Nothing is ‘more cyclic’ (if there exists such a usage) in this world than fashion. Among all the fashions, hairstyles have certainly undergone cyclic changes. While ours was the age of tight pigtails, hair styling has gone through various stages such as pony tails, bob cuts, boy cuts, waist length open hair, bouffant, etc and is now back at plaits –the french braid and the African mini plaits.
I do remember those days when our mothers used to attend to our hair. In addition to making breakfast and packing our lunch boxes, they had to plait our hair (long or short) before sending us to school. In case the mother was ‘out’ (read as ‘having periods’), and no aunts were on visit or no neighbor was available for the job, then and then only the chore of plaiting our own hair would be grudgingly conceded to us.
Of course, part of the hair care was the ritual weekly oil bath (Even boys in the family were not exempt from this) when warm gingelly oil or castor oil would be rubbed thoroughly into the hair and on the body and left on for some time. Later a very hot bath would be given, using a paste of shikakai (Soapnut) powder to wash off the oil. The hair would be dried well and left in a loose plait (Butti) the rest of the day.
As for the daily ritual of plaiting the hair, both the ‘plaiterer’ and the ‘plaitee’ would squat on the floor one behind the other, both facing the same direction. The instruments- a fine ivory comb with teeth on both sides, a smaller recycled comb with teeth on one side, a long toothed wooden comb to get rid of the tangles would be kept ready in a rosewood box. A bottle of pure coconut oil (no fancy perfumed ones) and a bowl of water would be kept handy for use.
The plaiterer would untie the silken cord tied to the hair of the plaitee, open the hair, rub coconut oil, remove the tangled knots bottom upwards holding the hair in her fist, Then she would ask the plaitee to do an ‘about turn’. With both of them facing each other, the hair would be carefully parted at the centre of the head or at a more suitable place (Side parting must have come with the British). This long, perfect parting of the hair almost reaching the back of the head was a fine art which had to be executed everyday. Then the plaitee would revert to her original position. The hair would be combed thoroughly (Aaah, that sensuous feeling on the neck when the hair was combed up the head!) and divided into three parts and the plaiting would be done either with the three parts or splitting the parts further. The plaitee had to hold one part of the hair in each hand which would be changing alternately to facilitate tight plaiting. The water in the bowl would be used to paste back short locks. As the plaiting progressed towards the end, the silken cord would be woven with the plait so that when it was tied at the end it would not slip off. Now the plaitee would do an ‘about turn’ again. The hair on either side of the parting would be combed back and set with water (sometimes even bees wax) and pasted back to the forehead so that no truant locks marred the perfect hair style.
Used to my mother’s handling of my hair, I could never like the way my aunts did it. So, on such days they stayed with us, it would be a highly dissatisfied customer tugging the plait while trotting to school.
In addition to this plaiting of the hair, one more ritual used to be followed- that of putting ‘bindi’. Those were not the days of fancy shop made stuff. Unmarried girls were expected to adorn their forehead with a black dot made of paste called ‘chandu’ or ‘saadu’. It was a paste made of roasted and charred sabu-dana cooled and stored in a tin. Every day a drop or two of water would be put into it and rubbed. The wet paste would be picked up at the tip of a finger and fashioned into a small drop before putting it between the two eye brows. The process of shaping the paste into a drop would be funny to watch as many could not stop their lips also following the process along with their fingers! Thus ‘plaited’ and ‘bindied’ we would be ready to start our morning activities
The day we were allowed (not forced) to do our own hair marked our entry into adult life. Even this was done under the strict supervision of our elders. We could not make two plaits like Marathi mulgis of Bombay. We could not let our plait hang in front ( flirts). But we were allowed to use artificial hair to enhance the length and thickness of the hair when we reached marriageable age (to hoodwink the ‘boy’ and his people).Once I had a very embarrassing experience in a music concert when somebody pointed out to my hairpiece lying on the ground while all along I was preening as if I had long, natural hair!
The present generation has none of these hassles. They have expensive hair styling parlors at the end of every road catering to their whims and fancies. The shampoos do instant job of washing and conditioning the hair. One need not stick to the birth color or any single color for hair for that matter. Styles are dime a dozen so long as one is prepared to pay for them. Attractive wigs which do not easily fall off are there to compensate or reinforce.
The crowning glory of the modern South Indian belles has really travelled far from those well crafted tight oily pigtails.