Urban Indian Youth & Identity. What's Hair Got To Do With It?

Urban Indian Youth & Identity. What's Hair Got To Do With It?

“And the sign said, long-haired freaky people, need not apply.”

- Fatboy Slim

When it comes to hair, every young Indian can relate. Its typecasting abilities seem to have far-reaching consequences in our society after all. The well-oiled plait checks the conformity box; the long, poker straight locks equals one fat check for wedding festivities, punk-haired girls may as well give up hope of ever finding a ‘decent match and boys/ men with long, unkempt hair? They’re too far out of the box to even waste your ink on crossing it. Stereotypes find a way to trickle their way into everything—ultimately forming the sticky foundation of our beliefs about people—and urban India’s youth has been fighting back with (hair) style.
Hair’s ability to mould the power of identity is not a new story in the global or Indian context.  Our choice of cut or style is often laden with messages that speak volumes about the condition of society. And even when we’re not taking it quite so seriously, it certainly has the power to dictate exactly how you feel about yourself, not to mention how other people perceive and treat you.
So politicization aside, we thought it was worth investigating the stories of such purveyors of drastic hairstyle changes and these short interviews are likely to make you push past the superficiality of it all. After all, most changes on the outside are just a manifestation of something within. From dancers to artists to writers and beyond--this is who they are and they’re all willing to stand by their stories.

I. Vandana Bhalla

Snipping For Transition. 

Who: A DJ and budding producer, 26-year-old Vandana shutters between a variety of day jobs.

“I shaved the sides of my head before I left for Europe. Then on an island off the coast of Germany, just before leaving for Antaris, my buddy helped me shave my head. I was bald.”

My hair has always been a big part of my identity, ever since I was a child. My mother had me grow it out when I was little so I had a long stint as ‘the girl with the two, long plaits.’ Around the time my DJ career took off, I got it chemically straightened (which made it super low-maintenance) and by the time I moved to Mumbai and started working as DJ Pearl’s manager and official opening act, it was both at its longest as well as a huge part of my identity.
Last year however, is when the transition happened when I decided to study sound engineering and production. Coupled with a very rough breakup with my longtime boyfriend, I moved into a rigorous phase of making changes and my hair was one of the major ones. I got a lot of seriously extreme reactions (including blatant stereotyping of my sexuality) but long story short, it’s been a hugely spiritual journey in understanding my femininity. How the world sees it, and how I see it.

II. Teena Singh

Shearing Against Conformity. 

Who: Currently based in Mumbai, 28-year-old Teena Singh is an actor/ model who has a history of curating art and events in both Delhi & Mumbai. She is also a keen advocate of women’s rights and freedom of expression.

“Having short hair lets me do my thing. I don’t want to look like 20,000 other women out there. This is my sense of identity and I don’t want to conform to a certain set of standard rules.”

I’ve always been a rebel. My hair games started that way because I don’t like being told what to do. Growing up in a very conservative (and often, patriarchal) environment in first Punjab, and then Delhi, I wasn’t even allowed to trim my hair for the longest time. I trimmed it anyway in the 8th grade of boarding school, much to my mother’s chagrin and even that was a big deal but it just kept getting shorter from then on forth. When I was around 17/18 I picked up the scissor myself and went super short. Even though I did think that maybe guys wouldn’t like me a lot after this, it was just something I had to do.
I got mixed reactions in Delhi. At the time I was experimenting so crazily, it was pretty uncommon and there was a lot of ‘oh, what is she trying to prove?’ from the women while men were more intrigued. They liked it but I’ve literally been asked whether I’ve gone through some kind of trauma or I’m depressed for something as superficial as a haircut!
The super short look (my most drastic change) coincided with my move to Bombay a few years ago and my long search for freedom from judgment ended here. People here have been incredibly accepting (and encouraging) of the look. It’s definitely a bit of a hurdle in my industry but i’m happy to challenge some of those norms. I used to get typecast a lot as ‘the bad girl’ or ‘the punk chick’ but that has definitely been changing slowly. Still, I do kind of like the ‘don’t mess with me’ vibe this hair gives off. At the end of the day, this is my sense of who I am.

III. Monisha Ajgaonkar

Cutting For Confidence. 

Who: Based in Mumbai, 24-year-old Monisha Ajgaonkar has travelled through all the genres of photography. Having worked with a number of prestigious publications in the past, in 2013 she started her own candid wedding photography company - The Photo Diary – which caters to a whole host of photography needs.

“I was determined to change life for myself and the first thing I changed was my hairstyle.”

It was around 8 years ago I made this drastic change to my hairstyle. I was just starting college and having many issues with weight. It didn’t help that I was extremely shy and I think this was the point I had the lowest confidence in myself. I was determined to change this and when I chopped off my long hair, it instantly gave me confidence. It was like I had changed as a person. Later, I joined the gym, lost the weight, found my love for photography and the rest, as they say, is history.

