Sandhya Raman: I think more dancers should get serious about costumes —why trivialize yourself on stage by wearing something badly made?

When we see a dance performance, after a fulfilling experience, we applaud and go back. But the first impression, which lasts through the performance and stays with us afterwards too, is the costume of the dancer. The costume also can make or break a performance — the colours, the pattern and the extent of mobility it allows, its comfort etc. Sandhya Raman is one of the leading dance stylists these days, so we went to talk to her at her studio in Delhi in order to understand her work. At present, she is designing for some top dancers in India and abroad.

Sandhya Raman
Q: When did you start designing, where, and how did you branch out into dance costuming?

A: My training is from NID (the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad). Before NID, I was doing textiles in an export house for a year-and-a-half. My boss there wanted me to do fashion, and I knew nothing about fashion. He said it’s not so difficult, draw fashion figures, you can do fashion designing. But I would be very frustrated, because I would do some 200 sketches and only 4 or 5 would get picked up. Then I worked with this French designer who came to the export house. I would keep looking at how she drew — this is way back in 1987-88, when fashion was nothing great here. India was just a produce-and-send place. When I saw this woman do so much of it, I thought I should learn fashion. My boss never understood that textiles and fashion are two different areas and he can’t get the same thing from one person. But today, I think differently, after being trained in both areas.

At the time, I quit and got into NID, where I did my postgrad from ’88-’91. I did apparel design, that’s the larger umbrella of clothing – it includes fashion, uniform design and costume. Before that, I had already worked with Suhag Traders, which was the export house, and Merchant Adventures of Narnia, which was a buying house for garments. So I already knew what was current in the garment industry from the perspective of a buying house as well as an export house. Then, when I was in NID, I started designing uniforms. Then I did a movie called Totanama while in NID. Chandita Mukherjee directed this film, and it won the National Short Fiction Film award way back in 1992. I did the (clothes for the) main character called Khujasta. So that started the spark of interest – how do you make things for stage. It doesn’t have to be so expensive; it can just look expensive. A whole world of stagecraft was taught to us, which I learnt while doing that movie. I did my diploma with (apparel brand) Bandhej – that was the first time Archana Shah was coming out with a brand, so I did the entire collection for her for my final diploma project. It was a huge collection that she markets even now.

While I was doing all this as a student, Jonathan had come to Ahmedabad – (American dancer) Jonathan Hollander. When he came to Ahmedabad, he was a Fulbright lecturer working with Mallika Sarabhai at Darpana. He has a dance company called the Battery Dance Company in New York. He’d come to NID to give a talk to students who were about to graduate, and he met the students in the textile and fashion department, the apparel department, and he explained what they did in terms of dance clothing. His wife Noelle was a very good designer. She was a dancer, but she did very nice clothes as well. That’s when she kind of gave us the exposure to what goes into making dance clothing. And as she talked about it, I was just glued to her talk, as if she was telling me everything. I was immediately inspired and decided that this was my area, because I was always interested in dance, and export never challenged me so much.

So I did my project and I got a job at Lakshmi Mills Coimbatore as their fashion consultant. But NID back home wanted me to put up a show, my final work, when we passed out, because we were the first apparel batch at NID. I came back and met the director and said that I’ll put up my work, but not as a fashion show. He was totally aghast –here was an apparel design student who wanted to show fashion, but did not want to put up a fashion show! I made a huge collection while working at Lakshmi Mills and I called up Mallika (Sarabhai) and told her here’s my collection, and I want you to choreograph something that’s a walk and not a dance production — dancers walking in my clothes. So in 1991, she and Jonathan Hollander choreographed my fashion line. And it was such a beautiful show because at NID, we have this tomb kind of thing at the backdrop and the entire group of dancers walked around it, moving in very beautiful, elegant movements. There were five collections I had done, and that’s how I launched the first group of apparel products over there. When Jonathan saw the clothes I had done, he really loved them.

