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Flying stitches with Peter Pan

Those exquisite period costumes for the film Elizabeth were designed by a mother and daughter team, Jamila Malhotra and Seema Sheriff. Now another movie beckons them.

Jamila Malhotra and Seema Sheriff (centre) and some of their exotic designs for Elizabeth.

IF YOU caught your breath over Cate Blanchett's exquisite costumes in director Shekhar Kapoor's Elizabeth, you have a Bangalore duo to thank for it, guided by costume designer Alexandra Byrns. They are Jamila Malhotra and her daughter Seema Sheriff, who have turned out superb trousseau for a select clientele from their garage-turned-outlet in Indiranagar for over 15 years, even as they plan a future store on Lavelle Road.

If you coveted Dame Judi Dench's stunning, jewel-encrusted peacock gown in Shakespeare in Love, the beautiful embroidery stemmed from Jamila, Seema, and their trusted team of karigars or craftspeople once more. As you look forward to the release of film director Mark (Monster's Ball) Forrester's Never Land in August, based on the true story of how J.M. Barrie wrought the fancy-rich tale of Peter Pan, the fantastical costumes of the boy who never grew up, Wendy and Tinkerbell on screen will owe all to their home-grown talent.

"Never Land was the first film Byrns worked on after Elizabeth that required embroidery," recalls Seema, on a sun-bleached recent afternoon at their outlet. These costumes are basically for the production of Peter Pan. Tinkerbell's, for instance, was in white net with a lot of silver. The ethereal embroidery was a very flowy, not clustered — little flower and abstract motifs spread out. Peter Pan's outfit has autumn leaves on it. It took us three months with 35 karigars, but allowed for our imagination, very different from what we did for Elizabeth, which had encrusted work, with each motif very detailed."

Pointing to swatches with intricate birds, rabbits, and pears embroidered on them, originating perhaps from Persia, India or Spain, she elaborates on the Elizabeth experience around 1997, "We had to research those 15th and 16th century outfits, revive some stitches from 100-year-old cushion covers with our karigars. We used zardosi, petit point, antique-look stitches, including overlapping ones like fish-scales on tissue, even old brocades. You might see it for just two minutes on screen, but there's so much work that goes into it — including replicas of the actual material or thread."

Seema reminisces, "Alexandra would open each parcel and exclaim: "This is better than we expected." We had to be professional, deliver good work on time. Earlier, she couldn't work things out with a Delhi designer. Initially, she reached us through Shekhar Kapoor, who's my father's cousin. He was constantly trying to persuade us to export or go international in some way."

She turns to Dench's opulent peacock gown in Shakespeare in Love, "Though she was on screen for just about three minutes, her costume took us almost three months to make, with 45 karigars. Her gown had peacock feather motifs on it, encrusted with stones. Each panel of her four gowns was crammed with embroidered details."

Seema and Jamila did not miss the irony of their costumes for both films competing for the Oscars, won by costume designer Sandy Powell — to whom Byrns had recommended them — for Shakespeare in Love.

"It's great to have your work on film for all time," jokes Seema, "so you can show your grandchildren what you did."

Blanchett, in Mumbai for the Indian premiere of Elizabeth, was so charmed by their outfits that Jamila and Seema conjured up three for her personal wardrobe, including a gorgeous strappy, gown-like creation in antique-look purple and gold with an optional churidar.

"Mom and I think alike, even take off from each other," laughs Seema, a commerce graduate from Mount Carmel College. "If you put the two of us in different rooms and give us the same fabric, we'll probably come up with something similar."

Backtracking, Seema remembers, "We started with just one cutter and a tailor. And a karigar from Bangalore, but we had a problem with the laid-back local work ethics. We've now brought in karigars from Mumbai, Lucknow, Kolkata, and Tamil Nadu, who stay with us and are paid about Rs. 20-25 per hour, working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.. In places like Lucknow, women are paid just Rs. 10 per day!"

"Less than a month ago, we lost our main karigar to cancer — Mani bhai from Tamil Nadu, whose real name was Subramaniam," reminisces Jamila, sharing a sampler on which golden highlights bring bronze-look antique embroidery alive. "If we just described an idea to him, the next morning we would see what we had visualised on the frame. He could execute exactly what we had imagined." Seema adds, "He was an artist. All our karigars have trained under him for about 14 years. He was like family. We really miss him."

Have Indian embroidery skills been dissipated over the years? "People today are encouraging the work that was done in a nawabi era," Jamila, whose family hails from Uttar Pradesh, replies. "Over the last 20 years, designers like Ritu Kumar and Rohit Khosla have helped to give embroidery a new lease of life beyond prized grandmother's heirlooms. Today, you can see glittering gota work done in the south, far from its home base in Rajasthan. This keeps the craft alive beyond a limited market."

"It was after these films hit the screen that a wave of ethnic embroidery came into the western fashion industry, like the kurti that's the current rage," Seema stresses. "Remember presenter Whoopi Goldberg's embroidered costume at the Oscars?"

Do they have dreams of future film assignments? "I'd love to do an Indian period film like a Taj Mahal or a Devdas," Seema responds. "But that's difficult because the Hindi film industry is Mumbai-centric. Besides, I need to spend time with my daughter and son, who are just seven and nine. I actually took two years off when my daughter was born. So, Mom took over."

Seema adds with a smile, "I'd love to design costumes for a whole film from scratch. Perhaps a project such as The White Moghuls."

Jamila and Seema's ideas and interchanges meld together as perfectly as timeless embroidery on antique fabric. Could theirs prove to be a contemporary fairy tale come true?


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