I had to deal with a lot of shit for it. People asked me what was wrong with my hair, my family thought i’d lost my head. Even today, when I meet my clients their first reaction is shock and they have actually rejected our offers because of it. Not because of the work but because of how I look. It doesn’t bother me at all because it defines me. I am making a statement about my life and work with my hair and I am very happy to do that!

IV. Dona Aideau

Queen Of Extreme. 

Who: Based in Pondicherry, 26-year-old Dona Aideau works as the brand manager for Ayesha accessories and is a self-confessed social butterfly, foodie, traveler and nature lover.

“I chopped my waist-length hair off a week before I turned 26. My reflection was no longer recognisable. I was elated. I was reborn.”

I decided to cut my hair off because I thought it would lift my spirits, fulfil my need for change and of course, long hair was so difficult to manage, swimming in the sea has become much easier! I believe that in order for a woman to truly find her voice and understand who she is, she must do something extreme. Something beyond her comfort zone that allows her to adapt into what once seemed impossible.
All in all, it’s been a great lesson. My short hair taught me that nothing is permanent and to take more risks. It’s allowed me to grow alongside it. It’s taught me to focus on myself and most of all, it’s given me the experience of change so I regret nothing.

V. Sofia Ashraf

Shaving For Freedom.

Who: Madras-born, Muslim-raised, Mumbai fled, Sophia Ashraf is a copywriter by profession and a rapper by digression.

“I spent the first 23 years of my life under a Hijab - by choice. But I was a rebel with a cause. Beneath those layers of piety, my hair was my form of self-expression.”

Hair has always been a matter of pride to Malayalees. My mother would heat up some oil with cloves and meticulously marinate my head every Sunday morning and there was a sense of closeness in that activity. It was a time for gossip and inside jokes.
Under my hijab, however, Red, blonde, green, pink, blue - my hair has seen more shades than a Telugu actor’s wardrobe. My hair grows fast and so I’ve always been scissor-happy. From bobs to blunts, razors and asymmetrical, I’ve tried it all. Haircuts are therapeutic for me. They make me feel like a different person and I love change.
Still, I’d never dared to mow the whole 9 yards. My reasons for going bald back then was just curiosity. I mean, haven’t you ever wondered what your head was shaped like? What finally pushed me over the edge was the M-word being thrust at me from all quarters as an unmarried 27-year-old woman. So rather than come up with more excuses, I snapped at my cousin’s wedding and before the mehendi had faded, I took a razor to my head and boy, what an experience it was, I recommend it to every woman out there. My personality changes. I became more outgoing, I walked into clubs and I never expected it, but going bald made me more feminine.
Oh, and the men loved it. Women loved it. Old women on the train loved it. Mom didn’t. But hair grows back. Regret only grows bitter.
[Read Sofia Ashraf’s full story here.]

VI. Armaan Menzies

Shaping For Self-discovery.
Who: Ex-guitarist of cult Indian metal band, Goddess Gagged, 22-year-old Arman Menzies is a budding producer under the moniker of Zokhuma now.

“It’s funny because once I got my dreadlocks, they sort of ended up becoming my identity.”

I grew up in a fairly liberal boarding school but we weren’t allowed to grow our hair. I think moving back to Bombay post school was a difficult period. I was going through the usual identity issues kids that age have, trying to fit in and figure out who I was and I think part of discovering it happened through growing my hair out. So for a while I had this big, untidy bush but I always knew I wanted dreadlocks. I was kind of inspired by Zach De la Roche from RATM, who was a massive influence on me musically and the more into music I got, the more I knew I wanted the dreads. The funny thing is that once I got them, they sort of became my identity. I became that guy with dreads who plays for that metal band.
People definitely reacted weirdly about it. A lot of them couldn’t understand why I would do this to my hair and if I bothered to cover it up for the sake of college then someone actually thought I was sick! I’ve been stereotyped a lot and continue to be the subject of millions of pre-conceived notions but it never bothered me before and it doesn’t bother me now. Getting the dreadlocks represented a phase of self-discovery in my life and it’s gone on to influence who I am today. Honestly, i’m glad that my hair has become such a big part of my identity.

VII. Neysa Mendes

Experimenting To Uncover.

Who: Currently based in Mumbai, Neysa Mendes runs a music and arts PR company called Little Big Noise and is a bit addicted to the arts. Every day requires some whimsy.

“I think hair cuts are the simplest way to change things up, and I like to experiment with a new one every few years. It changes how you feel about yourself, it’s like getting to be someone new for a bit!”