There was a programme called Moonbeam, in which Mallika and Shashidharan Nair danced together. And back in ’91, they were doing that semi-ballet kind of dance in which he was picking her up. It was exotic to look at that on stage because back then, everybody used to dance on their own on stage, nobody was in such close proximity. The costumes I had done were in Bengal cotton and shears with stretch inside. It was very beautiful choreography. Jonathan went back to New York and he called me and said I’m going to launch Moonbeam here in NY, could you make the costumes again for me please, and these are my dancers’ sizes. So I made these garments and shipped it to Jonathan, and that was my first project with him. You asked me, how did I choose? I started with costumes. I never did fashion. Fashion I did later, because I had to keep my costume karigars alive. Costuming was not everyday, it was seasonal. It was very new in India; people did not want to take a costume, they preferred tailors who might’ve been less expensive because tailors cut corners. Very few dancers understand this; nobody wants to put money into this because they don’t understand the value of it.
Anyway, that was my starting point. I continued to do one or two more projects for him from Coimbatore only. Then I half-moved to Ahmedabad – 15 days I would stay in Ahmedabad, and 15 days in Coimbatore. At that time, I did an exposition on Nehru’s book The Discovery Of India at Worli’s Nehru Centre for NID, themed on the waterways of India — how the drape, the colours and the motifs change along the waterways. One section was on the Rajasthani tribal area. I still remember that because I got these terracotta mannequins with the help of people from CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad) — they actually baked the terracotta mannequins and I draped the garments on them. It was fun — good learning. Every project has to teach you something, otherwise how is it exciting? I also did a Himachal project – the life of Kinnaur etc. I kept learning from all these projects because everywhere I would go, I would document the garments there, the fabric, what is traditional, and my love for textiles – because I’m a textile designer also – would help me understand the textiles, the why and what of them.

Then I shifted to Delhi and got married. My husband’s also from NID, he’s a product designer. At that time, Jonathan called me and said he was working on a project called Songs of Tagore, an Indo-US collaboration. They had Mallika (Sarabhai) as the Indian dancer, American ballet dancers, Sanghamitra and Samir Chatterjee – Sanghamitra sang the Tagore songs and Sameer was on the tabla — and Badal Roy… and you are the designer, he said. I said okay. There was no email – just phone calls and fax. When he gave me the concept, I asked how would I know what it was. So he said okay, I’ll tell you the music, you find and listen to this music and get back to me what you understand of it. He gave me these seven compositions and I heard them, and I got translations done here and there, and then we worked out (interpreted it as) seasons. We started with summer, then monsoon, love, spiritual etc. — the final season was spiritual. I chose to do a transition from cottons to silk, and depicted my costumes through the sketches, created a mood board and colour board and everything, and sent it all to him by fax. He okayed it, and said I’ll send you the measurements. Then one day, Jonathan told me go to the Air India office and “pick up your ticket”. I said huh, I’m coming? I thought I just had to send the stuff! He said, “What makes you think you’re not coming? You’ve done all the costumes!” I never even knew this was in the plan — we never even knew how to talk about fees and all that. I had still not talked about my fees. He had said I’m sending you the money so make it and I had said okay. You never thought in those days how much am I going to make out of it. It’s just sheer excitement, ‘I have to make these costumes’, the fun of it – the colours, the dyeing… And then I reached New York. I didn’t know that it was a completely planned tour; there were seven cities we were going to from there, and I was expecting my first child then. I travelled with this huge tummy, nearly five months pregnant. It was a bigger high because people would give me a standing ovation when I would come to the stage because they’d say oh, this girl is doing it! Mallika (Sarabhai) was very protective; she would just blast everyone, and she would carry things for me, because she was an experienced mother and here I was, a young mother-to-be. But it was great bonding at that time – I had the best time of my life, almost five months we were travelling the US.
After I came back to India, I continued doing projects for Jonathan. Through Jonathan, I met Anita Ratnam. My first project with her was called Purush, in which she was the sutradhar. She would introduce the character and move out, and then introduce a character and move out again. So I did a long anarkali kind of thing with a drape that you could tie as an angavastram or as a shawl or keep changing the form, depending on the way you want to look. It was interesting as a costume but I wasn’t expecting her to dance in that costume. We’d never met – it was over the phone that this was worked out. Later, I got to know that she wanted to also dance, and this costume restricted her because she’s a Bharatnatyam dancer, and I did a sutradhar kind of thing. But after that there was no looking back – I worked with Sonal Mansingh, I worked with Leela (Samson), with Geeta (Chandran), constantly, costume after costume… and that’s all.

