Tarini Uppal
Tarini Uppal

Small Idea Big Difference | Going bald for a cause

A hairstylist uses donated hair to make wigs for women recovering from chemotherapy

When she was 20, Tarini Uppal, a master’s student at Delhi University, decided she would go bald. “I was sick of my hair, of combing it, and washing it, and having it fall everywhere," she says. Uppal had made up her mind ever since her cousin in the US had cut her hair really short. “I asked her why she had cut off her lovely hair and she told me about these drives that take place in schools, colleges and malls where hair donations are sought, and said she had donated her hair."

Fired by the donation idea, Uppal looked around to donate her below shoulder-length hair, and finally came across Hair Aid run by stylist Yatin Deshpande in Mumbai. Since Deshpande was coming to Delhi for a shoot, he decided to shave Uppal’s hair. “He got the hair in a reusable condition," says Uppal.

Deshpande started Hair Aid on his 48th birthday on 29 May as an extension of his hairstyling and wig-making enterprise, for which he trained in London. Through Hair Aid, he creates wigs from donated hair and provides them, mostly for free, to cancer patients who lose their hair after chemotherapy, or to those suffering from alopecia areata (a condition in which hair falls out in bunches, often resulting in baldness). “Realizing that real hair is the costliest component in a wig, and that Indian women who lose their hair to chemo or alopecia areata are emotionally shattered by the loss, is the reason I launched the campaign for hair donations," says Deshpande. “A wig sold for normal use for cosmetic reasons can cost around 25,000."

Uppal before going bald
Uppal before going bald

Patients and donors approach Deshpande after reading about Hair Aid on the Web or through word of mouth. “We need two or three sittings to take measurements and do fittings," says Deshpande. The idea is that a patient should feel just as she did before she lost her hair. “A single wig can take up to four 8-hour man-days as 100,000 strands of hair need to be threaded and knotted individually," says Deshpande. If all the young women decide to chop off their hair to sport a shorter hairstyle and donate the hair instead of letting it be swept into the dustbin, Deshpande’s vision would become a reality.

“When I realized I was going to lose all my hair after I started chemotherapy, I was dismayed," says Madhuri Nayak, who recently retired from Bank of India after 37 years. The first of her four chemotherapy sessions started in July. “It caused so much hair loss that I knew I needed a wig," she says. Nayak read about Hair Aid and approached them. “They advised me to cut my hair before the rest of it fell out," she says. “But I could not bear cutting it. My hair was still thick, and without even a strand of grey." By August, Nayak was bald, and lost most of her thick dark eyebrows. “I started wearing the wig that Deshpande made for me," she says, adding: “If I had listened to him, it could have been made with my own hair." She is delighted that her “completely natural and comfortable wig" makes it hard for people to know the difference
between real hair and a wig.

“It is easier to express grief over the loss of hair in one sharp shock than to do it on a daily basis. A fact I wish patients could realize, when their hair starts diminishing swiftly," says Deshpande. “Eventually all the hair does fall out, and the experience of losing it bit by bit is very distressing. I guess most patients are not quite ready to face this reality which is why they do not shave," he says.

The idea of donating hair has found some takers. “I wished to do something to help," says Shanta Shetty, whose daughter, Shraddha, underwent nine chemotherapy sessions when she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. At the time she was diagnosed, Shraddha was training with Deshpande, who, knowing what lay ahead, gave her a wig. “Of course, her hair grew back once the chemotherapy stopped, and she returned the wig, but his gesture inspired me to donate my own hair...it could help someone else," says Shanta. However, Deshpande says that except in rare cases like Shraddha’s, wigs are usually not brought back once their need is over. “I am not keen on it, as most wigs get depleted and cannot be reused, and clients want their own styles. Besides, every head of hair is unique, and we try and recreate what has gone, so reuse does not help," he adds.