by Manu SharmaJun 20, 2023
A tragic event occurred in Iran in the month of September 2022 and the effect reverberated across the world, and more recently at the Art Alive Gallery's booth at the India Art Fair 2023. Titled Hair and Her, an exhibition in a corner of the art fair became the centrepiece in no time at all. Inspired by Iran's Mahsa Amini, but in solidarity with a million women before her and no doubt, after. An exhibit you couldn't simply walk by.
Not without confronting an unsettling spectacle of a woman covered head to toe in a prison of hair. She stares at you from a collage of mesmerising photographs and from a short film that together, tells you her not so unique and yet uncommonly disturbing story.
To the strains of a haunting Bengali melody, that asks beseechingly, why her eyes, her mouth, her legs, have been bound from a time unknown—you see a woman covered and tied by her hair. A face gagged by tight ropes of hair, till she snips and snaps her wrists, her legs, her mouth, free of them. Revealing bit by bit—an eye—as if seeing the world for the first time, wrists—untied and flexing into a dance—free bare feet planted on a ground with hair that seems to recede further and further away from her. The film ends but the unmistakable and visceral sound of the snipping of thick hair echoes in the air.
Conceived by Swati Bhattacharya, FCB's chief creative chairwoman, and Rohit Chawla, India's renowned photographer, this piece of work was made complete by a newspaper with all the headlines on women’s hair from all over the world and a transparent donation box that invited you to leave behind a snip of your own hair.
By the end of the day, the box started to fill. Tufts of black, brown, blonde hair lay side by side, as if casting every difference aside to come together to protest the subjugation that women have witnessed across cultures and nations, throughout history. A simple act that gave them agency to make a clean cut with a past determined to keep them forever powerless.
Can a work of contemporary art seek to revoke and remind you of the history of hair that is embedded in every woman’s consciousness?
When 22-year-old Mahsa Amini lost her life because a tendril of her hair escaped her hijab, an invisible line connected her to many, many others. From Medusa, the monster woman of Greek mythology with a head of serpent hair, to a little African-American girl in Harlem, burning her hair, to look like the flawless straight haired women in TikToks and billboards. From a widow in an ashram in Vrindavan (a city in northern India) shaving her hair to join hundreds of widows like her to Draupadi in Mahabharat, dragged by her hair out into the royal court to be disrobed in front of all gathered. Including her five husbands who do nothing to prevent her public humiliation.
Yet, even now women in India are encouraged to keep their hair tied because along with inspiring ‘sexual promiscuity’, loose, unkempt hair likens them to a degraded and disrespected Draupadi.
If the narrative was as simple and straight as a strand of blow dried hair, it would be understandable, but it isn’t. Leonard Cohen to Rafi to Kishore Kumar have sung odes to a woman’s long, flowing, untied hair for as long as one can remember. Her hair has been likened to sleepy golden storms, a beguiling blanket of a gathering evening and to and all other splendours of nature you can think of. So what is a woman to do? The plot thickens and thickens. Societal norms aka the patriarchy seem to say that as long as the male gaze endorses her, her hair will not be villainised.
Women can have bad hair days, not men. Did Einstein ever have a bad hair day, you can wonder in your own time.
Clearly, it is up to women now to connect the dots splattered like hair over history. If the politics of hair must cease, she will have to make her voice heard above the din of societal dos and don’ts. In its own way, Hair and Her at the India Art Fair existed to remind us that the protest must go on. The policing of hair is far from over. We are being shown that something as wispy as a tendril of hair can blaze a trail of fire the patriarchy cannot ignore.
"Intimacy is the algorithm of creativity. When one is moved to leave a piece of themselves behind, it’s more precious than an Instagram like,” said Swati Bhattacharya. Rohit Chawla elaborated further, “It’s not just Iran, hair apartheid has been going on all over the world. It cannot be ‘allowed’ to go on.”
As you leave the exhibition from Okhla NSIC Grounds in Delhi, carrying the newspaper with the headlines that history has denied us, something inside you untangles. One of the more stunning photographs of the art exhibition—the woman behind the purdah (veil) of her own hair—you finally know why it has disturbed you so.
It has tugged and not very kindly too, at all the imagery in horror films you have greedily consumed and have been so conditioned by. Women in loose, uncombed hair, like ghouls and witches, all of them, evil and possessed.
Since you were a child, every instinct you have, has never failed to come to your aid to protect you from them. To whisper into your ears that nothing good can come around these women. They were there to attract djinns and lead men astray.
What you realise as you walk away is that it is you behind all that hair in that photograph. And the only way you know that is your hair lies with all the other women in that donation box.
Click here to read more about India Art Fair 2023 which took place from February 9-12 at NSIC Exhibition Grounds Okhla, New Delhi.