One of the more exciting things I did was three years back, when I worked with Hema Rajagopalan in Chicago on Varna — Colours of White. It was a lovely concept, and last year she did something called Incomplete Gesture, where I didn’t have to stick to the Bharatnatyam form (of costuming). I also feel costuming is like a bridge between the dance and the dancer and the audience. You can make a statement as soon as you come. That is why I’m very careful about which genre of dance it is. I do not mix genres at all. If someone is rooted in Bharatnatyam, my costume will also have elements of that, though it can be changed depending on who the dancer is. If it’s a completely modernized dance, let’s say like Anita, who does neo-Bharatam — hers does not fall in the category of pure classical. So I can use any kind of fabrics. For Geeta or Malavika, I like to use traditional fabrics because their format is rooted in tradition. Also, I like to use as many pure materials and traditional materials because I feel that as dancers, they’re very inspirational to youngsters. You would aspire to pick up what she’s wearing. And what does that lead to? It doubles up the thing (doubles the benefit to) for the artisan. Also, I work on ‘imaging’ each dancer. I don’t like to do clones. If you see a dancer… like if you see (my costumes for) Geeta, over the years she’ll have an image. This is how her imaging will be. But if there’s another dancer of the same genre, Bharatnatyam, I’ve created a different image for her. Each dancer is special.

Q. Has there been somebody you have taken inspiration from — any previous dance costume designer?

A: Taken inspiration from in terms of work? Not really, because there aren’t many Indian costume designers whom you can look at and say… Abroad there are many, but their dance form is different. So I do know a lot of people, but the way they silhouette the body and the way it’s done in our dance are very different. I can’t take inspiration from them, but it’s interesting to see what all the fabric can do. My favourite designer has always been Issey Miyake; I like the way he treats his fabric. It’s always dramatic clothing he’ll do, and that drama I like on normal people.

Q. How many forms of dance have you worked on?

A: Mohiniattam, Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak, flamenco, American ballet, Kathakali, Sattriya, Kalbeliya, Bhangra, Naga dance... quite a lot. One of the more interesting projects was working with Rama Vaidyanathan for a concept for a school, in which 1,200 children were performing dances across India. It was not a professional dance project, it was a simple project for 40 years of St Mary’s school, but it was very interesting.

Geeta Chandran in a costume by Sandhya Raman performing Anekanta

Q. How much do you like to stick to tradition, and how much do you deviate from it?

A: I would only deviate if needed. It’s needed when the body is out of shape. If it’s a young body, the dancer is in the early stages of dance, then they are establishing themselves as dancers and in the dance form, both. Then I wouldn’t change anything for them. But if I see that this is a slightly more senior dancer, then it’s like branding the dancer. It’s what you wear, how you move, your song choice, what kind of lighting etc. Then I might not stick to tradition, like I might not have the pleated fan for Bharatnatyam, I’ll do improvisations then. I like the tradition also, but it doesn’t work on older dancers because they are out of shape in terms of the body. A younger body can take a lot of minuses that the traditional costume has. In fact, the traditional costume is made for a beautifully arched, small body.

Anita Ratnam in 'Neelam'
Q. There was an interesting article in the Hindu about aharyam in which they discussed purists’ views on costumes, the odhni etc. One of the points discussed was what ancient sculptures of dancers show – the costume is lower than the waist etc, and so what are the conformists trying to establish…

A: The only thing is that’s a statue, not movement. There is a very fine line between sexy/seductive and sensuous. Dance should be sensuous, it should not be sexy and seductive. At the end of the day, this is not just entertainment, it’s also learning. It’s also a cultural experience. This is not a Bollywood show where titillation is most important part. So if you talk about an odhni-less costume, Aditi (Mangaldas) carried an odhni-less costume better than a heavier dancer. These are subtleties…'

Dancers performing Ánekanta
Q. How much of the concept and form do you get into?

A: Most of the dancers, earlier they never used to involve me at that stage (of rehearsals/concept). Now they’re aware that I can contribute a lot to their dance, so they bring me in right at the concept level. I’m there to see most of the rehearsals – I was there for all of Malavika’s rehearsals for Thari, sketching out each thing… I do that for Anita’s, Geeta’s, Vanashree’s. I can’t do that for dancers abroad, though I did some, like for Lata Pada. It was very interesting – we were Skyping when she was doing her rehearsal, then I asked questions. For me, that 40 or 30 minutes that you’re going to be on stage, as soon as you come out, you set a mood for the audience. So I have to decide the colours thematically, and see what’s going to happen, are you going to change, are you going to go out and come in, which formations are happening, are your colours going to change, am I getting drama in between… Also, I’m very particular about using the right colours. I have to also convince the dancer. It’s not easy because they also have to spend the money, and then senior dancers use good silks only. I don’t let them use polyesters and stuff like that.
Geeta Chandran's costume for 'Gandhi-Warp and Weft' 
Designs for Geeta Chandran's costume for 'Gandhi-Warp and Weft

Geeta Chandran
Q. How much do you tweak the costume from tradition, and do you make it easier to change?

