Forget Hair-Oil-Powered Indulekha, Remember the Muditheyyam
Well, the truth is that I care two hoots for Indulekha Hair Oil, their stupid ads, and the wide-eyed chubby-cheeked teenage girls who they usually cast as epitomes of Malayalee feminine grace. All of Mallu FB world is agog with discussion about a brainless ad for the Indulekha Hair Oil, in which a fiery-looking woman whose dress-style follows the dress conventions of our Malayalee AIDWA Stars, bursts with indignation over the terrible harassment that women with long hair face on buses, how we are all forced to cut off “the hair that we have” (‘Ulla mudi’) and go about with short hair “like men” because of this horrible injustice, and finally, how we all ought to grow our hair long (and let it down, possibly) and hit back at such harassers. This stupid ad is actually only one among other stupid ads for this hair-oil which uses currently-common ideas like ‘women’s collectives’ (stree koottaimakal). All of them are jarring since the concepts they use, and what they aim at, simply don’t mix.Part of the outrage has been fueled by the fact that the ad uses as a model Sajitha Madathil, who is well-known as a feminist theatre activist in Kerala.
But stupidity and mediocrity are such a banal part of contemporary life in Kerala that there is no point in wasting words over it.And as Prabha Zacharias has pointed out in her discussion of this ad, it isn’t as if people start using hair oils because they read ads and believe all that they say. As for Indulekha ads, they have been so overblown that they appear to be producing negative results! A neighbor’s daughter who has been using it regularly — none of us feel that her hair has suddenly sprung back — claims she now has hair on the back of her palms. Like the waters of the divine Ganga which purified everything in its path, Indulekha Hair Oil makes hair grow everywhere it falls. Another good friend of mine said the same — that she finds hair growing on her knees and elbows and the reason is that she happened to rub off the excess oil on these drier parts of her body! And maybe this is true. All sorts of oil, lotions, potions, powders, etc. that emerge from Kerala are inevitably based on ancient vedic recipes. Now we know how the sages — undoubtedly the custodians of this knowledge — had really fantastic hair and beards, at least according to the Amar Chithra Katha! However since young women these days tend to have fits seeing hair on their arms or legs, leave alone knees and elbows, they will soon be more cautious about Indulekha Hair Oil. Let it strangle itself that way, why should I care?
As for Sajitha’s presence in the ad, well,there is always the liberal argument about free choice or artiste’s freedom she can always fall back on – if Abhishek Singhvi could do it when he came down to defend lottery operators in Kerala at a time when the Congress here was campaigning against promoters of lotteries from outside the state, so can she. Singhvi asserted his right to do so, but withdrew from the case keeping in view the “sentiments and larger interests of the party”, he said.In other words, this is something that will blow out soon enough. And she must have had her reasons, well-thought-out or otherwise.
Even the awfully idiotic reference about short-haired women looking like men doesn’t bother me — oh yes, so what? I don’t mind looking like a man? Surely in these days when at least some of us can and will celebrate gender trouble, that will only add to the fun?
But I am writing this post about the Indulekha ad, let me confess, because I was stricken by fear when some of the implications of the ad appeared to me.
First and foremost, I am gripped by the fear that this ad will make people read the Malayalam novel Indulekha in a rather regressive way. It struck me that the association the ad makes between long hair, beauty, outspokenness and courage starts from the name of the product itself: Indulekha. Indulekha is the eponymous heroine of O Chandu Menon’s late 19th century novel, one of the first in Malayalam. This character has often been identified as ‘feminist’ because she is bright, well-read, accomplished, outspoken, gutsy, and morally courageous. Besides being beautiful. In his blog article on the ad, Johny M L makes this connection.However I would beg to point out that the connection the ad makes between beauty, intelligence, and moral courage is almost exactly the opposite of that which the novel builds in its female protagonist. In the novel, Indulekha’s beauty is described at great length only to convince us that it is the least important of her many virtues. She is the paragon of moral courage, possesses a shining intelligence and an unmistakably sharp tongue — almost despite her beauty! The mistake that both her suitor and her lover make is that of underestimating her mental and moral qualities; they reduce her to her beauty one way or the other. The ad suggests that the reverse may be true: it is beauty that is put first implicitly (precisely because the oil guarantees to produce beauty, not other things), and everything else follow. I certainly don’t savor that, and I do hope no one mistakes this Indulekha for Chandu Menon’s.
Secondly I fear for Sarah Joseph, leading feminist writer in Malayalam. I am pretty sure many know the connection she made in the iconic short-story ‘Muditheyyamurayunnu’ (The Theyyam of the Locks Danceth) between irrepressible feminine energy, flowing tresses, and revolt against patriarchy. Alas, I do hope the feminist myth she created, thankfully locked away in non-realism, will endure despite the realist stupidities of the Indulekha ad. In Sarah Joseph’s myth of the Mudi-theyyam, Lalita’s locks grow stronger and thicker, an uncontrollable force of nature. They sweep around her body like thick black shiny coiling snakes, sending the patriarchs into a frenzy of terror. That has nothing to do with the hum-drum everyday realism of the ad — one of the reasons why it jars so unbearably. In the ad, the AIDWA-nayika complains about having to cut off the hair “we have”. Now, that is of course a blatant untruth, as all Malayalee new elite women of my generation who have been subjected to hair-disciplining would know, ‘Ulla mudi” is rarely some natural upsurge of dead cells. Indeed, for most of us, mothers and grandmothers have toiled hard, like exorcists trying to get an evil spirit to appear in the open, so that we can blithely talk of ‘ulla mudi’. Now, this may be new to many: hair-disciplining is a particular instrument by which new elite femininity was produced in Kerala, part of the Herculean effort to actualize what the Malayalee dalt feminist Rekha Raj once called Acchilakshanam - aesthetic norms for women who were available to the Brahmins. I know that putting it this way will wound many senior women — mothers and aunts and grandmothers — but I don’t think I can put it any other way. Fair skin, long luxuriant hair, big breasts and an ample backside [an aside: to those Malayalee sisters who have been assaulted with the word 'charakku', which we all know, means 'commodity' and have concluded from this that the discourse of political economy is so popular in radical Kerala that even sexual harassers know it well enough to call their prey 'commodity, let me clarify. 'Charakku' also means a generously-proportioned cooking pot narrower at the rim and the base and nicely rounded in the middle.]. The only qualification I can make is that long hair was considered important for men too — I remember one of my grand-aunts who used to tell us with that wistful look in her eyes, how handsome her six-foot-tall husband used to be, with his untied kuduma (hair coiled above the forehead) falling right to his feet. We all giggled of course, and she inevitably flung at us the nearest water- kindi, frustrated that we didn’t share her view of masculine beauty. But I doubt if they had to undergo hair-disciplining the way women had to.
