Far from the simple dhoti-and-agavastram costume of old, modern day artistes dress flashy

Years ago, forcing a friend to a Parveen Sultana concert, I was pretty impressed to see her wowing all through, looking super-smitten. Daunted at what she was gathering and feeling proud at my success of another convert to classical music, I asked her what she made of the concert. The only question she had to ask without batting an eyelid in all curiosity was, “Where do you think she bought that Kundan necklace from?” crashing my brief bout of imaginary success, posing questions of what actually was a ‘concert costume’, if there was one, at all. “Clothes maketh a man. Naked people have little or no influence on the society,” said Mark Twain a century ago, but compare it to the Indian ethos, and a different picture emerges. In the thick of the music season, amidst a chaos of colour and thriving silk merchants, here is a quick peek at what artistes have to say on their vestments.

While western classical music has a rigid and demanding decorum of presentation, Indian music only developed it much later. Growing from a performing music as a temple art and migrating into royal courts, most Indian practitioners never bothered much about attire.

Traditional simplicity

“The modern day concert costume was only designed 100 years ago. The kurtas came in from the northern influence. Else it was a very simple dhoti and angavastram, like a temple tradition all along,” says Vaidyanathan, a senior music enthusiast. Everyone remembers how the veteran maestro Chembai would often perform bare-chested keeping in tone with his native temple tradition. Strong contrasts to him were singers like GNB and Ustad Amir Khan who performed in a bandhgala, looking perpetually photogenic. And there were many others who wouldn’t venture onto the stage without prominent streaks of ash on their forehead, horizontal or vertical — all a part of the effect.

For the longest time, the global faces of Carnatic and Hindustani music, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar, respectively, were both immaculately dressed for their public appearances. A massive archival footage stands testament to the kind of attention they gathered the world over. “She was the epitome of high class and whatever she did or wore became a style statement, from her jasmine flowers to her nose stud. Pandit-ji was a charmer and anyone would have fallen in love with his persona. As seasoned artistes, they also were responsible and influential public figures and hence had to always be prim and proper,” says ace vocalist Aruna Sairam.

Silk capital

“We have one of the oldest silk capitals of the world that still produces our famous Kanjivaram sarees, a living tradition we are proud of. The Carnatic concert experience in its own way celebrates the essence of all that is south Indian,” she adds.

On the other hand, we have seen, over the years, several flashy artistes flaunt all the gold and silk they own and distract audiences from their singing.

We have also seen several pairs of colour-coordinated brothers and sisters who seem to make an extra effort to look alike for the shutterbugs. “Some of the artistes flash their brilliance off stage so much that you need a pair of sunglasses to sit through their concerts,” the legendary critic Subbudu once said.

The concert aesthetic

“It’s all a part of the concert aesthetic. Audiences do come expecting the artiste to also be presentable. They would have just heard the concert over the radio otherwise. Today’s artistes are also aware of this,” says the young upcoming vocalist Sandeep Narayan. “Oh! But I would never convert one of those jazzy shiny shawls they present into a kurta. I find it odd and funny,” he adds about a costume that, a recent trend, causes much stress to everyone’s eyes.

“Frankly speaking, the dhoti and kurta are just well ventilated and it is a matter of comfort. If one has to perform for hours, often in the sweltering heat and unfriendly conditions, it does matter what kind of clothes you wear to keep yourself cool,” says young vocalist Bharat Sundar, signing off on the most important aspect of concert-costuming. The key word is ‘comfort’ and this season is a witness to all the razzmatazz on and offstage too.

(Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic)