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Trappings for tresses

Remember grandma's jade bille and baitale bottu? These forgotten hair ornaments that we dismissed as old-fashioned are part of the precious collection of Veena Shroff, a much sought after hair-dresser, who has had a long association with Bollywood.

Photo: K. Gopinathan

Veena Shroff: recreating the charm of a bygone era

VEENA SHROFF brings with her the charm of a bygone era. An era of gentle manners, perfect courtesies, impeccable clothing, and not a hair out of place. A time when film stars such as Nargis and Meena Kumari, Kamini Kaushal and Vyjayantimala reigned supreme: serene beauties enshrined in old world mythologies and new world love stories.

For Veena, surrounded by filigreed, butterfly or peacock-topped hair ornaments from Orissa, brightly-threaded parandis from nomadic communities, and gold-thread chotlani from Ahmedabad, is a lauded Delhi-based art hair stylist. A fraction of her personal collection of over 700 hair ornaments, titled Kesha Sringara, was on display at the Windsor Manor from March 9 to 11. Her gentle hands coiffed the looks of Vyjayanthimala in New Delhi, Usha Kiran in Badshah, Sandhya in Jhanak jhanak payal baaje, and Nirupa Roy, Suraiya, and Kamini Kaushal in over 200 other cinematic masterpieces.

She smoothes her kantha-work embroidered sari, rich with a pallu of lotuses and fish, birds and foliage, as she says: "Kanu Desai, a popular Gujarati painter, read about me in Eve's Weekly in the early 1950s. He told director Sohrab Modi about me. Soon, Modi invited me to dress Mehtaab Banu's hair in Jhansi ki Rani. But since the queen's hair was in a typically Maharashtrian small bun, there really wasn't much to do. Mehtaab had curly hair, so she could manage herself in just a minute. But that's how my association with the films began... "

Around the hotel gallery are stunning black-and-white photographs of large-eyed languorous beauties, their hair in classic styles inspired by the sculptures of Khajuraho, Amaravati, Chidambaram, Lepakshi, or even Ellora. Visual counterpoints of the original stone beauties emphasise the resemblances. These are hallmarks of Veena's inspired work, published in a 1962 book, Indian Hairstyles, with striking photographs by Jehangir Unwala.

"I used to be so quick before," laments Veena, efficiently affixing the chotlani into the tresses of a pretty visitor to the exhibition. "I could do six hairstyles in half-an-hour. But now I take much longer." Then, she stands back to look at her handiwork, honed by 50-plus years of practice and over 5,000 demonstrations of her skill globally.

She shares a photograph inspired by a 10th century sculpture of goddess Parvati, currently at the Raipur museum in Chattisgarh. Why are the tresses piled so high, at an angle to the head? "Remember, there were probably no mirrors high up in the heavens," Veena smiles, " so they probably did their hair while looking into the calm waters of a lake or pond. Quite naturally, the result was what you see."

Veena, whose styles were immortalised by fashion designers Rohit Bal and Ashish Soni during their Khajuraho pageant in New Delhi, turns to a Mohiniattam-sparked hair-do. "Look," she says with excitement, "instead of an ornament, I wanted to use a "padma phool", a lotus flower here. But it proved too large. So, I used a lily from Bal's garden instead. He was so thrilled!"

Her excitement proves contagious as she flits from a flowery sandalwood-based braid from Karnataka to a comb that releases fragrant oil and ittar into the hair as it disentangles wave upon wave of it. Then, Veena picks out a dome-like silver ornament, places in her own graceful jooda, and demonstrates how a chain attached to it distributes its weight more equally. Disappointed when the craftsman who created it could not conjure up a lyrical name for it, she christened it `shikhara.' In minutes, her hands draw out a wooden comb from Rajasthan, latticed over by criss-cross markings, filled in red lac for ornamentation.

"My mother told me, when I started out, not to be just an ordinary salon hairdresser," Veena recalls. "It wasn't real sculptures, but rather old photographs of them, that were my inspiration. I imagined, modified, and adapted from these originals. I visited museums to look at these beautiful forms, though I wasn't very well educated. Around 1965, I took a small room in Benaras to study, and buy, over 5,000 photographs. That's when I realised how important hair ornaments were."

In a rush, memories stir within her, as Veena relives her brief stint at Uday Shankar's dance school at Almora. And her roles in the Indian National Theatre's `Discovery of India' dance drama. Today, her alliance with classical danseuse Sonal Mansingh may re-orient visual appeal, despite protests from the conservative camp.

Kesha Sringara, which was first displayed at the Festival of India in France, travelled on to Germany, Hawaii, Chicago and San Francisco. In India, it has caught the eye and lighted the imagination of visitors in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Pune, Chennai, and now Bangalore.

Stirred by the interchanges that resulted, Veena stresses: "The majority of Indians don't understand the craftsmanship that goes into making these ornaments. Some are fascinated by it all, some ask questions, some want to possess these pieces. Some exclaim: "Itna khoobsurat hai!" I'm not an authority on these crafts. But I got all this publicity because the exhibition was unusual. I'm not even a trained hair-dresser, but god was kind enough to make me famous."

With that, she turns to a youthful Maharashtrian bahu in pink, curious about traditional kesha sringara ornaments from her niche of the country, and gently guides her to the bazaars of Pune, Solapur, or Kolhapur.


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