She’s Leading India’s Curl Revolution

Asha Barrak turned an influential blog into a line of hair care products.

Source Ned Colin

Why you should care

Because it's time to embrace your curls.

OZY's Hair! series checks out the glorious mane as the main event. Stories from the fringe: OZY's Hair! series looks at the politics of locks.

It’s not uncommon for Asha Barrak to walk down a street and get stopped. It’s her hair that catches people’s attention. Strangers will look adoringly at the tightly coiled curls and seek permission to touch it. “I am often mistaken for an African American or a South American because people can’t believe that I’m from India and have hair like this,” she says. “I enjoy proving them wrong.”

Barrak, 37, knows what it is like to subvert expectations. The Indian ideal for beauty prizes long, straight hair. For the most part, curly hair is considered ugly, unnatural and indicative of women likely to cause trouble and break rules. It is rare to find women or men with curly hair in popular media, be it television, films or music.

So when she began her curly-haired journey, Barrak was an exception. Here was a woman unafraid of embracing her curls and helping others to do the same. “I just wanted to be the change,” she says.

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Curly and proud.

Source Ned Colin

A decade in, and the former software engineer has become quite the influencer, though she abhors the word. She stakes a claim for being one of the first bloggers in India to talk about curly hair, by launching Right Ringlets in 2014. A year later, she created the Facebook group Indian Curl Pride (ICP) to “share experiences with others on the same hair care journey.” Earlier this year, she introduced what’s considered India’s first curly-haired brand, Ash:ba Botanics. She is a true Curly Girl.

Once I knew how to maintain curly hair, I was a changed person.

Asha Barrak

In 2002, hairstylist Lorraine Massey released Curly Girl: The Handbook. It championed the CurlyGirl (or #CG) Method, a healthy hair care regimen designed to treat naturally curly hair. It was designed to highlight the societal pressure on girls and women to have straight hair, long considered the ideal beauty standard. It struck a chord with Barrak. “I know the everyday struggle of having unmanageable hair,” she says.

Barrak grew up in a small town, Chhachhrauli, in Haryana state. She would wash her hair with soap, comb it out and keep it tied or cut short. Her hair earned her nicknames in school. At hair salons, she was told that “nothing can be done for your hair.” She started using conditioner in college but still kept her hair tied. At the time, medicine and engineering were the two “happening” career choices, so she followed the herd into the latter and proved good at it. Then, a work trip to Chicago in 2008 changed everything. “I met so many people with defined and different kinds of curls. They were so proud of their hair. I wanted to be like that,” she says. Back home, she spent time researching the Curly Girl (CG) Method for hair treatment, learning about ingredients and experimenting with styles and products. “Once I knew how to maintain curly hair, I was a changed person. It gave me so much confidence that I wanted to share that feeling,” she says.

It took her a few years to get confident enough to share. In 2014, Barrak was in Singapore having quit her job in India to raise her second child (her kids are now 9 and 6). She started Right Ringlets to guide curly girls to the “right” way to treat their hair. She would write blog posts, shoot videos on her iPad and reply to people’s queries. There were very few curly hair bloggers and hardly any readers. “When I started blogging, some thought it was a product that I was selling to convert straight hair to curly,” says Anjana Muralidharan, the Netherlands-based software engineer who blogs at Curls and Beauty Diary and credits Barrak for popularizing the form.

“Her blog gave me insight on what to do, what was available, how to read ingredients and what was affordable,” says Delhi-based IT engineer, Deepika Joshi, who moonlights as Desi Curly and is a familiar face in the curly-haired blogging/social media space. “I learned everything from her blog.”

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Products from Ashba Botanics

Source Ashba Botanics

The Facebook group played its part too. ICP now boasts 43,000 members and several offshoots, including curly girl meetups. Members swap stories and advice on hair care, and share their struggles and successes.

“There is a definite shift in the way people are viewing curly hair, and it has affected all parts of the market,” says Lekha Shah, founder and art director of The Cut Collective salons. The biggest takeaway from the CG movement and Barrak’s work in India, she adds, is “telling people to embrace and learn how to work with their hair, rather than working against it.”

Change is coming from all directions. Curlies are becoming influencers on social media. Straightening treatments aren’t as popular. Stylists know how to treat curly hair. Existing hair care brands are launching specific curly hair products. There are websites that sell imported CG-friendly products.

And now comes Barrak’s India-based Ash:ba Botanics. It took four years of researching and formulating ingredients to create the gel and leave-in conditioner, which she tested on herself. The limited release of Ash:ba’s products sold out immediately. “The reputation of a product usually comes after repeated use. Here, it preceded the launch. We bought Ash:ba because we respected and trusted Asha,” says Joshi.

Barrak is now based in London, where she is struggling to adjust her CG routine to the cold and wet weather — she uses an air heater to keep herself warm and dry her hair. When not juggling two kids and household chores, she finds time to garden; weekends are reserved for travel.

Next in line for Ash:ba, which retails online and via platforms like Amazon, are a shampoo and conditioner. Barrak’s Instagram feed is full of happy — and repeat — customers. The curly girl market isn’t a big one in India as yet, so Barrak’s profits are marginal. (She declined to share exact figures.)

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Source Ned Colin

For now, her sales are mostly confined to India’s urban areas — not the kind of places where she grew up. But the movement is spreading, from salons to the media. “We see more curly hair models in print media and many fashion shoots today,” she says. “It will encourage future generations if we see people accepting that curly and wavy texture is as normal as straight hair.”

Barrak — and her ‘Indian Curl Pride’ — serve as the prime example.  

Asha Barrak’s top three tips for maintaining curly hair

  • Conditioner-only washing isn’t enough. Include shampoo in your routine to cleanse hair regularly so products can work better. Clarify based on your hair’s needs. 
  • Use hair masks or deep conditioning for extra dry and colored hair — at least once a week. 
  • To minimize frizz and enhance curls, style in soaking wet hair. Styling products are absorbed and work better if hair is properly wet.

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