresses that are shiny and healthy are a mark of good health and beauty. Traditionally, Indian men like women who have black and long hair. Indian poetry is full of praise for the long-tressed beauty. Look at the Indian film actresses: from the beginning of cinema, they have sported long hair, and their dense, silky locks have set nationwide trends in hairstyles. Remember the fringe of actress Sadhna (popularly known as the Sadhna cut) in the 1960s? Or for men, the Dev Anand style ‘puff’ hair, the Amitabh Bachchan style middle-parted hair or more recently, Salman Khan and Amir Khan’s ever-changing hairstyles? They have been ardently copied by their countrymen. 

While both men and women in India loved their hair, the fact is that men cared a little less about maintaining their hair. Even though they wanted their hair to be thick, black, and luxuriant, they didn’t do much about it. There was a time, when a ‘champi’ (hair oil massage) was all that a man needed, and even today, hair oil is an everyday habit with about 50 percent of the population. Older men put henna in their hair. Over the decades, however, as with their interest, their options have evolved. Now they have a variety of oils, shampoos, conditioners, and post wash products to choose from. In addition, most Indian men turn to dyes to hide their grey hair when they begin to age.

A testimony to this Indian obsession with hair is the growing hair care market. According to industry figures, the size of the hair care market is Rs 13,000 crore (US$2413 million), of which Rs 6664 crore (US$1237) is the size of the hair oil market alone. This is such a huge market that top Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, and Amitabh Bachchan have been endorsing hair oil brands, earning crores of rupees in fees.

“In the last five years, the hair oil industry has been registering healthy double digit growth mainly due to increasing hair damages due to lifestyle and environmental changes,” Minoo Phakey, marketing head, hair oil, Dabur India, told an Indian newspaper.[1]

But many Indian men don’t stop with hair oil when it comes to preserving their youthful look. They are turning to even hair weaving and hair transplant treatments, even though these are highly expensive procedures. A typical hair transplant, a painful process, costs about Rs. 1.5 lakh (about $4,000). Today when incomes have risen in India, well-to-do men can afford such treatments. Thankfully, there is no dearth of role models for them: Akshaye Khanna, Sunny Deol, Dharmendra, Rajnikanth, Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan from the Bollywood brigade and Virendra Sehwag, Ravi Shastri and Harsha Bhogle from the cricketing world have all gone for hair weaving and transplants at some point of their career.

From Hair to Eternity—Hair and rituals in Indian culture

In a deeply religious and spiritual country like India, hair is not just a part of one’s outer personality. It has its own spiritual dimensions. For Sikh men, for example, maintaining their hair and keeping their beard is part of their religious identity. Both Hindus and Muslims in India shave off their hair at different points of time for spiritual reasons and it starts right after birth. Muslims shave off their children’s birth hair within weeks after their birth and donate in charity gold or silver equal in weight to the hair.

For Hindus, the hair from birth is associated with undesirable traits from past lives. So, it is believed that the child’s ‘mundan’ ritual frees him or her of her past. Hindu men go for a tonsure when they lose a parent.

Hindus also offer their hair as a sacrifice to their gods, and they do it for a variety of reasons, ranging from seeking good luck and riches to ward off sickness and unfavourable circumstances. The practice is common in southern India, especially at temples such as the famous Tirumala Venkateswara Temple of Lord Vishnu, where people flock from all parts of India to be shaved.

Splitting the hair

Where does all this hair go? That is a million dollar question. That brings us to the world of the big business of hair. Temple hair donation has made India the world leader in the hair extension trade.

When devotees offer their hair to the gods, temples auction them off to wholesalers, who in turn export them to countries like the US and the UK where demand for Indian hair is high— Hollywood actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian have pushed up demand for hair extensions. Hair extensions make women feel glamorous—that’s the prevailing belief.

The practice of selling human hair is a good source of income for the temples. The money raised is used for charitable activities. And the prices are good: one kilogram of Indian hair can bring in as much as $250 on average; it would have fetched $20 15 years ago, according to a people in the trade. Last year Tirumala temple, apparently made 2,000m rupees (more than £22m), from auctioning hair[2].

So, there is more to hair than what meets the eyes. For Indians, hair is not just a matter of beauty and good looks, it is also a symbol of devotion. It can be safely said that as India evolves and redefines its culture, the Indian love affair with hair will continue. Probably we will see more funky hairdos in India but the fashion police will also be equally ruthless.

Hair is big business

Today, hair is big business the world over. Both the young and the old in the West turn to hair extensions and hair addition. The young go for coloured extensions while the middle-aged ladies opt for it to create a glamorous effect.

According to approximate figures from U.N. Comtrade, the U.S. imported over US$900 million-worth of wigs, false beards, eyebrows, eyelashes and similar products in 2010, while the U.K. imported $79 million-worth and China and Hong Kong $71 million.

There is high demand for Indian hair for wig making and hair extensions. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, India exported $190 million-worth of hair and related hair products in 2009-10 and could more than double that to $470 million by 2013-14. The newspaper sourced these figures from the Department for Commerce and Industry, Government of India.

Indian hair is preferred because it is both “thin and strong”. Indian temple hair is valued because, according to one report, most of the temple hair donors are rural women. In most cases, their hair has never been dyed, blow-dried, or even cut.

The temples first sort the donated hair and then sell it through online auctions. According to Chennai-based Curlsnwaves, one of the country’s largest exporters of hair, the acquired hair is first processed, stripped of colour and re-dyed before being exported.

Hair extension is not just a fashion abroad—Indian women are also embracing it. “Hair is the first thing an Indian woman would look after,” says a Mumbai-based hairstylist in the Aljazeera documenrtaty film, Witness—Hair India. “More than her skin. Indian woman are obsessed with length. They all like to have their hair extended.”


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