I don’t take my hair very seriously, and that’s really all that it is. It’s true that changing your hair makes such a huge difference to the way that you look, and yes, it really can go quite wrong. (In my first year of college, I wanted to go bald, but my stylist was too afraid (why do they always try and talk you out of things?) so I got a really, really short crop with not much personality - that, combined with oversized pants and too-tiny tops is a look I pretend never existed. But, it always grows back. So there’s really very little to lose. I have had my hair at different lengths over the years. The first short hair I loved was a version of Victoria Beckam’s asymmetrical style, with my curls. Most recently, I’ve had another asymmetrical style, more of a side crop.
I recently got married and tried to grow my hair out for it, but just before the last of the wedding ceremonies, I couldn’t take it anymore, and cut it extremely short, with the side buzzed. Not entirely sure what the Aunties thought of that with the very traditional South Indian sari I was wearing! (But I must say, I felt very chic when I was in Paris two weeks later.) When I decide to cut my hair, or change it up, it’s usually a very spontaneous decision, and something that I must do that very same day.

VIII. Prasheen Lodhia

‘Growing’ With The Flow. 

Who: Currently based in Mumbai, Prasheen Lodhia is an artist. He spends his time making music, designing sound projects, building the latest art concept from imagination, freelance writing, or immersing himself in a creative project with the community.

“If shaving your head is what soldiers do when they give up their free will to obey orders, then having dreads must be the antithesis.” 

Many moons ago, I was working in the corporate world of Toronto, where I was born and raised. I thought I had it all figured out—a fun career, a great place to live a nice car and of course, short hair. A lot of that changed when I decided to take a 5-month-long trip to India and explore my motherland. I got my last haircut when I arrived in Mumbai (a ridiculous experience with 3 people waiting on my every need) and decided that I needed to see the real country. My first stop was Kashmir, onward to everything from Leh to Rishikesh, Darjeeling to Hampi and nowhere along the way did it ever occur to me to cut my hair.  India was watering my soul and it felt natural that my hair should grow.Over the years, at least four different travellers I encountered made me a dreadlock and the hedges began to take shape. Then, a few weeks later, I ended up in Malaysia and tried one myself. That afternoon, I made about forty dreads and it felt liberating. Pretty soon people started asking me if I was a rasta or a hippie and inevitably my answer was neither.  One time somebody got upset and said, “If you’re not a rasta, cut your hair!”  I find it amusing that people build impressions about others based on something as trivial as hair.

IX. Arjun Srihari

Growing For Grief. 

Who: Based in Delhi and currently unemployed, 26-year-old Arjun Srihari took the plunge to quit his job as a research & data analyst at Penn Schoen Berland (a research consultancy for communication strategy) to travel for the foreseeable future.

“Friends claim the growing of my mullet/shendi coincided with the outward manifestation of my inner activist!”

I did have a history of growing a small ‘tail’ one in college but upon my graduation and subsequent interview with PSB, I was coerced into pursuing a cleaner look. I jumped into the corporate set-up looking the part but around the same time, my grandfather passed away. Though I’d been determined to shave my head, my mother was extremely against it so I chose to re-grow my mullet, which seemed to give expression to my disillusionment with the corporate world and its many misgivings.
To be fair, my firm did cut me a lot of slack when it came to my unusual look and once the rebellious streak wore off, it took on a new meaning - a yin and yang so to speak. It became an expression of my dark side, the other side of an individual that is usually kept hidden from certain sections of society.

X. Raffael Kably

Snipping For Sanity. 

Who: 26-year-old Raffael Kably is a surfer as well as the General Manager of Soul & Surf India—one of India’s first surf hotels.

“The most drastic change I ever made in my appearance was cutting my dreadlocks off. It was really, really heartbreaking.”

I had grown my hair out ever since I turned 16. I went from a shaved head, to an afro, to some sort of weird cocker spaniel looking curly mop and then into dreads. I was playing music with a DnB group and touring around etc. so I guess the dreads kind of went with that phase of my life.
Soon after I turned 22 (in 2011) I had to have surgery for something I can’t be bothered to explain here. The hospital wouldn’t admit me without getting a hair cut so that was it. I needed the surgery and I didn’t REALLY need the dreads. I went in for the chop. I cut all my hair off in one go. It was really really heartbreaking. I loved my hair and it had become such a part of my image that I actually cried when it was over! Even now the thought of it makes me sad... Here’s an interesting titbit, I weighed myself before and after the haircut and my weight after was 3.5 kgs less! The weight off my head was so drastic that I couldn’t even balance straight for a good few seconds after the haircut. There were mixed reactions to both styles, some people loved it and some people hated it but getting rid of them actually got me messages from people consoling me for my loss. Even four years later, some people who I don’t meet all that often don’t recognize me without them! Looking back on the years though, I can say this : I loved the dreads but I’m much happier with short hair. It looks cool, you can style it the way you want, it’s convenient, easy to maintain and doesn’t smell like a wet dog in the monsoons!

