Thursday, February 20, 2014

There's Something about Hair

French photographer Oriane Zerah focuses on the long tresses of Indian women

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian

Just a few minutes before the inauguration of the 'Something About Hair' exhibition at the David Hall, Fort Kochi, by Kabul-based French photographer Oriane Zerah, she has a number of visitors. They are Ahmedabad-based art collectors who tell Oriane that they want to buy two photographs. Oriane quotes a price, and in typical Indian fashion, the buyers offer something less. A flustered Oriane slowly gets the hang of the thrust and feint of bargaining between buyer and seller. Finally, the deal is sealed, and Oriane promises to send the mounted photographs once the exhibition concluded on February 25.

It is not difficult to understand the interest of the collectors. Oriane's exhibition is an unusual one: it focuses on the hair of Indian women. And the idea occurred to Oriane as she travelled to conservative countries like Iran and Pakistan. She had to always cover her head with a scarf. “In Islam, all women have to use a scarf,” she says. “That is the case in Christianity when a woman has to go to church. The legend says that the angels feel shy in front of women's hair. In Judaism, women also use scarves. In every civilisation and society, the need for women's hair to be covered is paramount.”

At the same time, in striking contrast, Hindu gods and goddesses were proud to show off their flowing tresses. “Both Lord Shiva and Kali have long hair,” she says. “This had an impact on my imagination.”

But the tipping point occurred when she went to the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala. “I saw women getting their head shaved. Later, this hair was presented to God,” she says. “It was one way of giving up the ego. From Tirumala I came to Kochi. It was then that I decided to focus on the hair of Indian women.”

She asked a friend who was working in a hotel at Fort Kochi, whether he knew of any women who had long hair. He located Sindhi, a pretty 17-year-old girl, who is the daughter of a fisherman. Oriane took Sindhi to the terrace of the hotel. “I did not know what I was going to do,” says Oriane. “I asked her to turn this way and that. Sindhi was shy, but she had wonderful hair that went below the waist.”

And that was the start. Thereafter, Oriane went to Jaisalmer and shot a 50-year- old woman. But now she used a different technique. Oriane placed the model on a white sheet and overexposed, so that only the hair could be seen. Thereafter, she did a bit of editing on Photoshop.

Oriane also took a photo of a woman lying on a patch of grass, her hair spread out above her and rose petals were placed on it. “Indian hair is long, beautiful, clean and soft,” says Oriane, who has shoulder-length hair. “I feel envious at times.”

However, the effect of seeing these photographs can be disconcerting. Sometimes, the hair looks like an undulating black slope on a mountain. At the bottom, it breaks up into so many tendrils that it resembles the roots of trees. In another photograph, the hair looks brown. “I took it at sunset and allowed the light to play with the hair,” says Oriane. In yet another image, a woman has allowed the hair to fall in front. “She did not want to reveal her face,” says Oriane. “So I took a shot like that.”

Of course, long hair is becoming rare. Indian women, like those in the West, prefer to keep their hair short. “When I would ask around, some will say, 'Oh my late grandmother had such long hair,'” say Oriane.

The French photographer, who has travelled to many countries, lives in Kabul.
The security of the people is getting worse day after day,” she says. “But it is my choice to live in Afghanistan. The women are in the worst condition, when you compare with other nations. For women artists it is very difficult. They have to fight to exist as a person. Many girls study, but they know that when they get married, they will not be allowed to go for a job.”

In Kabul, Oriane earns her living by taking photographs for non-governmental organisations, the local press as well as a mobile company. “I am not afraid even though recently, there was a bomb blast in which a few foreigners were killed,” she says. “But unlike the Afghan people, thanks to my French passport, I can leave at any time I wish.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

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