What is the first thing that one notices when the curtains go up and lights shine on the dancer? 100 marks if you say the costume! To be honest, it’s the first thing I notice before the dancer creates magic on the stage. The costume of a dancer is probably one of the first visual input the brain processes, and then more gray cells fire up with assimilating the visuals of the starting pose or his/her entry on stage. As the performance progresses, ones delves deeper into technical aspects.
Aaharya (the ornamental/decorative part)  is an important part of Bharatanatyam. The choice of colors, the stitch, and the draping style tell two things about the dancer. First, their taste/preference in how they present themselves and the second thing is whether a new fashion statement is being made on stage. Or it can be the motivation of bringing back long-forgotten styles in vogue. For some dancers, costumes are pet-peeves. (Come on, Admit it! :)) For others, costumes become a serious obsession. With the “season” around the corner, many dancers might already have decided what costume to wear for their upcoming performances.
This post is about Bharatanatyam costumes with some interesting tidbits. I will be barely touching upon jewelry, now and then. So, this will be the first part of a sub-series within the historical snippets series. For this three-part series, I am supremely grateful to Rajkiran Pattanam for accepting my request to color some of the images. Thanks!
In the book “The Mirror of gesture” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a translation of Abhinaya darpana of Nandikeshwara, among the qualifications of a dancer (Pg 15 of this book) does not include eye-catching costumes . But, the book mentions vicchilli: the rearrangement of dress or jewels to enhance loveliness by a heroine. This gesture is indicated as part of the Sringara bhava. Thus, the costume with deft handling helps in enhancing/embellishing the mood. No brainer, there.
According to Natyasastra, the 23rd chapter is devoted to costume and makeup (Pg 410 of Manmohan Ghosh edition) . it describes the ornaments the color of the costume for each character. See Pg 418-19 for description. The list is as follows:
Siddha women – yellow color
Gandharva women – saffron color
Rakshasa women – black color
Goddesses – parrot green color
Female monkey character – blue color
The women in viraha are supposed to wear white color
In the book “Bharatanatya and its costume” published in 1958 by G. S. Ghurye there is a chapter devoted to current costume trends. According to Sarangadeva the adornment of a dancer [4, 5] is mentioned that
For the bosom, she should have the short coli [choli or blouse] and she should clothe her body in milky white silk cloth; in the alternative, she should put on the cola the long gown-like coat.
We will see this “cola” or the long gown-like coat shortly.
To get a visual picture let’s look at some sculptures. Looking back, we see the following:
2nd to 1st century BC
The costume below waist of the Bharhut dancer , shown above, indicates the use of the kacham style. Along with that the jewelry forming a fan like structure. But, the fish-tail of the kacham style worn by this dancer can be seen. This fish tail reaches till the feet.
The upper part while bare, has some variety indicated. While two dancers has a jewelry that is worn like the scared thread (yagnopavitam) the image below shows another dancer with an X shaped jewelry that accentuates the chest area. Another dancer also wears the same type of jewelry.
For some of us, imagining sculptures in its colorful glory is hard. So, in this post I have tried to bridge that gap. Here is the sculpture visualized only in the colorized costumes and jewelery.
Another sculpture from the same period, shown below, is currently in the The Metropolitan Museum of Art .
The Shunga period terracotta sculpture shows the dancer’s costume in more detail. She is wearing a more tightly wound costume that is highly pleated from the waist down. The fish-tail is not missing here, but shown behind the legs to indicate movement. Also, there are sashes seen coming from the waist. On the left thigh, it looks like a jewelry is being worn by her.
While not bare-chested(?) there is some indication of a blouse. Across the upper part, she is wearing a thicker rope-like accessory that is about to slip from her shoulder. This indicates the practice of a sacred thread like accessory as part of the costume.
5th to 7th century AD
If you remember the “cola” that was mentioned earlier by G. S. Ghurye, then you can see example of how a cola (a long gown-like coat) in the Ajanta mural depicting the Mahajanaka jataka .
A sculpture dating to the same period shows a dancer with a cola, worn over a tight pants. The reason I come to the conclusion that she is wearing a cola is because the alternating crescent-like textile motif is seen both in upper and lower garments. The pants have a simple checkered but wavy design. [Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh, National museum, New Delhi] 
Another sculpture of the same period, shows another style of dance costume in vogue. In this the dancer is wearing skin-tight pants with a small fan at the hip. The pants is similar to the current day dance costumes that have equal spaced stripes of another color than the color of the costume. [details from an architrave, Gwalior Museum] 
The upper part of the costume consists of a dupatta that is tied in a knot. It covers the bare chest and the flowing end of it adds an extra charm to the costume and the dancer.
