“Hair” return — Diaspora Dialogue

Jyoti: Hair, almost as equally as facial expressions, hand gestures and araimandi, is bound up with Indian-ness as well. For our bharata natyam performances in the US, we would wear a single braid down the length of our back. This braid would be extended and thickened by at least another foot of fake hair and tied off at the end with a silk tassel or balls made from black yarn. Framing our hairlines and marking the severe parting down the middle of our hair would be the traditional temple jewelry made from deep red and green stones. The final touch to our hairstyle would be fake orange kanakambaram and jasmine flowers. This, as my guru in Chennai once said, was the headdress of a goddess and is essential to a female dancer's performance of bharata natyam in the “classical” style.

You clearly choose every minute detail of stage presentation from lighting to sound and from costume to hair. Audience members commented on how the hairstyles contributed to the contemporary effect of your work. What are you thoughts on the impact that hair has on reading dance in a classical and contemporary context?

Shobana: Hair has played (and probably still does play) a surprisingly large role in the identity and self image of a bharata natyam dancer. I know this was the case for me. The neatly plaited hair of the bharata natyam “uniform”, positioned the dancer firmly into the required traditional image of the well-groomed woman. It added to the discipline and rigour of the dance (loose long hair would be read as “undressed” with all the conseqent connotations!). As the dancer extended her locks (unless you were lucky enough to have knee length tresses!) with the artificial variety (an essential part of the modern Bharata Natyam’s armoury ) and plaited it, she knits herself into the values of the dance too. Certainly gaining experience as a bharata natyam dancer also meant gaining experience in handling the attendant decorations and cutting down the time taken to do the hair. I think there came a time when dancers dispensed with braiding in the extension, and simply tucked whatever hair they had underneath a long false plait which was hung from the head much like a tea plucker’s basket! When I trimmed my hair once, just short of shoulder length, the first question put to me, with the same concern as if I had hurt my leg, was “but how are you going to dance now?”

Jyoti: I experienced the exact same response, and this was from a very early age. When I was around nine or ten years old, my sister and I took scissors to each other's hair, cutting fringes and chopping quite a few inches off our braids. Our parents were quite cross as it affected our stage performances.

Shobana: In some ways your parents did have a point because in dance, more than in any other form, every aspect of your external body (including hair) influences the dance narrative. The Ballet chignon and tiara is part of the female ballet “narrative” just as much the flowery ornamented plait is to the bharata natyam dancer or the equally crafted “natural” look is to American contemporary dance.

As a choreographer, I notice hair length and style and how it could significantly affect the narrative of the dance work I am making at the moment. As the dancers who I have worked with will testify we have long conversations on length and style of hair for each piece. The original cast of Bruise Blood had women with long curly hair, and the designer and I felt these need to be redesigned as part of the costume. I think it was very astute of the Bangalore audience member to notice the contribution this made to the visuals.