A: Geeta’s costume is completely modern now, but she looks traditional. Nobody wants to take a long break to change backstage. I do everybody’s costumes in such a way that within seconds, they can come back to the stage. One thing for sure is that there cannot be a malfunction. Touch wood – in the last 27 years, I’ve not had a problem. I work really hard on the finishes of my costumes and the detailing. Tweaking happens, and with traditional also, I’m giving it another edge. Like I’ve started working on the colour schemes of traditional costumes. I do double colours on the borders and things at the bottom, and recently I saw on Facebook, somebody in Chennai has also done the same thing. So it’s good, people are also following. How long can you keep everything under lock and key (in terms of copyright of designs) – as long as the aesthetic is moving, it’s good fun. In the traditional also na – what colour of the zari, the thickness of the border, these are things I work on. If you are buying a silk sari for 15-20,000 rupees, and the gold is going to shine like peetal, then what’s the point? Those kind of sensitivities I’m trying to inculcate. It’s difficult because the sensibilities of a dancer in Bengaluru or Hyderabad will be different from those of a Delhi dancer. Sabko balance karna mushkil hota hai (It’s difficult to balance everybody’s sensibilities).'

Radhika Kathal in Ánekanta'
I introduced lycra blouses, and now I’ve taken it to the next stage – I don’t do lycra blouses any more, I do silk with lycra blouses. Also, if you’ve seen, my costumes don’t show sweat marks under their arms, because I treated that also. I also use stretch at the end of the sleeve. Somebody like Malavika says you have made me addicted – because she does large movements, she says I can stretch my arm out fully now. Such nice feedback, no? With Geeta, it’s always been great fun because I can do anything I want to. With Anita too, I can do anything I want. There’s no restriction, so then you enjoy doing it. With Malavika also it’s slowly coming to that level.

Geeta Chandran performing 'Ravana'
I’ve done both traditional and not-so-traditional costumes for Anita – I want to give the Bharatnatyam fan even in the modern ones, because her root is Bharatnatyam. So I have to somehow give the Bharatnatyam look somewhere, whether it’s in the melaka, or the fan, or the pleats. It’s very important to give the connect somewhere.

Malavika Sarukkai
Chitra Sundaram was doing a production abroad in which she throws off her melaka to show that the burning desire for Krishna is inside. But in India, audiences would be horrified if she threw off her melaka. So she asked me what to do. I designed something to look like a melaka on her blouse so that even when she removed her melaka, it would look like she was wearing one.

Q. Do you do backdrops also?

A: I do the backdrop for some people, but not usually. Like I’ve done the backdrop for Anita’s Faces… I don’t publicise myself as a set designer, I describe myself as a costume designer, but if people want me to do the sets I do those also. I’ve done lots of sets for Anita.
Two years before Thari, Malavika met me and she said I’m going to do a production, it’s going to be on weaving, and tell me what you know. I said, what I know you want me to tell you like this? I told her I’ll give you a book, you read it, and then we’ll talk from there. So I gave her Looms of India and that really energized her. Then she called up and spoke – to many people, not just me – but the most beautiful thing she did in the whole production, which I keep telling her, is to incorporate the movement of the shuttle of the loom in her dance. I keep telling her that’s the best thing you’ve done.

Dancers in 'Thari'
Q. What’s the difference between any other kind of designing and dance costuming?

A: There are hundreds of differences. Costuming is very, very challenging. It’s like couture garments — even in couture, the person is wearing the garment and sitting. In costuming, the person is wearing it and moving. So it makes or breaks the show. Or the costume can be really beautiful in design but if it doesn’t work on stage, it’s a useless product. It has countless dynamics – fabric, cut, finish, side detailing... Most important is that they (the clothes) start the performance even before the dancer starts her performance. Somebody like Aditi, she wears her final costumes and does all her rehearsals, so the wear and tear has to be there. If she’s done five rehearsals and one show, that means six times she’s already worn the costume. It has to withstand all that. Any garment is a fashion forecast – it’s a seasonal thing. But a costume is not seasonal – it is totally subject-specific. Then you’re working on a theme, so if it’s a choreographed show, not the regular margam performance but a thematic thing, then everything, from the colours to the fabrics to the pleating, has to be there for a reason… It’s very challenging.

