The Art Alive booth at the recent India Art Fair showcased a series of striking images. In one corner of the collage of photographs, you could see a black and white visual of a woman, with every inch of her face bound tight by hair. The image evoked a sense of suffocation, with the hair leaving no space for her to breathe or speak. No markers of her identity were visible, the hair seemed to suppress her very presence. Another image—this time a coloured one—showed the woman trying to break through the bondage of hair.
These thought-provoking images by Rohit Chawla, from the series Hair And Her, shed light on how something that many treat as a marker of beauty and adornment has turned into a means of suppression for women across the world. In 2016, for instance, lesbian women were forced to shave their heads in public in Ampatuan, in southern Philippines, triggering protests by thousands of members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In the US, the hairstyles of black women have been ridiculed for decades, making them a subject of discrimination. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a daily newspaper, published a detailed article on this, Black Hairstyles Take A Stand Against Beauty Standards, in February. “...Black people, especially Black women, have used their hair as a form of resistance. Resisting societal expectations of what it should look like. Resisting European beauty standards. Resisting the urge to not celebrate it in all of its facets,” it read. In 2019, California became the first state in the US to declare hair discrimination illegal.
Then there is the daily shaming of women with body and facial hair, by those who choose to view the world through a stereotypical definition of beauty.
Hair And Her, the ongoing project conceived by Chawla and Swati Bhattacharya, chief creative officer at the advertising agency FCB India, untangles the politics of hair. “Unravel the history of a woman’s hair, and you unravel a history of subjugation that cuts across cultures, nations and generations. Hair And Her calls for a clean cut with this past—asking for every viewer to play a part in a plea for a freer future,” states the project note.
Chawla and Bhattacharya are already in talks with various international organisations about taking this series, featuring 16 works so far, across the world, and there are also plans for a larger exhibition.
At the India Art Fair, a thin newspaper accompanied the photographs, containing instances of hair discrimination against women around the world. Viewers were invited to snip a piece of their hair voluntarily into a donation box to express solidarity. The duo has also come up with a short film around a woman’s agency, or the lack of it, as symbolised by hair.
“In Vrindavan, a widow is shaving her hair after the passing of their husbands, now that her beauty has no further use. In the ancient epic of the Mahabharata, Dushasana is dragging Draupadi by her hair, a man controlling the will of a woman through her hair, as millions of men will do, to millions of women, across cultures, geographies and timelines. Covered, controlled, cut down to size, a woman’s hair has been tangled with the patriarchy forever,” adds the note.
The series started nearly three years ago, when an Iranian artist—who does not wish to be named—visited Chawla’s house in Goa. He took a couple of images of her. Last year, when Iranian Mahsa Amini, 22, lost her life after being arrested in Tehran for allegedly not wearing the hijab properly—with a few strands of hair having come loose—Chawla photographed the artist yet again. “She was in Goa at the time of the incident and was extremely incensed. Last November, we shot a picture of her cutting her hair, as an act of rebellion, in a dilapidated structure next to my house. We hung the older image of her in a hijab, taken by me three years ago, in the background,” says Chawla.
That became a starting point for the project. Through the images, he asks: If covering the hair and face is so wonderful, why are men not doing it as well? “What is good for him also has to be good for her. This is not about a religion but a woman’s agency,” he adds.
The project is a conscious effort to work on a women-centric theme in the political art space, while keeping the aesthetics in mind. “Even when I do something in an activist space, it needn’t be unnecessarily gritty and I always try that all my work retains a certain compositional and graphic purity too,” he adds.
Chawla was a little apprehensive about whether Art Alive would show the series at the India Art Fair. “The creative space for artists is shrinking so badly,” he says. And he couldn’t help but wonder if a commercial gallery and a fair would accept the idea. “But I was pleasantly surprised when they embraced it with much gusto,” Chawla adds. “And I was lucky that a man with a good pair of eyes, Sunil Munjal, bought a work from the series. It reinforces the idea that there are people in the country who are interested in activist art, when done aesthetically.”