As another hectic work day draws to a close, Sonu Kumari finally finds time for a breather. Looking down at her hands, Sonu, who works as a hairstylist’s assistant in a Delhi salon, muses, “They all want the same thing – ‘short hair, lekin stylish hona chahiye!’ Just today, there were five customers who came in wanting a short hairdo. Three of them mustered up the courage to finally go through with it.” There is a ring of unselfconscious finality in the way Sonu mentions courage in the same breath as a haircut.

Far-fetched though it may sound, it takes copious quantity of courage and chutzpah to tinker with human hair. In evolutionary terms, the function of hair is thermoregulation -- keeping our bodies well-insulated at both hot and cool temperatures – and protection from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Yet, going by the reams of newsprint and online space dedicated to and predicated upon scalp hair and resultant hairdos, it’s easy to mistake follicular fads for fascist orientation!

That’s why, when Bollywood takes hold of the baton in this campaign to challenge, defy and nullify gender roles, it’s hard not to sit up and take note. Snipping those long, shiny tresses off its leading ladies’ picture-perfect shoulders, Bollywood seems to have embraced short hair with remarkable readiness. And this has come not a bad-hair day too soon! Be it Kangana Ranaut in the much-awaited ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’, Anushka Sharma in ‘PK’, or Sonakshi Sinha and Jacqueline Fernandes in their personal lives, they all seem to be inspired by Julie Andrews in ‘The Sound of Music’, after taking a leaf out of Preity Zinta’s ‘hairdo book’ in ‘Lakshya’ and that of Vaijayanthi Mala in the iconic movie ‘Mera Naam Joker’, closer home.

But it seems only yesterday on celluloid when a pixie cut or the churlishly-named ‘boy cut’ was the certain, unenviable fate of uber-masculine women in military and police uniforms, of hapless widows by the banks of the Ganga and of pitiful mental asylum inmates in provincial towns. So, what changed?

“The majoritarian idea of female beauty or femininity has undergone a definite change over the past decade. Progressing rapidly from shoulder length to what is called a ‘corporate’ hairdo, to the current fad, the pixie cut, Indian femininity has come a long way. The glory days of modern-era Rapunzels may be over, for good,” says Simar Bhadoria, an event manager in her mid-30s based in Pune, who sports a carefully-tousled pixie cut. “But isn’t it ironical that in 2015, we still think it’s somehow alright to publicly discuss, threadbare, what is essentially a woman’s very personal grooming choice?” she asks.

It was just such a personal choice and a style statement deeper than the roots of her hair that made Anushka Sharma’s pixie cut as the character Jagat Janani a.k.a Jaggu in PK a huge hit with young women across the country. “Just after the film released, about 50 percent of all women clients walking in demanded the ‘PK cut’,” says Mohammad Ehsaan, who works at a hair salon in south Delhi’s Green Park Market. “Older women opt for short hair out of practicality – because either their hair starts thinning or greying all over – but it’s a welcome change to see younger women also going in for short hairdos,” he adds.

Vivian Diller, PhD, psychologist and author of ‘Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change’ writes in The Huffington Post, “Curves, smooth skin, thick lashes and long hair are among the visible physical features that are typically associated with femininity. When any of these change, it impacts a woman’s identity. Female beauty icons throughout history have had long, thick, rich-looking hair, often portrayed as windswept and wild. Think Elizabeth Taylor, who was known for her silky locks. Poster girl Farrah Fawcett was all about those blonde waves. Jennifer Aniston’s career has been tied closely to the latest toss of her enviable mane. Medusa and Rapunzel are mythical figures whose hair served as the symbol of power. Classic portraits and sculptures almost always portray women with beautiful, luscious hair.”

Traditionally, long hair has subliminally hinted at the effort and money required to tend it, while a cropped style indicated practicality, and penury, even. In Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel ‘Little Women’, when Jo March sells off her hair to enable her mother to visit her injured father, there is accompanying shock. But it remains an act of the most dismal anguish.

With visible shifts in comfort levels in sporting an untangled look, most of those who opt for the close-cropped look are super-confident in their skin. “If you look at it logically, long hair, shoulder length hair, any other length hair compensates for facial imperfections. Stylists regularly use phrases like, ‘it frames your face really well’, ‘it helps cover your broad forehead’ and ‘this hair colour will bring out the tone of your skin’,” says Debjani Pundole, a graphic artist who cannot remember the last time she grew her hair beyond a chic short-cropped cut. “Only supremely confident women – including political leaders -- go in for short styles, like Princess Diana, Priyanka Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Christine Lagarde,” she adds.

Hairstyling, like everything else, has its roots in timeless rituals, especially those connected to perpetuating established social mores and reinforcing newer ones. In ancient India originated the concept of ‘Keshpashrachna’, where ‘Kesh’ means hair, ‘Pash’ means flock and ‘Rachna’ means arrangement. At the gates of the temples of Khajuraho, the stupas of Sanchi and places of similar historicity, are found sculptures of Yakshinis, adorning stone pillars, effecting a sensuous pose suggestive of fecundity and fertility. And the Yakshini is always, always, depicted with long tresses, adorned with flowers and jewels and trinkets.

Associations with hair go back several centuries, in cultures across the world. The Biblical tale of Delilah and Samson recounts how when Delilah wanted to destroy Samson’s sexual potency, she lopped off his hair. Brides during the Renaissance in Europe adopted flowing tresses as a badge of virginity, sexuality and fertility. In the Middle Ages, when inadequate nutrition played havoc with beauty, resplendent hair also became symbolic of fruitfulness. Its unleashing had profound implications related to the intimacy of the bedchamber. In the painting ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sandro Botticelli, the Roman goddess of amour is depicted with luxuriant, knee-length, auburn hair, which is used to hide more than is being revealed in this breathtaking 15th century piece of art.

Thus, over the ages, with the balance of power between the two genders being heavily lopsided against women, long hair has been emblematic of all things fertile and safely ‘feminine’, while short hair has naturally been given short shrift, with its underlying iconoclastic underpinnings. In present day, the nuisance value associated with short hair sometimes reaches ridiculous proportions and at other times, crosses all limits of incredulity.

A case in point is Roosh V, the founder of a ‘pickup artistry’ website popular among men’s rights activists in the US. Last week, Roosh V posted a blog, in which he claimed that the state might be better served preventing women from committing a violent act of self-harm: Getting a short haircut! Roosh V made headlines last year with his advocacy of decriminalising “the violent taking of a woman” on private property (otherwise known as “rape”) in order to teach women to take responsibility for their actions. Here is how Roosh’s recent diatribe against pixie cuts, which the ‘pickup artist’ considers to be a universal sign of ‘mental illness requiring immediate intervention’, went: “If a woman cuts her hair to a short length, or shaves it outright in a Skrillex haircut, we can now confidently say that she is making herself appear less fertile, less beautiful, and less healthy. A woman cutting off healthy hair is one step away from literal cutting of her skin with a sharp object, because both behaviours denote a likely mental illness where the woman presents herself to society as more damaged than her genetic condition would indicate, suggesting that she has suffered environmental damage that has reduced her overall fitness. She must be monitored by state authorities so she doesn’t continue to hurt herself.”

In light of this tirade, women with more grey matter than hair on their scalp will be raring to go to the next hair salon. Whether they settle for a pixie cut or a Skrillex hairdo or end up meeting their very own Edward Scissorhands while at it, is serendipitous and the long and short of it.