Bound. Unbound. Short. Long. Coloured. Grey. Hair is beauty and protest, identity and statement.
At the recent India Art Fair (IAF), an installation of 16 images — of a woman covered in hair, almost imprisoned by it — was one of the most photographed. An accompanying short film showed the woman snipping at the tresses that wrapped her tight, held her prisoner.
Hair & Her – The Politics of Hair is a travelling exhibition conceived by renowned Goa-based photographer Rohit Chawla and the chief creative officer of ad agency FCB India, Swati Bhattacharya. “Unravel the history of a woman’s hair, and you unravel a history of subjugation that cuts across cultures, nations and generations,” says Bhattacharya. “ Hair and Her calls for a clean cut with this past — asking every viewer to play a part in a plea for a freer future.”
The inspiration came, unsurprisingly, from the tragic story of Iran’s Mahsa Amini and the wave of protests that her death (in September 2022) triggered. Chawla felt that “hair apartheid” had to be the focus of his next multimedia project. “The dialogue around women, their place in society and the physical representation of this power dynamic is something that not only affects each one of us, but is also a conversation we all need to be part of,” he says. “At the IAF, I could see it kickstarting many a debate. For me, art is meant to be a conversation starter. I saw little girls asking questions, and when mums participated in such conversations with their daughters, they were, in fact, educating the girls about their rights.”
Excerpts from an interview:
What inspired The Politics of Hair?
A couple of years ago, I’d made a portrait of an Iranian artist; a traditional sort of photo, with her wearing a hijab and a Tarun Tahiliani necklace. When the Iran crisis happened in October, I invited her back to Goa, where I did another portrait — of her cutting her hair as a form of protest. That became the starting point of our current project.
Hair apartheid has been going on for centuries. It’s almost used as weapon when somebody wants to subjugate a woman. We’ve read about Draupadi being dragged into the royal court by her hair [in The Mahābhārata] or in the historical context, look at the widows of Vrindavan who have to shave their heads. We also have a strong ghunghat tradition in certain states, where women have to keep their heads covered in front of men. Women’s hair has been a constant device to treat them as second class citizens — used across different cultures and religions. And so, whatever is retrograde in society needs to be called out, particularly given the current political context.
How was the campaign executed?
I wanted to work with an everyday person and not a model. The imagery necessitated a certain vulnerability in the subject. So, I photographed a Bengali friend of mine, Kalpana Das, who I felt had the right sensitivity and rawness. The entire campaign was done in Goa, including the film with my creative partner Swati Bhattacharya and director Veneet Raj Bagga. We also got Aanon Siddiqua, a London-based Bangladeshi musician [and performing artist], to compose the music.
Most art events and biennales end up as incestuous little soirees where you preach to the converted. But when you create political art, you try to embrace a mainstream audience and that does not reside in a tony gallery alone — [such as] choosing to do a conceptual cover for India Today with Vikram Seth 10 years ago [where he posed as a criminal; it started a debate on LGBTQIA+ rights in India] or photographing artist Ai Weiwei on the Greek island of Lesvos as a washed up refugee. We are planning to do a larger public exhibition of Hair & Her later this year. We also intend to travel with it internationally.
Objects of collective memory
Future exhibitions will include two other significant components of the installation: a ‘newspaper’, with tales about women’s hair from around the world, and a transparent donation box that invites people to donate their locks. “The box is already half full, filled with hair of all kinds — dark, light, blond, grey. It’s going to be a constant, though we still haven’t decided what to do with the hair collected. But I think it will become an object of collective memory,” says Chawla.