CUT!

The cultural and cinematic importance of hair design in India

“Probably in no other country has so much imagination, thought and artistic genius been applied to the art of hairdressing.” - Dr D N Dimri, Director of Archeology, ASI

Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro HarappaLIFE Photo Collection

Tracing Roots From History

For centuries, hairstyling and its traditions have been essential to the Indian wardrobe. Art historical records have consciously documented variations in coiffures that were often indicative of one’s wealth, royalty, and marital status.
 
Emphasised structure, glorified texture, and exaggerated movement of hair through artfully done styles were symbolic of religious, social, and erotic affinities. 

Harappa Dancing Girl (3300 - 1300 BCE)Museum of Design Excellence

Low Buns and Braids

One of the world’s oldest bronze-cast sculptures, the Dancing Girl from the Mohenjo Daro period (3300 - 1300 BCE),  has been pivotal in establishing the genesis of hairstyling in the Indian subcontinent. Her serpentine braids are coiled at the top of her head and fall delicately over her right shoulder, paralleling her slender contrapposto.

Worship of Bodhi tree representing Kanakamuni Buddha, unknown, 100-200 C.E, From the collection of: Indian Museum, Kolkata
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Indian Movie Queen, James Burke, 1963, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Nutan, 1950s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Meena Kumari, c.1950, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Limestone drum slab depicting the birth of Prince Siddhartha (1/99)British Museum

Ornamentation

The embellishment of hair with jewels is also a recurrent motif in Indian art and architecture. This sculpture of a Yakshi from the Mauryan period (321 - 182 BCE), with her hair tied in a low bun, decorated with tassels and strings of jewels that culminate with a medallion at the forehead, is also representative of contemporary feminine beauty ideals.

A lady and attendants seated in a courtyard, early 18th century, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art
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Indian Movie Queen, James Burke, 1963, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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A Royal Entertainment (ca. 1600) by Artist: Attributed here to Sur DasSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Headdresses, Headbands, and Veils

Representative of religious, social, cultural, or aesthetic values, headdresses are represented in diverse materials and styles.


As seen in this Mughal miniature painting (c.1600) by Sur Das, headdresses, headbands, and veils were, and continue to be essential sartorial elements in certain Indian cultures.

Portrait of a lady, 17th century, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art
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Film still of Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani, 2015, Original Source: Tiger Sharma & Kishore Lulla (Producers)
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A Bejeweled Lady (c. 1690-1720) by IndianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Natural Crimps and Waves

Natural Indian hair is often texturised and comprises inconsistent crimps and waves. This Mughal miniature of “The Bejewelled Lady” (c.1700) has captured the tactility and movement of the sitter’s hair by meticulously detailing its fall and flow. 

Mahasveta, Raja Ravi Varma, Ravi Varma Press, Karli Bombay, Circa 1900, From the collection of: The Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation
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Film still of Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi, 2022, Original Source: Jayantilal Gada & Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Producers)
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Krishna Leela (Circa 1910) by Ravi Varma Press, Karla Lonavala and Raja Ravi VarmaThe Ganesh Shivaswamy Foundation

Haircare Customs and Rituals

Haircare rituals and the tradition of using flowers, oils, unguents, smoke, scent, and aromas have been documented in paintings and text dating as far back as 3000 BC. Raja Ravi Varma has captured the beauty and sanctity of the hair cleansing process in this print (c.1910) of Krishna and the Gopis. 
 
The sight of me combing my long hair
brings you back to your country
where you tell me
girls sit in the open air
combing each other’s hair 
- Frances Chung

In a 5-minute long scene in the film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Meena Kumari is seen partaking in an elaborate dress-up ritual that involves the brushing of her long locks, followed by its braiding and coiling into a bun which is then secured by a bejewelled brooch. 

Still of Sridevi (1990s)Museum of Design Excellence

Icons and Their Hairstyles

In early Indian cinema, actors were cast for their personalities rather than the characters they portrayed. While they may have played numerous roles over the span of their careers, their fashion, mannerisms, and hairstyles remained unchanged, and eventually, iconic.

Indian actor Sadhana Shivdasani (1960s)Museum of Design Excellence

THE SADHANA CUT

Sadhana made an indelible mark in the hairstyle department in the 1960s with her iconic fringe, which was soon after named “The Sadhana Cut.” Often emulated by contemporaneous actresses, the fringe was often teamed with sleek up-dos, or beehives. 

What was initially an attempt to conceal her broad forehead, Sadhana Shivdasani’s fringe became a fashion statement after her iconic scene in the film Love in Simla (1960). 

