Understanding Religions, Cultures, Traditions and Hair




Traditions and rites involving hair in the Hindu religion begin at an early age. The first growth of hair in a male infant is associated with “undesirable traits from past lives.” Consequently, it is ritualistically shorn between the first and fourth birthdays, sometimes allowing a tuft to remain at the crown of the head (the sikha). With the involvement of a priest, the hair is offered to the holy river, the Ganges.

Traditional Hindu families think differently of their daughters’ hair. A girl never cuts her hair, as a child, adolescent or adult. At her first menstruation, a conservative Hindu adolescent participates in her first theetu, a women-only ceremony where women who are menstruating leave their hair unbraided, symbolizing a weakened state from blood loss. Each ritual varies by region — some shave girls’ heads as they do with boys — but the message is clear: Your hair is important, even sacred.

But India, the countries immediately surrounding it and the religions practiced throughout the region, are about more than Hinduism. It is a truly a developing country marked by economic expansion and a rapid adoption of Westernization including a beauty culture that is a nearly unstoppable force.

Just say, “Bollywood,” and most people in and beyond the subcontinent — Europe, North and South America, Africa, Australia and Asia — know exactly what you are referring to. The Mumbai (formerly, “Bombay”) film industry, primarily a factory of song-and-dance romantic drama, is larger by output than Hollywood. Westerners might have had their first taste of a crossover hit with Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Academy Awards yet wasn’t technically from Bollywood (it was made by a British company but filmed on location in Mumbai); however, true Bollywood cinema finds its reliable billion-plus audiences closer to home.

The Bollywood formula invariably consists of a handsome protagonist and his beautiful but elusive love interest, a love triangle, disapproving parents. Mores and styles in Bollywood films have shifted over the years and, as with popular culture in the West, have a noticeable influence on the styles and beauty ideals of real people.

Hair in Bollywood is abundant, on men and women alike. South Asia-focused websites and magazines treat the stars of Bollywood just as TMZ and People magazine cover celebrities in America. And at least one blogger (Tantanoo, aka Bhery Phunny of theregoesathought.wordpress.com) has much to say about the importance of thick, luxuriant hair on Bollywood actors:

This post isn’t about me. It is about that four-letter word which has perplexed me the most in the twenty-something years of my existence. It is about Hair.

Think about it. It is a strange thing. You either can’t have enough of it or you don’t want it at all. Mostly you want just the right amount of hair. You will go to any length to get the right haircut even if it means paying gargantuan amounts of money that could otherwise fund all the poor kids featured in Slumdog Millionaire for the rest of their lives.

But you don’t want it in the wrong places. It has this peculiar habit of showing up in wrong places. Like ex-boyfriends and nosey relatives.

Then there is facial hair. Most men want. All women don’t. But both sexes can’t do without the eyebrows — which technically speaking is facial hair.

Then there are strands emerging from your ears and nose and you know, rest of your body. And you don’t want them (unless you are a railway minister or someone with a weird hair fetish).

Then there are other parameters like color, buoyancy, strength, terminal velocity, coefficient of viscosity, Shehnaz Hussein’s Number and other mindboggling parameters. Add to this gazillion advertisements telling you to color your hair, dye it, wash it, dry it, rip it off, show it, hide it — it is chaos.

I am sure that worrying about hair is the leading cause of anxiety in men and women. Don’t believe me? Type “How to grow” in Google and see for yourself: Clearly majority Indians are more worried about Hair than *ahem* other organs.

That isn’t surprising. We as a country are obsessed with [this] … Decades have gone by and still the girl with the longest, darkest and shiniest hair (wig rather) gets the elusive lift from the handsome hunk, in the advertisement.

We haven’t grown out of this follicle fixation. Look at Bollywood for example.

Q. If Vin Diesel or Bruce Willis were born in India, what role would they have got in Bollywood?
A. They’d be Bodyguards.
Yes. No action hero, no superhero, not even a sidekick. A measly bodyguard. Because in Bollywood, if you don’t have hair, you either end up being a bodyguard or a villain [HLDC emphasis].

