30/06/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Designs On Dance: The Evolving Costumes Of Bharatanatyam

Rakesh Sahai

Dance is as much about space, structure, music, drama, colour and costume and design aesthetics as it is about the act of dancing. There is no performance art that brings in fluidity, grace, drama and colour as much as dance does on a proscenium stage.

All these elements were brought to the fore in "When The Pleats Danced", an unusual art exhibition in which former Bharatanatyam dancer, NIID alumnus and designer Sandhya Raman curated and displayed her work in classical and contemporary dance costume design at the Art Gallery of the India International, Delhi.

Sandhya's long-time muse and collaborator for her dance costume designs is Delhi-based dancer Geeta Chandran. The duo brought back memories and the engaging journey they have had with performances for over 40 years since the 1970s.

"The influence of many traditional dancers who performed in south Indian films in attractive costumes and jewellery was also unmistakable for regular dilettantes who danced on stage."

The multimedia exhibits included the stories behind the Geeta's performances, as well as the design aspects of the costumes Sandhya created using various fabrics, silks, zari, threadwork and contours. Visitors had a chance to look up close at traditional Bharatanatyam designs, such as the knife-like pleats fanning against the sharp silhouettes of the pyjama pants and flowing drapes over the shoulders. Then of course they were accents or accessories including temple jewellery and sometimes stark folk metal ornaments. The story of each dance really begins with a collaboration of intent, philosophy, design and contours to embellish the dancer's frame and performance.

Sandhya had curated each exhibit with a multimedia presentation. Each performance and presentation was detailed, the costumes were draped on mannequins to showcase their grand beauty, images from the live performances were also displayed besides Sandhya's own painted canvases doubling as drawing board mementos.


Picture by: Inni Singh

Sandhya and Geeta's exhibition raked up memories for dance and art connoisseurs, especially the majesty and beauty of costumes across the century in classical south Indian dance. Also of interest were the global influences that have left a mark on performances, stagecraft and costumes.

On the global dance forum, Pina Bausch or Martha Graham shook Europe and American theatre with their pulsating choreography and fluid aesthetics in presenting dance with a new vocabulary and costume and stage presentation.

Sandhya and Geeta's recent exhibition also brought back memories of the two important Indian dance gurus from Chennai who set standards in dance, stage design and costumes through classical and contemporary dance that have been followed by many even today.

Despite the orthodoxy and notions of purity and traditionalism that have limited south Indian dance performers, evolving traditions of dance and its accoutrements have always embraced many southern performers.

Ask London-based dancer and teacher Geetha Sridhar, who schooled in Kalakshetra and later was part of dance guru and polemicist Chandralekha's performing collective in Chennai.

Rukmini Devi Arundale, a pioneer in dance who founded Kalakshetra, had always allowed "performances and the storyline of the ballets to dictate the costumes", she says. If Rama was in the forests with his queen, the dance costumes were cotton, hand-woven fabrics and the jewellery was artisanal and local. The silks were for the portions of the ballet that were set in courts and so on.

"Rukmini Devi used only cotton and silk. But it was never a jarring style with excessive zari or heavy gold jewellery", Geetha recalls.


Picture by: Rakesh Sahai

However, with the domestication of Bharatanatyam and a new rich middle class emerging in Madras, proscenium dance embraced bejewelled glamorous excesses. The influence of many traditional dancers who performed in south Indian films in attractive costumes and jewellery was also unmistakable for regular dilettantes who danced on stage. So much so that south Indian classical dances, in popular perception, are associated with dazzling Kanchivaram silks and gorgeous temple jewellery.

The noteworthy change from the middle-class obsession with a display of glamour in dance and costumes came with the genius of Chandralekha, beginning from the 1970s.

"She did not care much for costumes and jewellery" and eschewed "ornate costumes", points out Geetha. Dancers who practiced in the earthy dance school spaces on the hard stone floor by the beach wore practice pyjama saris that were the uniform of Kalakshetra dancers. And some performances even excluded the salangai, or ankle bells. "Chandra felt they fraudulently amplified and distorted the beautiful sounds created by the feet", explains Geetha.


Sandhya Raman. Picture by: Shikha Khanna

In the tradition of breakout dancers from Chennai, the exhibition of Sandhya Raman and Geeta Chandra echoed to the chime of how classical south Indian dance and costume designs have evolved and emerged to form new patterns.