Making an aesthetic statement with dance costumes

“What they wear is as important as what they present. So how do dancers make their choices?”,says Kausalya santhanam in her article featured in the Hindu

How much difference does the costume make to the impact of a classical dance performance? What are the factors that influence artists in their choice of colours and designs? Who are their designers? What are the changes that have been witnessed in th e field over the years? Leading dancers share their views with this correspondent: Vyjayantimala BaliWhen I performed my arangetram at the age of 13, I wore the pyjama style of costume. But my grandmother was very keen that I have a small parrot perched on each shoulder like the lovely Deepa Nachiyar (lamp).I still remember gazing at these figures each time I turned my head (laughs). I also remember having a costume where the emblem of the Mysore royals, the two-headed eagle, was embroidered on my blouse against a resplendent blue background. Initially though I had costume stitched by the young Aiyyelu, I later took to draping saris in many graceful ways. I was the first dancer to wear black and gold. I love bright colours and Kanchipurams. I am very adept with the needle and often stitch my own costume, sometimes sewing up to 2 a.m.

V.P.DhananjayanThe inspiration for our costumes is Kalakshetra and Rukmini Devi Arundale. My wife Shanta and I evolve our costumes continually by seeing sculptures not only in the country but also in Thailand and Cambodia and integrating them to the Indian aesthetic. The costume for the male dancer has come quite a long way from the earlier fan costume which used to be rather feminine. I started propagating the self tying one but since there was demand for the male oriented stitched costume, Aiyyelu began tailoring them. My costumes are all made by Aiyyelu and his disciples.

Sudharani Raghupathi One cannot overemphasise the importance of the costume for the success of a production. I get my costumes tailored by Aiyyelu as well as by Alexander of Ranjana Designers. I take many aspects into consideration — what suits me, how the lights play on the colour, the background of the stage and the mood of the item. We have to consider how the Indian skin takes on different hues. Shades of yellows, oranges and rusts suit us. Shot colours with pink are fine. Make up is important too. The first impression is very important and helps carry the performance till the end.

Chitra Visweswaran Chellam Pillai made my arangetram dress when I was a child. Now I give my dresses to his grand nephew Alexander of Ranjana designers in Mylapore to tailor. At the peak of my career, I had two looms running for me. I always wore the sari type of costume, not the skirt or pyjama. The emphasis should be on what suits the dancer. One of my innovations was using the Chinnalampatti art silk for dance. I had it block printed for “Devi Ashta Rasamalika.” Today it is easier to make costumes as so many different materials are available. It is important to be elegant and dignified. The costume should not only suit the dancer but also the item .

Alarmel ValliThe costume per se has become sleek; the pleats have become longer giving more height to the body. My tastes are austere and this is reflected in my costumes. I am very particular about texture, border, weaves, harmony of colours and designs. In the past there was a naturalness but now with “innovation,” the harmony is lost: saris in lovely colour combinations have pallus that don’t jell. Just as in dance, so too in costumes — when you add a new dimension it has to blend into the fabric. I like Kanchipurams and rich colours — peacock blue, deep oranges and reds. I always like narrow borders, now prefer less zari. I still like the pyjama style as I feel I have the figure to carry it off (she smiles). It is much more streamlined and sleek and adds height too. Aiyyelu is the master of masters. His suggestions are very good. When Madhavi Mudgal and I collaborated on this jugalbandhi of Odissi and Bharatanatyam, we worked on the costumes so that they complemented each other.

Anita Ratnam The changes in my costume for dance came about because my dance itself was shifting. The typical traditional Bharatanatyam costume is a reflection of a certain time period in the evolution of the form. The pyjama dress was suited to the time when the Margam was created and was fine for young girls. When we performed A.K..Ramanujam’s poems at the Kalakshetra, Samyukta Ramakrishna and I wore something like the practice costume to suit the mood of the poetry. For “Panchajanyam” (1993), I wore Bengal cottons and for “Gajanana,” with its folk forms and rhythm, we wore Kanchi cottons and polycot. The bangles and elephant mask were made from palm leaf by an NID student. For “Daughters of the Ocean,” Krishna Devanandan worked on an off -white palette; the dhotis and tunics were made by Nanda Devanesen. V.V.Ramani designed lovely costumes in subtle colours for me in “Adhirohana.” When you work with a costume designer it is important to collaborate with him/her; it is not like hiring a tailor. Later I started wearing leotards as they suit my long limbs. The magic for us is in the art of the unstitched costume. In ‘Faces” I looked at different drapes.

Malavika Sarukkai In terms of colour, my costume has changed — from the bright colours with contrasting borders to muted shades. Now since the dance language is prominent, my jewellery and costume are subdued. I mostly wear silk. Sometimes I change the fans to depict different scenes and add a dash of colour. It is like turning the page for a novel — to shift the mood and focus. For “Tejas,” I used a lot of abstract designs for the fans to suit the paintings. It was difficult to design costumes for this production as it was contemporary in flavour. I prefer the pyjama type because it gives room for movement and the sculpting of movement. Saris are graceful for padams or javalis where the focus is on abhinaya. I sometimes get the fans embroidered as I have done for my recent production “Kasi Yatra”.

Priyadarsini Govind The costume should not only be beautiful but also comfortable. The play of lights matters. Sometimes the lights are flat and so you should take that into account. I don’t like too much gold. Double shades are good as they take on sheen on stage. I like pinks, burnt orange and burnished gold. And I like to mix textures — tissue, brocade, silk and silk cotton. I prefer the pyjama style as it outlines the figure. And I like lovely blouses. Aiyyelu has been my costumer since my arangetram.

2 responses to “Making an aesthetic statement with dance costumes

  1. If someone can sent me the list of Bharatanatyam costume designers that would be great. being out of India it is very difficult to communicate the colors and pattern. If someone can send us the link for their websites. i would certainly appreciate it.

    thanks. shreya.

    Dear Shreya,
    A great suggestion indeed!
    At the outset though I am not very well informed, here are a few for immediate reference. will add more later… for GJR Dresses Shanthi Dance needs.
    Both these sites include patterns and an order form…

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