The latest shade of grey


The latest shade of grey

The common strand between 50-plus Geetu Hinduja, a singer and art curator, 33-year-old Jaideep Sippy, gourmand and founder of wellness food company Missisippy, and 21-year-old model Merrylin Boro is their fondness for grey-platinum hair. Between Hinduja’s chic silver, Sippy’s shock of salt and Boro’s platinum-blonde edges, you could count, well, what else but 50 shades of grey.

Mumbai-based Hinduja, who began colouring her hair in her late 20s, stopped when she was 34 “to look like the woman she was”; Sippy because he was growing out of the vanities of youth. Boro dyed the ends of her hair platinum because she was fascinated by some young people she met abroad who wore grey hair. “I don’t follow mainstream fashion anyway,” adds Boro. In her younger days, Hinduja was fussy about her hair, trying to conform to her earlier lifestyle, which was a lot about how people looked, but found herself rebelling. “Keeping my hair natural was a part of that rebellion,” she says.

At a time when ageism is amassing critics but the pressure to look young is immense, some people are happy with grey hair whatever their age. Most say being trendy isn’t about a stamp from fashion magazines, popular culture and glamour icons. From an earlier generation, former Miss India Nafisa Ali Sodhi and Laila Tyabji, chairperson of crafts organization Dastkar, who is still on most stylish lists of publications, were examples. Before them there was Bharatanatyam dancer Chandralekha, with her silver head and large, kohl-laced eyes.

But if un-dyed hair was associated with feminists like Urvashi Butalia, activists like Medha Patkar, “serious” film people like Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, or those who kept vanity at bay, like the fiery photographer Dayanita Singh, today it symbolizes alternative style. “I see the preference to keep naturally grey hair as a bit of a backlash to growing ageism and I also think one looks fabulous with the changes that age brings,” says Nishat Fatima, editor of Harper’s Bazaar India.

Fatima first got grey hair when she was 11. She tried all sorts of cuts and trims but never coloured it. “I did get a bit concerned when I turned 30, till I decided I was going to wear it natural,” she says. Her sleek, short, salt and pepper hair gets her many nods in the fashion industry, which is generally believed to be prejudiced towards youthful glamour. Rod Anker, director of Monsoon Salons in New Delhi, says he has clients, especially men, who ask for artificial grey mixed with natural black to look distinct.

“Men have actually asked me if my hair is dyed grey and who has done it,” says Sippy. “Even five years back, people wanted to establish themselves as part of a collective notion of style. Now, it is about self-image and your own dynamic and grey hair is climbing up in that chain of aspiration,” adds Sippy, who too got his first greys at the age of 11. He coloured his hair for many years, and then shaved it off one day. When his hair grew back, it was salted, and he kept it.

Premature greying in the late 20s is common now, but not being able to keep up with elaborate, time-consuming rituals of weekly touch-ups, hair spas and expert maintenance is why most people give up hair colour. The market is saturated with good products that colour and condition simultaneously, unlike the opaque local hair dyes of the past which funnily only accentuated a person’s age. Now the more the options, the more the fuss and the frustration.

Ask the curly haired Archana Jain, who heads a public relations firm. “I started colouring my hair early as it was mousy brown, never really dark, and I was also into treatments like hair straightening. But after I turned 40, I realized I had no inclination to sit for a few hours every weekend at a hairdresser’s for touch-ups and hair treatments. So I gave it up,” says Jain, whose youthful face offers a curious contrast.

That’s also why Bangalore-based Suresh Selvaraj, 55, former president of a media company, stopped colouring his hair. “I couldn’t be bothered with the effort to look young, especially given my job profile where grey hair is taken more seriously. Besides, middle age is the time to give up pretensions of all kinds and colouring hair doesn’t work with that approach,” says Selvaraj.

Selvaraj was inundated with mixed judgements once his grey hair began showing. Many of his women friends began to comment on his “distinctive” looks. Ditto for Jain. “I wear my grey hair with all kinds of clothes, from saris to shorts, and the compliments have prevented me from going back to hair colour,” she says.

Hinduja would agree. “My grandmom freaked out when she saw my grey hair, also because my mother had very few greys. Otherwise, once I stopped colouring, older people around me felt threatened whereas younger ones were quite appreciative. Once someone asked, ‘which is real: the hair or the face?’, and I didn’t know if it was an insult or a compliment,” she recalls with amusement.

Undoubtedly, the acceptance and embrace of grey is limited. In the West, the 50-plus actor and groom-to-be George Clooney may have gone salt and pepper or Gaga Grey could be the name of a hair shade, but in India, even 92-year-old thespian Dilip Kumar colours his hair, and the majority does not agree that grey spells great looks. They argue that fitter bodies and youthful dressing do not resonate with greying hair.

“Why just stars, look at TV journalists. Except for Rajdeep Sardesai, so many news anchors colour their hair. They are intelligent people, not vain victims of glamour. Grey hair is a spoiler in the visual medium and getting my daily dose of current affairs from ‘oldies’ would ruin it,” says 26-year-old Nishtha C., a media student who consciously styles herself like Nidhi Razdan, a senior editor at NDTV.

Razdan, in turn, says: “I haven’t seen a trend where people are okay with grey hair. Nor do I think that people take you more seriously if your hair is grey. My hair started greying in parts when I was 30. Now I am 37 and I love experimenting with hair colours. I also don’t agree that we are becoming kinder to age. There is the pressure to look young for many.” She adds that she doesn’t colour her hair for the visual medium she works in but for herself.

The market remains anti-grey. “Hair colour is growing year on year,” says Ritoo Jhha, editor and publisher of the Beauty Launchpad magazine, citing market research firm Mintel’s projection that the Indian hair colour market will grow by 110% by 2016 from a base of $382 million (around Rs.2,290 crore) in 2012. “Having done a quick salon survey recently across 200 premium salons in India, we find that men as much as women colour their hair regularly,” adds Jhha.

Till the market changes colour, people like Hinduja, Sippy, Jain, Selvaraj and Fatima will be seen as mavens of the grey market. They admit it in black and white.