In 2011, Premi Mathew was at her family home in Kerala for a wedding, when she thought she had met the world’s youngest hippie – an eight-year-old with long hair named Dylan.

“Since he was visiting from the US, I thought maybe even at that tiny age he was making some kind of fashion statement,” said the 53-year-old former teacher. “Imagine my surprise, when his mom told me that he was growing his hair to donate it to a society, that makes wigs for cancer patients who can’t afford them.”

Inspired by that tiny ambassador of love, Mathew decided to set up Hair for Hope in 2013, a campaign that encourages people to donate their hair. It is a subsidiary of another campaign close to Mathew’s heart – Protect Your Mom, set up two years earlier, after Mathew saw a close family member suffer from breast cancer. Protect Your Mom urges young children to remind their mothers to regularly check for lumps and early signs of breast cancer, and visit the doctor for an annual checkup.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s GLOBOCAN 2012 report, over 537,000 cases of cancer were detected among women in India. “Since one in eight women is believed to develop cancer, early detection can go a long way in saving lives,” said Mathew.

Since Hair for Hope was launched in 2013, it has offered wigs to over 500 cancer patients in India.

While the campaign has attracted over 4,500 donors, what makes Mathew particularly proud is the fact that besides women and girls, young men too have been donating hair. Among the first to do so was a man named Rafsal KR, who had lost his mother to cancer in 2010.

“Although this wasn’t the only reason for me to donate hair, I think I just wanted to reach out to those with cancer,” said the 29-year-old, who runs his own startup in Bengaluru. While Rafsal enjoyed being able to grow his hair out for once, his father was far from happy. “As a child, I remember he’d get my hair closely cropped, so you can imagine his reaction – it was short of throwing me out of the house.”

Even if it is for a cause, Mathew realises that it is unusual, and often difficult, for men to grow their hair long. “Most professions do not allow male employees to have long hair,” she said.

Rafsal KR

“Requests for wigs come from different avenues like women’s organisations, hospitals, doctors and oncologists who are aware of our campaigns and work,” said Father Alex Praikalam, director of Sarga Kshetra, Hair for Hope’s partner in Kottayam, Kerala, that handles the production and distribution of wigs. “With the rising number of cancer cases in India, we need both hair donors as well as sponsors for wigs.”

To donate hair, Mathew said a minimum of 38 cm of clean, dry, non-chemically treated hair tied into a ponytail is required. However, Mathew asks all potential donors to wait for what she calls “a hair-cutting event” organised by Hair for Hope in colleges and malls – places that attract crowds.

“Donating your hair at these events generates a lot of interest among people and creates awareness about our work,” she said. “And, of course, it inspires others too to donate their hair for cancer patients.”

Once the hair collected at these events reaches Sarga Kshetra, Father Alex passes it on wig-makers in Bengaluru, Chennai and Ernakulum.

“The wigs normally cost over Rs 20,000, but rates are subsidised for us,” he said.

At present, the money for the wigs comes from various sponsors, including women’s organisations who organise fund-raising programmes to pay for them. Mathew, who lives in Dubai, has recently contacted engineers at the Dubai campus of BITS Pilani, asking them to create machine-made “nano wigs”, that she hopes will take care of the costs.

The first time Mumbai-based Lendle Sunny grew his hair long, was right after he finished his twelfth standard board examinations.

“I chopped it off because it was hard to maintain during the monsoon,” he said.

One day, while browsing online, Sunny came across Hair for Hope, and decided to donate his hair. At the time, his hair was still about three inches short of the stipulated 15 inches required for donation.

“That’s when my mother started helping me grow my hair by oiling it regularly,” he said with a smile.

Since he donated his hair, Sunny has been helping Mathew organise events for Hair for Hope in Mumbai.

“Awareness is still a long way off,” he said. “Most people associate long hair with style statements, or plan to shave it off at Tirupati.”

Fashionmonger Achu, before. Image: Seffin Philip

Fashionmonger Achu, a 26-year-old designer known for his long and thick hair, thanks to oiling and hair-spa treatments, said: “Many makeup artists would often cite my hair care regimen to those having a bad hair day.”

For his birthday in August 2015, Achu decided to present himself with a new look.

“My research took me to Mathew, and after a brief chat with her, I was convinced,” he said. At a function organised at the Cochin University in March 2016, Achu donated his hair, and was also able to meet some of the beneficiaries of Hair for Hope’s wigs. “Meeting them made my effort all the more worthwhile,” he said.

Hair-cutting events play a big part in attracting hair donors. Manish Chavan, an assistant director in Mumbai decided to donate his hair after the first schedule of his film, Mumbai Central, was completed.

Coincidentally, his hair had reached the exact stipulated length as the film drew to a close. On the day he donated his hair, he remembers a fleet of cars with his parents and friends landed up at the venue to cheer for him.

“For a guy like me who just about manages to find time to comb his hair, I had to actually schedule my shampoo-and-conditioning rituals because if you have to donate hair, you have to donate good hair,” he said. “But I’d do it again – after all, it’s just a few months of your life dedicated to a good cause.”

Manish Chavan