XI. Payal Balse

Cropping For Change. 

Who: Currently based in Mumbai, 23-year-old Payal Balse is a freelance make-up artist/hairstylist as well as a dancer who specializes in street style.

After a point, when you’re changing your hair so much, it stops affecting your personality. You stop being bothered by outward appearances and find yourself amidst all the change.”

When I was 12, I cut off my long hair and just never ended up going back. It was for utilitarian purposes back then and I actually hated it. People used to call me ‘helmet’ in school and now for the first time, almost 12 years later I’m attempting to grow my hair again but I’ve literally tried every single hairstyle in the world in that time!
All my changes have reflected specific moments—for example, that myth about needing to make a huge change when you go through a break-up is totally true for me—but I think that hair really plays a massive role in personality development. The second I got into college and I wasn’t confined by all these rules around appearance I felt myself opening up, becoming more chatty, socially outgoing and all of that. Depending on my look of the month, I received endless explicit reactions, none of which I bothered to analyse too much because what I ultimately realized is—I don’t care what other people are saying about it. It’s about how it makes me feel. More importantly, I didn’t feel invisible anymore like I had for most of my life. I’ve changed it so much now it doesn’t affect me anymore and it’s usually out of boredom rather than any need to prove anything. Even growing it out for the first time is something of a social experiment. I want to see how people will react to me when I have longer, more traditional hair.

XII. Elvis Mascarenhas

Deviating For Dance.

Who: Elvis Mascarenhas is one of India’s premier B-boyers ever since he got involved in the dance form in 2009. Over the years, he’s formed his own crew, taken part (and won) in several dance battles and even experimented in many different Latin styles. Along with regular features in dance videos and more, he continues to battle and teach workshops in Mumbai and all over the country. Not to mention train hard to constantly reach greater heights!

“My hairstyles have been a vital part of my dance journey. I developed different styles around my mane and it became my lucky charm for battles and events.” 

My hairstyles began to undergo a metamorphosis in synchrony with my dance journey. I wanted to grow my hair ever since I started dancing as I felt it would add an original look and feel to my dancer personality. Once I toiled to grow my hair, I became even more passionate about it. I could feel a change in my dancing as my hair grew, i felt a connection to it and it gave me a better feel, a deeper groove.

Just like my dance career, the journey of my hair has seen a lot of ups and downs and it became my personal dance statement. One of my most powerful looks was the braid which literally became my power while battling as it energised me to perform better. I definitely think that hairstyles play a vital role in someone’s personality and outlook. Growing my hair was like I was striving to reach a point in my dancing and when I achieved it I was ready to mark a new beginning. That’s why when I achieved my goal of representing the country on an international platform, which happened at Dance@live world cup taiwan, I cut off my braid post the event.
Friends and family had mixed reactions to the change as they had begun to associate the hair with being my USP but I assured them that a new hairstyle would be coming up shortly. It was very hard to let go of that look something I had worked so hard to get but then on the positive side I was looking forward to a new look, to a new me, to new goals!

XIII. Anant Ahuja

Douche To Designer. 

Who: 22 year old New Delhi based illustrator​ and typographer. I work out of a small studio in Chattarpur with my minion named Gulab Saggu.He dabbles in a lot of illustration heavy work that tends to stay away from the more traditional design scene and he has developed a distinct style unique to himself. He works with a wide range of clients from tech startups to international NGOs and even indie musicians and performance artists.

“Changing my hair, that whole journey from douche to designer, has had quite a big impact on my life and I’m happy that I’ve changed for good.”

I was a true bully, Delhi boy (yeah the stereotypical one) with long hair and massive sideburns, I still am a Delhi-ite, but a much sobered up and calmed down version.Yes, popped collars was my thing and bullying people was my passion, because those were the only two things I was good at. I had never thought of becoming a designer ever.

One fine day my parents, completely fed up of antics decided to ship me to different country altogether. Mostly because they wanted me to get out of my comfort zone and realise the importance of money and life, instead of just wasting both. Initially I was a bit hesitant but things changed when I zeroed in on studying design. Initially, three months in, it was difficult to adjust for someone who’d led such a cushioned life for 17 years but then I started hanging out with this classmate Carlie and made a bunch of new ‘gora’ friends through her. Hispters in the true sense, and all of a sudden I was in a different world. I was like ‘why the heck are these guys wearing print.’ And their high fades, I was like - man, I have to blend in, this seems like the thing to be. It may sound funny but I was sucked into it in no time. Going for a haircut ever 2 weeks just to keep that high fade going. My entire lifestyle changed. Even my friends here in India were taken aback with this massive change in lifestyle, and of course, the hair.
So all in all, the journey from douche to designer has had quite a big impact on my life and I’m happy that I’ve changed for good.

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