From Shiva’s matted hair to Buddha’s curls: Tracing the mane

  • Poulomi Banerjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 19, 2015 14:17 IST
Viewers take photos of a painting of Zeenat Mahal, wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal ruler of India, from 18th century AD. (Left) Bodhisattva in the Gadhara style from the Kushan period. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

Braids, buns, chignons, intricately arranged curls and neatly combed straight hair, Kesa-vinyas, an ongoing exhibition of hairstyles in Indian art organised by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), will make viewers gape at the superior skills of our ancestors when it came to dressing their crowning glory. Perms, straightening, smoothening and blow dries might be contemporary terms, but if the representation found in old paintings and sculptures are any indication, these people took hair care to the level of art work. “Ancient texts have enumerated exuberant forms of hair-styles and coiffure. These were adorned with several kinds of jewels, diadems or tiaras and fillets… Hair dressing was common in both elite and peasants, while some scholars believe that only the elite class arranged their hair in various types of coiffure to differentiate them,” explains the exhibition brochure.

Head of Parvati from Ahichchhatra (Uttar Pradesh) during the Gupta period has curled locks, tied behind and decked with jewels. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

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The exhibition starts with the Harappan period and travels through dynasties and ages — Mauryan, Shunga-Satavahana, Kushan, Gupta and further to the medieval period, to examine the changing representation of hairstyles down the eras. Geographical location played a part, as did foreign influence. For example, some of the artworks of the Gupta period show people with short hair which was sometimes frizzed in the front with luxuriant ringlets or simply left to hang loose over the shoulders or below. This style is believed to be of foreign origin. Women were not the only one to take pride in their tresses. From Shiva’s matted hair, to Buddha’s curls, Krishna-Balaram and the neatly trimmed beard and middle-parted hair, tied with a fillet of the ‘Priest King’ from the Harappan times – the exhibition has enough representation from the male brigade to send across the message that hair care was no trifling matter for them.

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ASI Exhibition Kesvinayas at Red Fort in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

Lady with a long braid, an artwork from the Vijayanagar period in Tamil Nadu. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

The work referred to as ‘Lady Writing Letter’ from Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh dates back to the Chandella period and shows hair tied in a loose knot near the nape of the neck. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

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“Sculptures are mirrors of the entire social milieu of contemporary society and accordingly cover a number of distinguishing details. But very often a viewer’s attention gets confined to the main features of a famed sculpture. Other aspects often go unnoticed under the shadow of a mainstream view of facial and body features. Our present endeavour concentrating on hairstyles is one of many such steps which required to be taken because these aspects are no less important. History becomes more interesting through comprehensive presentations instead of restricted vision,” explains Urmila Sant, director (museum), ASI.

Painting of a woman from Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh. Her hair is arranged in two round buns decorated with flowers. (Below) Viewers take photos of a painting of Zeenat Mahal, wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal ruler of India, from 18th century AD. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

Given the continuing obsession with hair in the present time, the interest generated by the exhibition is not surprising. “Visitors are from across different social, age and occupational groups...The exhibition has opened a new vision of art appreciation and aroused a new kind of interest among people, which is perhaps unprecedented in the history of art exhibition,” says Sant.

A viewer at the exhibition in front of the sculpture ‘Dancing Girl’ from Mohenjodaro. The figurine has hair coiled in a heavy mass, from above the left ear and falling over the right shoulder. (Ravi Choudhary/ Hindustan Times)

Kesa-vinayas can also serve as a catalogue for those willing to experiment with a coiffure. It doesn’t get more retro than this.


What: Kesa-vinyas - Hairstyles in Indian ArtWhere: Quarters Guard, Red FortWhen: Till January 31, 2016 (10 am to 5pm)Closed on Mondays

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