Gauri Diwaker in a Sandhya Raman costume
Then there are deadlines like nobody’s business. If I have to give (a costume) I have to give it, no show can stop, so I have to work backwards – tomorrow if the courier has to go then it has to go. So whether day or night or Diwali, we are all working.

The traditional costume is a five-piece one, four pieces for children without a melaka. But only what I’m playing with is important (to highlight). If I’m playing with the fabric, I might only highlight one piece of it and subdue the others. I only emphasize on one aspect of the costume. I don’t like to overplay every part of it. That’s like too much ghee in your halwa. I work on the pleating depending on the body. So like for the melaka, I have made one that does away with the fan and incorporates it in the garment. I’ve done away with the fan and put in a wrap. I’ve brought in a dhoti instead of a pajama.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your work with Desmania and the performances you host. 

A: Every month I have a show here in my studio for my Desmania Foundation – this is what I started three years back, and I’ve done 21 shows. I keep mixing senior artists and junior artists. But with junior artists, the problem is that they think only the stage, the proscenium, is the place to dance. My idea is that for the common man, you don’t need the media (the media’s attention). My intention is different here – to promote dance. It should not be an obligation, it should be out of interest, and it should be open to the commonest man who can come and sit in without having any problems. Second problem that I’ve seen is youngsters want everything on a platter – they want the guru to get them shows and other things as well. You have to find your own audience, your own groups, you have to find everything for yourself. So I’m giving you free space, lights, audience, whoever wants to come can come, but we have seating space for only about 70 people. Junior dancers are looking at it seriously now. Earlier, only senior dancers were looking at it. But I’m happy that junior dancers have started looking at it now because they don’t often get a stage. It’s only when they reach about 35-40 that they get a proper stage. How do you popularize your dance when you’re in good form, when you know the dance well, you have something new to express? You take it to the common man purely for the love of dance, nothing more than that. We’ve done 21 shows now, and the last one was (Kathak dancer) Garima Arya. She was so good, such a young girl, just 26, and she’s done so much. And with her was tabla exponent Pranshu Chatur Lal, who’s phenomenal, such energy. We had a full house. We had a Kuchipudi and Kathak dancer collaborating at another session.

Q. Do you do any accessorizing as well?

A: Certain dancers are paying a lot of attention to accessories, like I discuss Anita’s jewellery and all. But then her form lends itself to all that. But in a classical performance, it becomes difficult. Like I can’t expect Malavika Sarukkai to have jewellery that’s different from dance jewellery. That’s okay, that’s show jewellery you’re wearing. The only advice I’d like to give dancers is to keep the jewellery minimal. Sometimes they put too many things all over, and the face looks heavy.

Q. Are you trained in dance yourself?

A: As a child I learnt, but then my father was not in favour of me dancing on stage.

Sandhya signed off by explaining why she thought quality dance costumes were integral to performances — “About costuming, I think more dancers should get serious, simply because you spend 14 years learning a dance form, then why trivialize yourself on stage by wearing something inconspicuous or badly made? If you don’t want to spend too much money on fabrics, at least get them well made. Sometimes you see threads hanging from costumes. That means you don’t value your dance. Would you wear that for your own shaadi function? Then why the last priority to the form that is giving you your bread and butter? It’s high time people realise that. It really pains me when I go and see people say Indians ka toh costume bahut tacky hota hai (Indians have very tacky costumes). We have the best fabrics, the best taste, the height of subtlety in Indian garments. From a tanchoi to a full kanjeevaram… tone-on-tone, tussar, we have all of that. Hundreds of people must be making costumes, (dancers should) at least go to them. It shouldn’t be loud – your dance is subtle, so why shouldn’t your costume be? If you’re in Bollywood I understand – there you are the showstopper. But here you are carrying your heritage forward. To do that, the thread has to be really solid. If your dance is strong, that means your music sense is strong as well. Then why not your costume? But it’ll come, slowly (the awareness of the need for good costuming).”

Pics: Anoop Arora

Note: This interview first appeared in


  1. Very nice and thoughtful interview.... So much from her heart. I have always admired her work... Very Intense, innovative and inspiring costumes by Sandhya ji...

  2. Very informative, lessons learned from hard work with passion and straight from heart. Congrats Sandhyaji ! Shyam Bala


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