Besides being a victim of hair-disciplining myself, I also grew up seeing my mother carrying that awful load — which stinks and crawls with lice even if washed everyday in Kerala’s hot and humid weather, especially when you can’t afford to sit around a cool home doing nothing all day long — and struggling to do so. Her daily routine used to be:
4:00 AM : wake up, the usual ablutions, a bath (which includes washing the head);
5: 30 AM : spread out the long hair (which was thick and fell right down to her ankles — and everyone raved about it) and sit down under the fan ;
7:00 AM : hoping and praying that it has dried, jump into the bedroom, tie up that infernal thing in a bun (looked like an awfully unaesthetic protrusion to my 8-year-old eyes), dress in furious haste, swallow some breakfast;
7:45 AM: rush off to the hospital (she was a very busy doctor);
5: 15 PM : return from hospital, untie the jutting thing that was steaming by now since public hospitals weren’t air-conditioned, douse the steam with water in the bathroom;
6:00 PM -8 00 PM : get the household help to pick lice because it was just unbearable (she inevitably got infected since she moves around with a lot of people). The lice-picking was always done in secret since my father , who was a great admirer of her long hair and wouldn’t allow her to cut even an inch of it,used to work himself up into a rage (goodness knows why) if he saw women sitting around and picking lice from each others’ hair. Of course she couldn’t use chemicals — what if that prized hair decided to fall? Nor could she use the close-toothed combs too frequently — what if the cherished strands broke?
The most poignant memory of her hair I have is of her chopping it to waist length just two weeks after father died. But she didn’t do it in grief alone, I remember.
And I must say that she could manage this much only because ample household help was available in the 70s! Maybe the Indulekha Hair Oil fellows will also now claim that Indulekha Oil will turn its user into superwoman who has the energy to bounce out of bed at 2 in the morning, hop all over the house like a rubber ball to finish off all her housework by 4 and start the beauty routine; they might also say that it is brimming with ayurvedic juices that will keep lice away!
So you can imagine the ferocity of my rebellion against hair-disciplining! I did everything to evade Grandmother’s seemingly endless combing, plaiting, oiling, washing with shoe-flower paste. But I still had long hair, and the damned thing always had a life of its own, refusing to stay where I tried to keep it, thoroughly unmanageable in a hostel. Finally I was able to persuade one of my brothers to be my partner in crime in Mission Cut-Off-this-Pestilence. So one day we walked in together, I sporting a nice fashionable bob. But trouble had loomed the moment I stepped out of the studio where we had gone to take a pic to commemorate this achievement: the photographer asked my brother, nice girl this, a chattakkari? (a derogatory term for an Anglo-Indian woman). Uh-ho, air turbulence ahead, we knew, and fastened our seat-belts. Not unexpectedly, then, the female part of the household went into deep mourning: my mother on one cot, my grandmother on another, and the lady cook, and the lady helpers standing here and there all stooped, heads down, one arm crossed on the waist, another bearing the weight of a mournful-looking face. “Is someone dead in this house?” My brother asked, raising his voice, ready to use precisely patriarchal authority to get things normal.
So you’d see, if Sarah Joseph’s powerful Muditheyyam was a realist construct, many in my generation would run a mile from it. Fortunately, it is not. It is a powerful counter-myth aimed at the Brahminical injunction that women should not leave their hair loose, that if women do wear loose locks, that is a mark of the age of Kali.
Thirdly, I fear for the concepts which these ad fellows have plundered : women’s rights, women’s collectivities. In Kerala, these ideas have become very familiar through the governmentalized feminism since the mid-90s. But that in itself does not make them available for plunder to the market. Governmentalized feminism in Kerala, despite all its limitations, still points towards the public domain and economic self-sufficiency as the means of acquiring space for women in both the public and the domestic. In shocking contrast, it is consumption and body grooming that is central to the Indulekha ads.
So maybe we should launch a counter ad campaign on Facebook (since the criticism is most vehemently voiced there) which will uphold the Muditheyyam against both the AIDWA-nayika and the chubby-cheeked- round-eyed teen. But since a good friend of mine informs me that her neighbors, three Sikh gentlemen, have frequent oil-baths and are forever admiring each others’ waist-length hair, maybe we should let Indulekha Hair Oil people know that there may be a market out there. And I suspect the Sardars will know what to do with the Indulekha Hair Oil-makers and sellers if thick black hair sprouts on their knees instead of their heads, much better than either the AIDWA-nayika or the chubby-cheeked, paavam-looking teen.