Dressed for dance

Rajiv Chandran

“If you ask any senior dancer, they can use a costume only thrice for performing, after which it is relegated for lecture-demonstration sort of purposes, and after the fifth use, it becomes useless,” said Rajiv Chandran, compering the inauguration of a unique exhibition in Bharatnatyam. That is why the exhibition was unique – it displayed many costumes of his wife, Bharatnatyam exponent Padma Shri Geeta Chandran, in the 40 years that she has been performing since her arangetram. Called ‘When The Pleats Dance’, the exhibition had been curated by Sandhya Raman, Geeta’s costume designer of many years. It was held between June 10 and 21 at Art Gallery, Kamala Devi Complex, IIC Delhi.

 When I heard of the exhibition, I wondered what it would be like. Aharyam for Bharatnatyam is strictly codified, and there is not much scope to vary one from the previous one, so I did not know what to expect, or what my response would be, to such an endeavour. But as I walked in, I had to catch my breath – there were costumes that had memories attached to them, some of pride, some of nostalgia. As I passed by each exhibit, they whispered their stories and the pleats fluttered to dance. I could probably feel Geeta’s emotions attached to each of them.

“We decided to use Sandhya Raman’s curatorial eye to put together a show,” Rajiv continued. “We never realised it would turn out to be such an elegant and beautiful show. Sandhya has been a part of the Natya Vriksha process for many years, and she makes these beautiful sketches from the first thought, some of which we like and some of which we don’t. That is the entire process – to design a costume that suits the choreography and personality of the dancer, the event at which it is going to be unveiled and the money that the dancer has. Finance is the most challenging thing for the young dancers of today. If we want young people to take up dance as a profession, we have to ensure that the finances are stabilised.”

Just as each of these costumes were curated and displayed by Sandhya Raman, I would like to curate each word to describe this exhibition. So let’s first venture on a journey of the exhibition.

Memories in cloth

The costume for Seasons, and the sketch for it (below)

The exhibition was divided into four decades. It started with black-and-white pictures of a very young Geeta in different mudras of dance. A few costumes and then the picture of a costume of a performance titled Seasons, where the group wore a black lower with pleats fringed with gold, and upper with rainbow colours. It was designed by Sandhya Raman and was for a piece on hope amid the desperation of global warming, set to some fiery Tchaikovsky.

         The costume for Shringara Vaibhavam, and it's sketch (below)

Opposite that was a costume with a black upper like a kurta, which was my favourite. That was from a performance called Shringara Vaibhavam, in which there was a piece highlighting the unusual narrative of a man pining for his priyatama, crafted by Geeta taking verses from Bilhana’s Chaura Pancasika text. For that piece, Sandhya designed a blue costume with a smart black waistcoat and a long gold-edged black scarf, to transform Geeta from a nayika to a nayak.

There was a centrepiece that had just the legs of mannequins wearing the lowers and the fans of 7-8 costumes, and the saris wrapped on them and draped like a pallu, converging on a point on the wall.

The centrepiece, with the 'lucky' costume (second from left) and Geeta's second costume ever (third from left)

Here was Geeta’s second costume in blue and a purple costume which had been lent to many students for their successful auditions – it was a lucky one. Next, there were headless cutouts of costumes behind which you could stand and pose for a picture, on which many visitors had their proud moments in Facebook.

The costume for Gandhi (above) and the sketch (below)

The next display was a wooden door used in a production called Dooti Vilasam, in and out of which Geeta had danced for the performance, following which was a mannequin wearing a costume from the production Gandhi, with the charpoy that was used as a prop in the background. 

The jewellery (above and below)

Huge glass boxes full of jewellery were displayed with neckpieces, headpieces, juda pins, belts etc, including a grand ethnic neckpiece used in a performance of Aigiri Nandini, which Geeta had bought from Porbandar.

The terracotta figurines

The terracotta figurines used for the costumes here instead of the mannequins were very artistically done. At places, only heads were placed on colourful pots. And then finally, a huge blowup of Geeta at the Khajuraho temples was highlighted by a spotlight.

Sketch for Natya Vrinda costume

The next display was a costume for Natya Vrinda, a performance inspired by Vadya Vrinda, a group choreography whose name was inspired by Vadya Vrinda, the name given to the All India Radio orchestra by Pt Ravi Shankar. The placard for this outfit said that “Geeta’s urban gurukul experiment of a group of dancers growing up together from childhood pursuing a single art form became the chief inspiration for Sandhya Raman.” Here, the costume for each dancer was individually, differently designed.

Young dancers' costumes with fancy fans 

 And finally there were the pictures and costumes of young students, dressed in fancy fans in the front or behind. In the centre were pictures of Geeta strung together on stands. Then there were various mannequins wearing the costumes, sketches by Sandhya on easels, and some stunning photographs of Geeta.


Stories in cloth


The story did not end there. There were silk panels hung from the ceilings, each telling a tale, with titles taken “from the dance margam to link the process of costume designing to the process of learning the dance - slow, detailed and arduous,” as Rajiv explained. “Just as the dancer moves from Anjali to Tillana, so too the costume designer's journey with the dancer traverses the same path.”

