Hues of change

  • Elegant yet comfortable: Hema Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre sporting a costume designed by Sandhya Raman | Picture Courtesy Sandhya Raman
  • Layers of complexity: Dancer Krithika Subramanian shows the different pieces in a bharatnatyam costume | R.G. Sasthaa

From the traditional nine-yard sari to an easy-to-wear tailored garment, the bharatnatyam costume has evolved

It is 7.30 in the evening. There is a slight chill in the air, which trails you even as you enter the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha auditorium at T Nagar in Chennai. Soon, however, the smell of fresh jasmine flowers, the rustle of silk saris and the jhal-jhal sound of the salangai (ghungroo) warm the spirits. From behind the drawn curtains, you could hear the sound of musicians tuning their instruments and the nervous chatter of the dancers. The audience, too, is busy chatting away in a hush-hush manner. Once the curtain is raised, however, the audience goes silent briefly and then loud cheers of 'oohs' and 'aahs' fill the air.

Dressed in a mustard yellow and lime green bharatnatyam costume, dancer Krithika Subramanian elegantly walks towards the statue of Lord Nataraja with fresh flowers in her hand. The stunning style and striking colours of the costume catch the eye.

Finding the right musical piece is important for a performance. Similarly, picking the perfect costume or aaharya, as the bharatnatyam costume is called, is crucial. Over the years, both seasoned dancers and freshers have been experimenting with their costumes. In Chennai, the Margazhi season is the time when one gets to see all the latest innovations in the costume, in its colour, texture, fabric or design. While dancer Priyadarsini Govind goes for specially designed costumes, Anita Ratnam tries to incorporate elements from the festival theme in her costume. Malavika Sarukkai, on the other hand, uses her costumes to express her love for minimalism by picking light-weight material, mostly in sedate colours. And, Alarmel Valli likes to stick to the traditional outfit, but experiments with colours.

Gone are the days when the basic red, green, blue and maroon colours ruled the stage. Dancers today are open to experimenting with colours and designs, but without disturbing the traditional aspects of the dance form.

Subramanian, who set up NaMaargam Dance Company, has done dance productions across the world and won critical acclaim. One reason for it, she says, is the attention she pays to her costumes and jewellery. For Swapnam, a dance production for which music maestro Ilayaraja did the score, Subramanian incorporated colours worn by the gypsies in her costumes to tell the story of a devout tribe. She also used the trishul as a motif and got a trishul tattoo on her neck. The jewellery, too, was handcrafted by the real gypsies with beads and brass and terracotta material.

69SandhyaRaman Designer Sandhya Raman working on a costume | Aayush Goel

“I design the costumes for all my concerts. If it is a group performance, I take more time to design as the colour and the style have to go with the stage backdrop and the concept,” says Subramanian, who is a trained architect.

She starts by doing rough sketches on the board in her studio and doesn't stop till she is happy with the outcome. Then she goes out to buy the fabric, mostly pure silk in bright colours. Next, she takes the material to V.S. Sivakumar, who runs Aiyyelu Tailors, one of the most sought-after bharatnatyam costume tailoring units in Chennai.

Located in Nandanam, a posh neighbourhood, Aiyyelu Tailors was started by Sivakumar's father, Aiyyelu, who supplied costumes to the Tamil film industry. He was especially good at designing bharatnatyam costumes. “My father has worked with Vyjayanthimala, Kumari Kamala and Rukmini Devi Arundale, who gave a new twist to the nine-yard sari,” says Sivakumar. At 90, Aiyyelu is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the shop, but he likes to visit the shop and see Sivakumar working with new designs and patterns.

The costume has come a long way, from the nine-yard sari to the stitched pyjama with the pleated fan and trendy kachams (neatly woven fabric worn around the bosom) made from a mix of different fabrics. It was Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra, who came up with the idea of creating a tailored dress or pyjama-style costume that would make moving around easy for the dancers. “The tailored costumes were comfortable for the dancers who performed in Tamil cinema as they could easily slip in and slip out of them,” says V.V. Ramani, architect and designer, who is doing research on different dance costumes and their evolution over the years.

If dancer-turned-actor Kumari Kamala made bharatnatyam popular through her movies, it was Vyjayanthimala who brought in innovation in the costume. Sivakumar remembers the time when his father used to accompany Vyjayanthimala to her dance shows and make trendy costumes for her performances. What further strengthened the trend was the entry of the Travancore sisters—Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini—into cinema. Apart from the Kanjeevaram silk saris and the skirt-sari style, the sisters experimented with newer fabrics like chiffon, georgette and brocade, and check prints.

Dancer Sudharani Raghupathy brought about another significant change. She made the blouse sleeves short and matched them with the sari's border. “Her coloured sleeves have been an inspiration for me in designing my costumes,” says Subramanian, who trained under Raghupathy.

Earlier, designers drew inspiration from paintings and sculptures to create saris, which were meant for intimate settings like a temple. Over the years, however, it has moved to the proscenium for the consumption of a larger audience. Today, the conceptualisation of costumes is based on a variety of factors, including character, mood, fabric, light, sets and space.

The designers are incorporating the best of all the innovations to come up with costumes that are graceful yet practical. Take Sandhya Raman, for instance, who creates costumes to suit a dancer's body shape and movements on the stage. “The theme decides the colour palette for me,” says Raman. “I love every colour, all one needs to know is when, where and how to use it. New fabrics give you a different dimension. Whether as a stimulant, pacifier or soother, each colour is a start of a journey.”

Dancers usually prefer finely woven handloom cotton saris for rehearsals and heavy silk saris for stage performances. “It is time for a design intervention and re-examination of the generic costume for a more personalised version,” says Raman. “Although the generic style of draping allows the body to move, stretch and bend easily, it doesn't take into account the dancer’s shifting body contour—from that of a slender teenager to a full-bodied woman. Having said that, I would like to add that understanding the aesthetics and applying sensitivity and sensuous elegance within a context is very challenging.”

Pyjama pants
Small fan for the waist
A single, big fan or a three-step fan
Some dancers wear a kacham or neatly woven fabric around the bosom instead of the pallu
A back piece, which usually goes with the fan colour

Dress code
There are two types of bharatnatyam costumes for women: skirt-sari style and pyjama style. Generally worn during rehearsals, the skirt-sari style costume comes up to the knees and is worn above pyjama pants. Most dancers prefer handloom saris because they are very comfortable to wear and the fabric gives room for doing leaps and jumps. The pyjama style, on the other hand, is the formal costume worn during the actual performance. It has a neatly frilled fan that is attached to the pyjama pants. It has a thavani style of blouse where the pallu is stitched in front. The costume is made from silk saris with golden zari and embroidery designs.

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