Bright yellow… lime green… off-white… the dress matters as much as the dance. On those indispensable craftsmen, who make the art come alive. Kausalya Santhanam in her Report in The Hindu
December is the springtime of opportunity for costumers for classical dance in Chennai. There is frenzied activity in their tiny studios as machines hum ceaselessly to complete the costumes that will bring a collective gasp from the audience. Many of them have transcended the boundary from being skilled craftsmen to artistes in their own right. Their services, honed by years of practice and knowledge of their clients’ tastes, are much sought after. As NRIs flock home like nesting birds and the art of Bharatanatyam fans out across the globe, there is great demand for their expertise.
Escalating costs have seen the traditional Kanchipurams being replaced mostly by Dharmavaram silks with half fine zari. Tighter purse strings see the appearance of synthetics which mimic the real more closely than before.
Of primary importance is the fit. However expensive the material if the lines are not neat, both comfort and aesthetics are lost. Most tailors in this field are specialists who do not supplement their earnings by tailoring other garments.
It has been a gradual climb up the ladder for most of them. But Aiyyelu is the king of dance costumers. At 80 plus, his enthusiasm is as undimmed as ever.
K. Rajagopal, who trained under Aiyyelu, now runs his own unit in Adyar. “Previously the costume used to be draped like a sari. It was Aiyyelu who broke it into its component parts so that it would be easy to wear. The fan has evolved in length and in number. The skirt, pyjama and sari styles all have takers though the skirt and sari type are more popular.”
He can hardly reply to two questions before an NRI customer descends on his shop. Rekha is full of praise for the manner in which he fulfilled the orders of her teacher in California. “My guru sent the measurements of her students to him and the dresses fitted us perfectly,” she exclaims.
The internet has brought about a revolution in this field. “Customers specify colours or send us samples. We get the saris from leading textile shops, photograph them and send them by email to the customers. They in turn give their approval and design and we deliver them by courier,” says Rajagopal. Customers’ ideas are garnished by costumers’ suggestions.
“The orders that come to us in December will keep us busy for the next six months at least,” he says. A costume generally costs around Rs.2,500 to tailor. Rajagopal’s whole family is involved in the enterprise.
K. Raghu, proprietor of Uma Dresses and the son of a school teacher in Triplicane, remembers being fascinated by the work of tailors in his neighbourhood. “I picked up the needle once in a shop as a child and it has stuck to my finger ever since.” After tailoring the usual blouses and other garments, he joined the employ of Amarjyoti Tailors, a byword in dance costumes in the past (it has since closed shop). As his expertise grew, he decided to set up his own shop in Triplicane and later shifted to Adyar.
The Dhananjayans and Nandini Ramani were among the first clients. Patronised by many dancers in the neighbourhood as well as from the Kalakshetra, he has his hands full often burning the candle at both ends to meet orders during the season. “It is difficult to find assistants to do this work as it requires specialised cutting and intricate pleating.” Styles and formats of presentation change. And dance dramas bring in variety and challenge, says these specialists.
Complete requirements Shanti Tailors near the Kapaleeswarar temple, Mylapore, prides itself on catering to the complete requirements of a dancer. Books, cassettes, practice saris, ready made costumes, anklets, jewellery and even bindis are neatly arranged in the spacious showroom which grew from a tailoring shop set up by proprietor T.V.S.Mani. The garish and the aesthetic coexist here.
“Our shop developed in response to customers’ needs,” says his son Siva, who along with his siblings (and Rajagopalan’s son Dinesh) typifies the younger generation of entrepreneurs — well educated, polite and computer savvy. “Ninety per cent of our customers are overseas.” He clicks on the computer to show how various designs and combinations can be selected on their website. “Orders which took a month to reach us in the past now take just five minutes. Customers identify with us like family members.”
These costumers are only a few of the many who cater to the needs of an art that increasingly finds fresh practitioners. Alexander of Ranjana Dance Designers in Mylapore is a third generation costumer while Naidu’s son in T. Nagar and G.J.R.Dresses in Triplicane are among leading ones who ply their trade in the narrow by lanes of some of the oldest parts of the city.
Seams of simplicity
Nothing seems to have changed in these 20 years since one met D.S.Aiyyelu for an interview. The patriarch of dance costumers sits in his little den in Seethamma Colony in Alwarpet with his assistants working in the alcove overhead. Grey haired and ra ther frail but as busy as ever at 80-plus. An uncanny feeling of déjÀ vu assails me. He does not appear to have lifted his head from the piece of fabric he was working on, only then the colour was deep yellow and now it is the fashionable lime green. He is carefully altering a seam while surrounded by a riotous profusion of materials. You glean more by his silences and humphs than his few words.Question him on his dedication to work and he replies with a twinkle in his eye,
“If I stop I will become lazy. Can you stop writing?” His replies are as sharp as ever while his fingers never stop moving and he threads the needle carefully. He remembers Gemini Studios in 1944 and his tutelage in the art of dance costumes under Master tailor Ambedkar.
“I left in 1946 to set up my own shop. I worked for Vyjayanthimala for many years.”
“Yes, there have been changes in the costume. It was loose then. Now it is close fitting”.
He talks of Padma Subrahmanyam . “Her father Director Subrahmanyam used to praise my work. I have stitched dresses for Padmini, Kamala and Rhadha.” Among present day leading dancers he tailors for are Sudharani Raghupathy and Malavika Sarukkai.
And so there is satisfaction?
“However much you work, will there be trupti? This art is like that,” he murmurs.
Has business expanded?
“My son is in the field and we have a shop in Nandanam Extension near Boston School. But we are not able to expand this shop. We would like to make improvements but are unable to get loan or permission.”
State recognition But something has definitely changed in the unit. The large photograph of Aiyyelu receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi award from President Abdul Kalam now looks down on you. “But I am in Tamil Nadu. The State’s recognition matters and the Kalaimamani… They say there is no category under which to bestow it,” he trails off.
But isn’t he happy about the award?
“Umm…yes. For working for so many years, there is only this.” But there, Aiyyelu is wrong. Leading dancers go into raptures over his work. He has the status of a legend in the world of classical dance.
It is impossible to talk to Aiyyelu and come away without being impressed by his dedication, his endearing taciturnity and his wry sense of humour.