The ultimate symbol of beauty is hair and everything related to it plays a huge part in South Asian women’s identity. Its cultural relevance has furthered the innovations of artistic creations whose purpose is to keep lustrous locks intact. Since hair has such indestructible ties to the self-image of women, jewels and ornamentation are added as class signifiers.
We have borrowed these jewels of adornment from cultural invasions as well. Very popular at the time, Victorian stars and crescents made of diamond jewels decorated the hair of many wealthy women. Heritage consultant Deepthi Sasidharan dissected their 19th-century origins through the paintings of Sekhara Warrier, a contemporary of Raja Ravi Varma. She explains that the fashion died down at some point till its comeback in the past few years with jewelled star headbands that are all the craze now, particularly in weddings.
Most notably Deepika Padukone showed off the striking glamour of a vintage star headband in Fred Leighton jewels at the Met Gala in 2017.
Similarly, the Mughal invasion popularised the use of ‘jhoomers’, also known as passa (crescent-shaped/fan-shaped head jewellery worn on the left side of the head) in Punjab. Made out of precious stones such as diamonds, rubies, sapphires, crystals and pearls.
The passa holds great significance for the women of Punjab as the same piece is passed down from many generations. Within my family itself, a ruby passa has made its way to my mother and so have many other symbols of cultural ornamentation such as gold clips and Paranda’s (multicoloured silk threads decorated with floral designs and ornamental tassels).
Some highly embellished hair ornamentation served practical purposes as well. Sri Lankan women wore hairpins called ‘kondakoora’, their pointed ends were a must in order to slide through thick hair and the diamond shape prevented slippage once inserted. The stem and finial are usually decorated with stones and elegant motifs.
The ‘jadanagam’, a hair serpent worn to decorate braided hair, was historically worn by the Devadasis or the temple dancers in South India. This tradition was continued by Bharanatyam dancers who wore jadanagam while performing.
The Indian gajra (jasmine flowers tied around the hair), evident in some of the earliest paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, remains relevant even today. This simple hair accessory with a traditional appeal is the choice of hair adornment for women across class boundaries. Presented as a declaration of love, gajras act as gifts given by so many onscreen heroes to their romantic interests as a symbol of admiration.
Modern-day iterations pay homage to the traditional practice of South Asian hair adornment by curating pieces inspired by notable designs throughout history; reintroducing the Gajra in a contemporary form or incorporating the jewels from Punjab as hair clips. Similarly, paranada has now become a part of contemporary streetwear, as many new designers create their own renditions of the traditional piece.
The evolution of hair decoration speaks for the brilliance of South Asian culture; that finds aesthetes in every era to take their cultural artistry forward and pass it down to each new generation.
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