In a tiny 8ft by 14 ft shop in Bengaluru, Marisetty Kumar has been weaving hope for cancer patients one wig at a time.
When Sarala (name changed) was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, the 50-year-old’s world came crashing down. It was a chance checkup at a hospital that led to the diagnosis. As she made up her mind to fight the disease, what she wasn’t prepared for was the hair loss from chemotherapy.
“While I was mentally prepared for nausea, vomiting and other side effects of chemo, what I wasn’t ready for was the hair loss. I’ve always prided myself on my thick hair and wore it long until my treatment. It took me a lot of time to come to terms with this side effect, and it wasn’t till I wore a wig that I felt like myself again,” says Sarala.
An estimated 13.9 lakh people had cancer in India in 2020, as per a National Cancer Registry Programme, India report. And cases have only been increasing every year. Along with the harrowing physical effects of treatment, hair loss is one of the things that most affects patients psychologically.
In such cases, wigs act as a much-needed respite for most cancer patients.
And one man has made it his life’s mission to provide hope to cancer patients, one wig at a time. In one of the busy lanes of JC Nagar in Kurubarahalli, Bengaluru, lies ‘Natural Wig Works’. This humble 8 ft by 14 ft shop has crafted wigs for more than 12,000 cancer patients in the past 16 years.
Finding purpose in life
It was a chance encounter that led Marisetty Kumar into the world of wigs. Born to a farming family in Belakavadi, Mandya could only study till class 8 due to financial constraints. He would graze cattle near the Shivanasamudra Falls, where a lot of film shootings would take place. It was there that he befriended a make-up artist, Shivaji.
“I would see Shivaji at work. He would make wigs, moustaches, etc for the actors. It was fascinating for me. As I didn’t know anything other than farming, I was piqued by this new profession. When Shivaji asked me if I would work with him, I jumped at the opportunity. I went with him to Chennai (then Madras) and learnt the art of wig-making,” says the 47-year-old.
It was in 1996 that Kumar moved to Chennai. After learning the ropes from Shivaji, he moved to Bengaluru and started making wigs for movie stars of Sandalwood. While the glam world of cinema provided plenty of opportunities to this wig-maker, what it lacked was contentment.
But purpose came knocking at his door in the form of a cancer patient.
“While working in the film industry, I met a cancer patient. She was losing hair due to chemotherapy and was in a lot of distress. She asked me if I could make a wig for her. I immediately took her measurements and made a wig for her. I can never forget the joy on her face as she wore the wig. It was absolutely priceless,” smiles Kumar.
After that day, he decided to dedicate his time, effort and energy to making wigs for cancer patients. He opened his shop in 2006. Through word of mouth and contact with doctors, Kumar kept getting orders from cancer patients.
The speciality of his wigs is that they are completely natural. He sources hair from Tirupati and Kolkata. Making a wig is a long process that takes at least 4-5 days, says his wife Lalitha, who assists him.
“Once we get the hair, we sort it – lengthwise and by thickness. It is then cleaned, boiled and washed in water. Using a base which sticks to the scalp, the wig is handwoven, one strand at a time. The base itself takes about two days, and it takes three days to stitch the hair on it and make the wig,” says Lalitha.
Each wig is sold at a starting price of Rs 10,000, depending on length and thickness.
Kumar takes the measurements for locals while for people from other states and countries, he asks them to send measurements via WhatsApp. Lalitha proudly says that they have customers from across the world.
However, this profession comes with its set of challenges. Synthetic wigs, which are ready-made and cheaper, have caused a huge dent in his business. The pandemic has further added to his woes.
“We used to be very busy earlier, having orders almost daily. We have catered to 12,000 cancer patients to date. Now, because of these readymade wigs, our business has been hit. We hardly get orders. I had three people working for me, but due to the pandemic, they left two years ago. I have not called them back as I don’t have enough for myself, how can I pay them,” says Kumar.
The wig-maker, who has a five-year-old son, says that he can’t afford to give wigs away for free as he did earlier, because he has to pay for his child’s education.
“Many times in the past, when patients don’t have money to pay for wigs, we have made it for free. Once, a patient paid advance money but didn’t have enough to pay for the rest. So, we didn’t ask for it as we didn’t want to burden them. Even now, if patients ask for a discount, we give it. We don’t work for profits, just enough to pay the shop rent and eat some ragi mudde (a popular meal in Karnataka). Even with Rs 1000 profit per wig, we will manage,” says Kumar.
The smile on the faces of the patients is enough reward for this wig-maker.
Find Natural wig works at 119, 6th Main road, 12th cross, JC Nagar, Near Sathayanarayana Choultry, RV English school, Kurubarahalli, Bengaluru. You can contact him on +91-9980043121.
Edited by Yoshita Rao