7th to 12th century AD
The following images are from the Chidambaram temple in Tamilnadu that has numerous bas-reliefs of dancers, specifically in the Amman temple . We will stick to two types of costumes that are frequently seen in the temple sculpture.
The first type of costume looks like a shorts with a single fan in the center. They are not plain and simple looking. They are highly accessorized with flowing sashes tied to the sides, tied in a knot.
The below picture also depicts a variant of the shorts-like costume. It has a small fan in the front. One can see that the shorts above reach above the knee, while the one below the shorts are relatively shorter. Here is Rajkiran’s color interpretation of the same sculpture.
Full image here
It is surprising to realize that dancers wore shorts baring their sleek shanks and knees! At this point, I would like to recollect what the famous dancer Chandrabhaga Devi told in an interview. When she and her husband, U S Krishna Rao were in Pandanallur learning from Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, she would wear her husband’s short pants, a blouse and an odhni over it. This was because with a saree, Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai would not be able to tell if she was having the correct position of her knees and feet. 
The second type of costume seen in Chidambaram is similar to current dance costume. In the sculpture below, we can clearly note the striped design on the costume. The front fan is not pleated but something that resembles a tie.
In this sculpture, the pleats on the costume is clearly seen . This type is very much in vogue today in the pyjama style.
Both the costumes are worn like the kaccham style. Like the earlier image, this dancer also has sashes tied in a knot flowing from the sides of her hip.
12th to 13th century AD
The following sculpture dated to 12th to 13th century AD is unique. As you see that it depicts a dancer (supposedly Mohini) who is in the process of adorning herself. She has bedecked herself and as the final touch, she is wearing the salangai/anklets to begin dancing. Notice that she is wearing a breast-band.
14th to 16th century AD
The Vijayanagara period sculptures have numerous depiction of dance and covering every sculpture would be a huge task. We will see one sculpture as an example. This sculpture is in the Prahalada Varadan temple, Lower Ahobilam [From personal collection]. The dancer is wearing a skirt-like costume that is heavily pleated. The sculpture’s depiction of the costume gives the impression that this skirt has elastic property.
Apart from the customary bells, she is wearing a decorative belt that has small bells hanging to it. In contrast, the upper part of the dancer is equally interesting.
She is wearing a heavily embroidered and bejewled brassiere. There is a slight indication that she is wearing a long choli/blouse that runs beyond the elbow, but stops at mid-forearm. But, it could be a armband. Click here to see more images of dance sculptures from the Vijayanagara period. 
17th century AD
As we change to the subsequent centuries, the dancer’s costume also is seen changing. In the sculpture below (from Bhaktavatsala Perumal temple, Tirukkannamangai, Nagapattinam) , the dancer’s costume is very much recognizable. It is the three fan dance costume, seen quite regularly these days. This image is reproduced with permission from the photo archive of American Institute of Asian Studies.
This period is also the time when Nayaka style of sculpture flourished in the south. The baroque themed sculptures, rich in detail and ornamentation are a delight to look at. For instance, this apsara/dancer in the Ramaswami temple at Kumbakonam shows the eye for detail. 
The chunky thigh-belt like jewelry apart, the dancer is wearing the bells on her shanks. The costume is pleated with a single central fan. Since she is an apsara, her upper body is bare. But, compensating for that is a huge headgear made of flowers that is thrice the size of her head!
Click here to see more Nayaka period dance sculptures.
Here are some more images that depict dancer’s costumes.
Image courtesy: photo archive of American Institute of Asian Studies. and Wikimedia Commons [17, 18]
- Bharatanatya and its costume 1958 by G. S. Ghurye http://www.dli.gov.in/scripts/FullindexDefault.htm?path1=/data7/upload/0183/931&first=1&last=96&barcode=2020050006003
- Ajanta Paintings – Appreciation of Mahajanaka Jataka http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2BNlME92Tg
- Incredible India series. Arrested Movement: Sculpture and Painting. Kapila Vatsyayan 2007 Wisdom Tree. (http://www.amazon.com/Arrested-Movement-Sculpture-Painting-Incredible/dp/8183280668)
- Sruti Issue 250 Published July 2005 http://sruti.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=4_6&products_id=221
- Indian Classical Dance, Kapila Vatsyayan 1992, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India (http://books.google.com/books/about/Indian_classical_dance.html?id=B2G1AAAAIAAJ)
- American Institute of Indian Studies photo archive (http://dsal.uchicago.edu/images/aiis/)