The panel titled ‘Shlokam’ had Geeta’s reminiscences of her first costumes, and the ones that were stitched for her arangetram. ‘Alarippu’ summarised some of the areas in which Sandhya has innovated in costumes. ‘Kavuthvam’ explained why Geeta started to look at innovating her costumes. ‘Sabdam’ presented the importance of colour in costumes. ‘Jatiswaram’ detailed the fabric choices in Bharatnatyam costumes, including their support for the work of traditional weaving and Shashiv Chandran’s handlooms initiative. ‘Varnam’ presents the journey the designer undertakes with the dancer to design and innovate with her - “The designer has to internalise how the dance incorporates speed and movement, high-voltage energy, grace, sinuous swirls and stamping feet – all this mobile energy has to be expressed through a costume that will enhance each of these facets. And yet never hinder the dancer nor the dance! As the world of Bharatanatyam becomes more complex and dancer-specific, its costumes no longer remain generic. Customizing and designing become the order of the day. This is the new space occupied by Aharya. That is when the Pleats begin to Dance!” And finally, ‘Padam’ articulates the significance of costumes for the senior dancer-teacher - “This is not a mere teaching of the movements of the dance. It incorporates all the related aesthetics - including the secrets and mysteries of aharya (make-up, costumes and jewellery).” The remaining two panels, ‘Javali’ and ‘Tillana’, presented the profiles of Sandhya Raman and Geeta Chandran, respectively.

The most important guest for the evening was the only surviving tailor from Geeta’s original team, Kanhaiyalal. The chief guests for the evening were friends and collaborators of Geeta - social worker Aparna Yadav from Lucknow, Kiran Mehra-Kerpelmann from the UN in India, photographer Avinash Pasricha, Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee and Maya Shankar.

Sandhya speaks

This is the journey of 40 years of my dear friend, of which I have been a part for the past decade or so. It is really inspiring to see how a traditional classical dancer looks beyond tradition and tries the next level in her work. And working with her has been a fabulous experience – each of the panels shows how we use colour and texture. This journey has been very special – my attempt has been to connect contemporariness with culture, so that it can be taken to the next generation. It’s how she (Geeta) has been mentoring her students, and you can see how they have taken it to the next level – that is what nourishing is all about.

My association with Geeta in the past one and a half decade has been about watching every performance and changing the genre of the costumes. This whole journey has been divided into four decades. It represents her journey as a young professional after her arangetram, and then moving to the next stage as a professional, then Geeta as a mentor and a guru. We see her as a young dancer, and her students as young dancers, and you can actually see the difference. We talk about the different aspects of design, how it influences the performance, how the dancer reacts and reciprocates her interest in it. And how together it’s a partnership, and how we’re able to come up with something new that’s rooted in tradition, making the dancer comfortable as the body matures, how she works with that, using traditional fabrics and retaining that.

Geeta speaks

I have to thank a lot of people, first of all my own family, which has supported me through this journey because it’s not easy for a dancer, since dance is a very demanding art form. My mother’s here, my mother-in-law is here, my brother-in-law is here, my entire family is here, and my whole team at Natya Vriksha is here, who have spent the entire night setting it up. It’s like a wedding day. It has been exhausting but gratifying at the same time. I don’t have the first costume I wore, but the blue one is the second costume I wore. It was given to me by my aunt. Everybody in the family pitched in to buy me a sari for the costume since I could not afford it at the time, and that’s how the journey began. Today, when my students grumble that they have worn a costume twice and do not want to wear it for a third performance, I tell them that they really have to earn it.

With Sandhya, it’s been a long journey of over 10-15 years. Initially, we had a lot of fights because she did not understand dance, she was simply an NID designer, and when I looked at these sketches, I never understood what it would look like. Slowly, she understood my vocabulary and I could understand hers. What was wonderful was that from the first day, she would sit in the rehearsals and watch the performance grow, so she was very much a part of the choreography. She knew what the movements were, where the movements had to take a larger stretch or go closer. That process worked out beautifully.

But the first part of the journey has not been documented because at that time, we came from a generation where we did not have all these sophisticated ways of storing all this material, and it was all a lot of rummaging through old photographs. Avinash laments that a lot of his work has not been documented and saved up, many photographs we did not have access to to put up here. But the second part has been documented better.

Sandhya has been designing for many people, and we commissioned her to do this (curating the exhibition) for us, and we’re very happy she’s done it for us. We wish her the best of luck.

Storing the costumes: That was a big challenge - in my house there no space left to store anything but costumes. We have done a lot of damage control on them, repaired, steam-pressed, polished their zari... Sandhya has worked very hard on them since they had become dull and smelly over the years. Of course, students would use them regularly. Before their arangretam, I would dissuade them to invest in a costume, and give them mine, so they were used and drycleaned regularly. A particular blue-purple costume has been used by 4-5 of my students for their trials in Delhi University and they got through, so it was considered lucky. It’s nice pulling out each one of them stored in various places and going down memory lane.

How she felt at seeing 40 years of her career displayed visually: It is a very humbling experience because 40 years is nothing in a dancer’s life. We have seen our teachers slog for 70 years. It was a thankless journey for them. They did not do anything to come in the limelight. I understand the tradition well – this is not something that’s done with stakes at all, it’s a humbling experience on the one end, but on the other, it comes with great responsibility. I have to raise the bar for my work now, and whatever I do, it is watched by youngsters, so what I do has to inspire and motivate them and take them into the next level of excellence. They have to innovate – that’s why I made all of them dance for the exhibition as well. This programme is also for them, they were very keen to see me do padams, so we said okay, let’s do it. The space is also so beautiful. And of course the photographers were going mad about it. Also, when good people are around you and you’re comfortable with them – like Sandhya’s more a friend now than an associate – that makes a big difference. It’s not ‘her job’ or ‘my job’.

Note: Some of these photographs are simply photos of photographs put up at the exhibition, notably the 'picture of the picture' of Geeta at Khajuraho. Otherwise, pics by Anoop Arora :)


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