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A Sikh strongman prepares, with great pomp, for his usual circus feat of pulling a truck with his long, braided plait in front of an excited audience. He exaggerates each step of the process with grandiose gestures and expressions. When he finally gets down to it, he finds—much to the audience’s surprise and his dismay—that he is unable to do it.

This is one of the six scenarios in Deepika Arwind’s new theatrical production, A Brief History Of Your Hair, which opened at Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara auditorium on 24 March. It uses theatre, dance, music, projected poetry and text to explore, well, hair. The play was made with grants from the India Foundation for the Arts and the New Voices Arts Project, with support by LshVa Studio, an arts and performance space in Bengaluru.

A scene from the play A Brief History Of Your Hair, staged in Bengaluru last month. Photo: Virginia Rodrigues
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A scene from the play A Brief History Of Your Hair, staged in Bengaluru last month. Photo: Virginia Rodrigues

Hair, as 29-year-old playwright and theatre director Arwind seeks to show, is not outside the view of patriarchal rules. It is as much an unassuming marker of social and cultural anxieties surrounding health, gender, sexuality, religion and caste, as it is a vehicle of agency. The play brings up a few of these aspects through short scenarios or vignettes that are alternately poignant, funny and relatable. We see a mother oiling her daughter’s hair and checking for lice; a man strikes up a conversation with a shrouded woman, only to find out later that she has a beard; a woman who has cancer talks to her husband about losing her hair. These stories are interspersed with projected excerpts about hair by the likes of Li-Young Lee, a Chinese Indonesian, Sharanya Manivannan, a Chennai-based poet and writer, and Rayna Green, a Cherokee (Native American) scholar and writer.

“Growing up as a Sikh, hair was a big part of my culture and ritual through my childhood. I used to braid my father’s hair, and I would play around with it, as you see in one of the scenes," says Arwind, who is not a practising Sikh now. She explains the guilt she felt when she decided to cut her hair at the age of 18. This, along with her engagement with feminist literature on the body, led her to explore gender. It isn’t easy to eschew the patriarchal view of a woman’s body that one grows up imbibing, and it continues to pose dilemmas, says Arwind. A feminist view takes the context of these rules into account, as well as the agency of the woman to challenge them and reclaim her body. “I’ve directed this play about hair, and yet, I’ll shave my legs and come for the show," she says. “There may seem to be a disconnect, but it’s obviously not one, as feminism allows for that multiplicity of approach."

“Feminism was one of the starting points of this piece. This play was first conceived as a 15-minute performance at Gender Bender, an initiative organized by the Goethe-Institut Bangalore last year that invited artists to re-imagine the ‘idea’ of gender and gender equality. Initially, I had envisioned this piece as an homage to androgyny or, rather, an exploration of the link between androgyny and performance, and hair somehow became the central point of focus," says Arwind, who worked as a journalist and wrote about theatre. She wrote and directed her first play, Nobody Sleeps Alone, in 2013.

Silent, choreographed sections in this devised play bring out the unspoken tensions and taboos around hair quite well. For example, a sequence in which a young girl sees her own pubic hair for the first time while urinating brings up the conflicted emotions that come with the onset of puberty. Another scene takes the bearded woman’s story into the realm of fantasy, and shows her transforming into a warrior who challenges the man to an actual, physical fight. The most poignant story, however, is about masculinity.

In an expertly written and acted scenario, the Sikh strongman’s failure to pull the truck with his beard forces him to explain his side of things at a press conference. However, his detailed explanation in Punjabi is translated selectively by an upper-class, English-speaking interpreter. The scene touches briefly on the Sikh riots of 1984 as the circus man recounts the story of how he came to realize and develop his strength and talent for pulling objects with his hair. Thus, hair is shown to be a vehicle of deep-seated patriarchal anxiety that men too are subjected to.

The cast includes Swetanshu Bora, an actor, writer and lighting designer, Sunitha M.R., a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Harshika Amin, an architect and designer, and Diya Naidu and Ronita Mookerji, both contemporary dancers. Arjun Chandran has composed, arranged and performed the music.

The play, which will be staged again later this year, is not without its shortcomings. It has some interesting moments that showcase the different kinds of experiences women have, but this is achieved at the expense of other kinds of nuance. This is most evident in the bearded woman’s story, which seems to be inspired by the image of a Sikh woman at an American airport—yet it is told without any reference to her cultural background, and the dialogue lacks the depth of experience that such a person would have. The play represents a certain heteronormative image of women and diverges from Arwind’s initial intent of addressing androgyny. This is something Arwind acknowledges, and would like to explore further. “This piece is still evolving, and we’re looking at how we can make it fuller."

A Brief History Of Hair is an original, experimental and challenging piece that is refreshing and courageous in the breadth of subjects it addresses.

Meanwhile, Arwind’s engagement with the body continues. Her next project—a solo physical piece—will be on being tall. She has just begun to write it. “I’m 5ft,1 inches," she says. On 16 April, she will leave for Washington, DC to participate in the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ New Visions/New Voices 2016 programme that seeks to develop plays for young audiences. She has been selected to take part in the week-long intensive workshop along with two other Indian playwrights, Vinati Makijany and Sunil Bannur, among other international playwrights. Arwind’s play, tentatively titled One Dream Too Many, is set in the future and is about a group of children trying to fight the (Un)Right to Dream Bill.

A Brief History Of Your Hair will be staged in August in Bengaluru and Puducherry.

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