Waheeda Rehman, c.1960, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Film Still of Vimmi, 1960s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Film still of Sharmila Tagore (c.1965)Museum of Design Excellence

THE BEEHIVE AND BOUFFANT

The dramatic bouffant and beehive hair-dos were popularised by actresses such as Sharmila Tagore, Waheeda Rehman, Mumtaz, and Simi Garewal. Often paired with bold, winged eyeliner, and traditional wear, the bouffant and beehive were favourites amongst women in the 1960s and 1970s.

Still of Mumtaz, 2022, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Simi Garewal, 1960s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Still of Dev Anand (1946 - 2011)Museum of Design Excellence

THE POMPADOUR

Dev Anand’s pomp became synonymous with the actor. His thick hair was often slicked back, and its volume was accentuated with a puff at the top.  Complemented by his smouldering gaze and impeccable style, Dev Anand’s pomp became a fad amongst actors and fans alike, and is making its way back even today. 

Dharmendra, c.1970, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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John Abraham, 2010s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Indian actor Trilok Kapoor (c.1940)Museum of Design Excellence

THE SLICK BACK

The slick back hairstyle made waves in the 1940s and has since made several appearances on movie screens. While this hairdo is versatile, its primary characteristics comprise hair pomaded - maybe with the classic Brylcreem - and combed back. It is a clean and refined look that suits most hair and face types.

Indian actor Hari Shivdasani, 1942, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Hrithik Roshan, 2005, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Film still of Amitabh Bachhan (c.1970s)Museum of Design Excellence

BACHCHAN BACKSWEEP

Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic hairstyle is characterised by an off-centre, side-parting, which is swept back, away from his face. Over the decades several actors have adopted the backsweep, adding their own variations to the style, perhaps in texture or length of the hair and sideburns. 

Aamir Khan, 1990s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Vinod Khanna, 2000s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Anil Kapoor, 1980s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Zeenat Aman (1970s)Museum of Design Excellence

SEVENTIES STRAIGHT DOWN

In the 1970s, when short hair was often associated with villainous characters and long hair with the “virtuous”, Zeenat Aman was unafraid of dabbling with different hair lengths, which, consequently, also facilitated a change in social norms. This hairstyle remained popular through the 1980s and 1990s, and is making its way back today. 

Parveen Babi, 1980s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Raveena Tandon, 1990s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Still of Dimple Kapadia (c.1980)Museum of Design Excellence

DIMPLE'S LAYERED LOCKS

In addition to being lauded for her performances in iconic films such as Bobby (1973) and Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Dimple Kapadia’s incredibly rich, thick, long, and lush hair created waves on the silver screen. Her luscious hair even got her the position of poster woman for the shampoo-cum-soap, Crowning Glory

Preity Zinta (2000s)Museum of Design Excellence

THE CURL GIRLS

Karishma Kapoor’s bushy curls in the 1980s, Preity Zinta’s classic curls in the 2000s, and Kangana Ranaut’s spiral curls in the 2010s have been kingpins in re-establishing curls as a prominent hairstyle. It has given Indian women the freedom and representation to embrace their naturally curly and wavy hair. 

Karishma Kapoor, 1990s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Kangana Ranaut, 2022, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Juhi Chawla, 1990s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Film still of Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai (2001)Museum of Design Excellence

AAMIR'S FRINGE-UP

Aamir Khan’s look in Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was a pivotal moment for hair design in Indian film productions. A designated team was appointed to create Aamir’s iconic goatee and fringe-up. Subsequently, this iconic look was frequently adopted by actors such as Ajay Devgn, Sushant Singh Rajput, and Ranbir Kapoor.  

Film still of Ajay Devgn, 2000s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Sushant Singh Rajput, 2010s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Ranbir Kapoor, c.2019, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Varun Dhawan (2022)Museum of Design Excellence

THE UNDERCUTS AND QUIFFS CULT

Slight fades at the sides of the head culminating in a thick, wavy lock at the top are the essence of the undercut and quiff hairstyles. Popularised on screen by actors such as Varun Dhawan, Shahid Kapoor, and Ayushmann Khuranna these styles have become trends around the country. 

Shahid Kapoor, 2022, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Ayushmann Khuranna, 2022, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Sonam Kapoor | Styled by Rhea Kapoor (2022) by The House Of PixelsOriginal Source: The House Of Pixels

THE STRAIGHT AND CENTRED CRAZE

Middle-parted hair, straightened hair is making its way into the realm of hairstyles and is embodied on screens by actors such as Sonam Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, and Kareena Kapoor.

Anushka Sharma, 2022, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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Kareena Kapoor, 2010s, From the collection of: Museum of Design Excellence
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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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