Bollywood is nothing new. Early films found mass audiences in the 1930s, a generation before India won independence from Great Britain in 1947.

But the real year on which hinges the beauty culture (and many other things) in India — and by extension its neighbors, as so much of what happens in India affects the rest of the region — is 1991. This is the year referred to as the start of “economic liberalization,” which opened the country to international trade and investment, deregulation, privatization, inflation-controlling measures and tax reforms. Liberalization had the net effect of bringing many more consumer products to its near-billion inhabitants, and with it, consumer product marketing.

Liberalization is credited with bringing 300 million people out of poverty between 1991 and 2009. It doesn’t hurt that those 300 million consumers are now buying such items as hair gels, shampoos, conditioners and other styling products. And with the introduction of those products has come consumer product marketing. Advertising for cosmetics and personal care needs content-appropriate media, which has materialized in spades — particularly in the form of beauty pageants.

Miss Indias have come to dominate the world stage since 2000, when three women separately won the triple crown for their country: That year alone they won Miss World, Miss Universe and Miss Asia-Pacific. Writer Human Ahmed-Ghosh, who teaches women’s studies at San Diego State University, attributes this triple victory to how “India had recently liberalized through capitalism and consumerism … [T]hree young women were setting standards of womanhood and desirability for millions of young girls and women in India and the rest of Asia. A “collective” (comprising the political, social, and capitalist institutions) that was redefining femininity, women’s status and women’s identity was negotiating standards of modernity and values of acceptability, success, citizenship and nationhood.”

It didn’t stop with women. The editor-in-chief of India Today, a leading publication, suggests that there has been a spillover effect on male Indians:

In recent months, I have been amazed at how two actors, Shekhar Suman and Shah Rukh Khan, have magically transformed their bodies in a short span of time, enough to feature on the cover of abs-

obsessed magazines like Men’s Health. Surprisingly, neither of them is a spring chicken.
They are both 40-plus. In the mid-1990s, it was a string of successful contestants at international beauty pageants who had heralded a beauty boom for women in India. Now it seems it is the turn of Indian men.

It is impossible to ignore the flood of images that celebrate the body beautiful among men. It is not just the Bollywood fraternity but the college student next door.

Every man, it seems, wants to show off his newly acquired six-pack. If you haven’t got one, there are enough people to tell you how to achieve one. In the past, getting an ideal physique meant spending hours in a wrestling akhara and drinking gallons of milk but that prototype no longer holds true.

Lean and muscular is in and Indian men are doing everything to fit into that global mould. Gyms and health food stores have mushroomed, men are willing to pump weights, consume protein shakes, go on diets and try out cosmetic surgery procedures like muscle sculpting, facial rejuvenation, and abdominal etching. Body image appears to be as important to the Indian male as his bank balance.

There is an entire male beauty industry that caters to this growing demand and in turn, the consumers for the industry’s products appear to be growing in number. The male beauty market is estimated to be worth Rs 6,950 crore [69.5 billion rupees, or U.S.$1.56 billion] and is growing at a rate of 11 percent.

The Indian man is bombarded with myriad ideas and images that center around his appearance. At beauty salons, men have started outnumbering women. At the gym there is a physical trainer pushing new workouts or a muscle-building supplement, at the work place there is someone with well-defined deltoids showing beneath the business suit, and always, there is the temptation to go under the knife.

Our cover story this week was put together by Deputy Editor Damayanti Datta, along with our nation-wide bureaus. Datta says, “Indian men are standing at the intersection of beauty, vanity and health.”

For the first time, men are finding themselves under pressure to conform to an ideal of male beauty being propagated by their cultural icons through an all-pervasive media. The consequences of this phenomenon will only be understood in a few years.

Indeed, a quick Web search for images of handsome Indian men (try “Bollywood hunks”) turns up innumerable photos of smoldering visages and chiseled physiques. You would be hard-pressed to find any lacking a full head of thick, dark hair.