A Concise Dictionary Of Indian Hair

A photo essay on the vast and varied language of hair in India.

From men who sport '80s mullets paying homage to old Bollywood stars to young boys whose rebellion rises as surely as their spiky mohawks, from little old ladies in bobs and floral dresses to the man with the plastic bag on his head in defence against unexpected rain, hair means everything from identity to a reflection of that great Indian trait- 'jugaad'. In this photo essay, we put together words that define the language of hair in India. 

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A is for Ammaji. Her hair tells time, coming together in a tightly wound braid every evening at 5:30 PM, oiled and prepped for tea and stories. 

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B is for best friends in buns. They share secrets, recipes, comfortable silences and a tailor who specialises in the 'anarkali' cut. 

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C for coconut oil, slathered on Sundays to harness rivers of kinky hair into neat glossy waves that submit greasily, easily to the jaws of hungry clips. 

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D is for divinity, Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheshwarah. Miraculous top knots from whence sprung rivers, crescent moons and inspiration for artists at Amar Chitra Katha. 

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E is for elegance, greys that bloom with all the drama of a violent but understated brush stroke. How fitting that this lady happens to be an artist. 

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F is for fresh. Hair freshly dunked in religious rivers, freshly dipped in village streams, freshly soaked in swimming pools and Goan beaches where the practicality of swimsuits is swapped for the modesty of clingy polyester sarees, but hair is allowed to be free. Fresh and free.  

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G is for grooming, best achieved by little combs in cheap plastic that hide behind handkerchiefs, waiting to be called out with the glint of a signal from any rear view mirror.  

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H is for hirsute. Hair that may fail the head, thrives in fuzzy, dizzy profusion on chests and backs and sometimes, unsuspecting ears like springy lawn grass. 

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I is for indigenous. Intricately carved ancient silver to clasp neat buns for generations in coastal families. It can't be bought, it must be inherited. 

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J is for jasmine perfuming young brides' braids with the heady scent of a fresh romance. 

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K is for 'kudumis' wound tight at sunrise with the weight of piety and sacrifice. 

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L is for lustrous, Indian woman hair, drunk on hair oil and glistening with nutrition or great good luck.

L is also for lovely. 

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M is for mullets that pay homage to the '80s action hero of Bollywood, a man who resolved problems with punches and found love with persistence. The only twist is these plots was the curl at the end of the hero's hair. 

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N is for Noorie.

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O is for optical art, Os that form perfect 'ohs' of wonderment because you find all of them together when you least expect them and when you linger long enough, that's all you'll see- neat round perfect Os.

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P is for practical hair. Short, bobbed, impatient working woman hair that has no time for nonsense, no energy for clips. A tuck behind the ear will do, for now. 

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Q is for quick fix. A man who does not expect rain must nevertheless prepare to meet it. Some men do it in style and bags turn into top hats, and the whole thing becomes a rather formal celebration of petrichor, due to one man's last minute perseverance. 

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R is rebellion, hair rising up in spiky mohawks to shout the language of prickly youth. 

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S is for silver, shining with wisdom and grace, such a shame to confuse silver with grey. 

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T is for towel-heads sculpted from wet hair on Sunday afternoons adding height and significance to the already daunting profiles of matriarchs. 

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U is for un-gendered, that happy place of unisex hair that does not ask you to conform or carry emergency hair clips in your pockets. 

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V is for volume, that cruel measure of beauty particular to hair and hair alone. 

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W is for wispy hair of uncles on morning walks for cholesterol and camaraderie. 

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X is for Xerox. 

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Y is for Yesterday and those little white caps of dignity worn by men who fought for freedom. 

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Z is for Zeenat, who likes her hair like this. Is she a conformist or a non-conformist? Only Zeenat knows. 


Photographs: Aishwarya Arumbakkam

Writer/Creative Director: Meera Ganapathi

Assisted by: Aparna Verma

Commissioned by Soup