Ways of seeing beauty

By tracing the development of Bharatantyam costume, scholars, practitioners and students locate the place of ‘aharya’ in classical dance

There is no shortfall in the varieties of Bharatantyam costume today. There are a plethora of designs and are available in various colours, material and type. Although costumes can broadly be categorised into three types -- ‘skirt costume’ that resembles the half sari, ‘sari costume’ that looks like kachche sari and the widely-used ‘pyjama costume’ with intricate and permanently pressed frills -- under each category there is so much scope for minor variations. As a result, there is immense ingenuity in costume designing now than ever before.

Over the last 100 years, Bharatantyam costume has come a long way. Traditionally, silk sari was either tied in a regular fashion or as a kachche. “The idea of the stitched costume came during the early 20th century when Rukimini Devi Arundale wanted to bring the temple art on to the proscenium,” informs senior Bharatantyam dancer and actor, Sridhar. It was also the time when Bharatantyam dancers were making their entries into films and “this demanded dance costumes to be easily manageable and at the same time attractive,” mentions Bharatanatyam artiste, Shubha Dhananjay.

“Earlier, there were just two or three colour combinations, such as, white-red and yellow-green. One could not experiment with more colours as it had to work in contrast to the dark blue backdrop of the stage. But with advancement in lighting and stage design in the last two decades, costumes of all colours are being tried out,” observes Shubha. In her opinion, there is immense awareness about costume designing among dancers today and everybody has developed their own style. But as far as the material is concerned dancers resort to pure silks -- either Kanchivaram or Mysore silk. “There are a few rules of aesthetics when it comes to each classical dance and these can never change with time,” she says, adding, although synthetic material is being used in costumes that can be hired.

The costume of male dancers resembled female dancers in the early stages of their entry into dance. “This is because historically men were not performers, but only nattuvanars. So the first generation wore whatever women donned at that time. I remember my seniors wearing the pyjama costume with the same jewellery as that of women,” recalls Sridhar. But later, because of a series of discussions on the subject in Kalakshetra to which school Sridhar belongs, a consensus was reached. He informs, it was decided that male dancers rather than going for a stitched costume, should try out tying sari as a kachche. “It was also to keep male costume simpler than that of the female, as the regular attire of men in the society had also turned unembellished by then,” he adds. When compared to wearing a stitched costume, tying the dhoti not only feels comfortable but also provides greater scope for creativity, he says.

How has costuming impacted art when so much of focus, preparation and deliberations has gone into it? “Aharya, the abhinaya through costume, jewellery and make-up, enhances look and mood for the performance,” feels Apurvi, a disciple of Shubharani Bolar.

Ways of seeing beauty

“If aharya helps in creating good impression in the minds of the audience in the beginning itself, why shouldn’t it be taken advantage of? It should not be perceived as something negative,” responds Shubha Dhananjay. “It’s all fine as long as it it doesn’t overshadow the performance. The danger is dancers overdo and tend to go by the trend. But what they should check before putting on something is whether it suits their body-type, complexion, height, facial feature and age,” advises Bharatanatyam guru B. Bhanumathi.

Most of the students for their arangetrams stitch at least two costumes nowadays. Apurvi had also stitched two costumes for her arangetram recently, one for the first-half and the other, in blue and green, for the second part. “This practice is followed in the case of arangetrams because the dancers sweat profusely by the first-half and are not used to handling the same costume for long durations. Also, as there would be guest honouring ceremony in between, we don’t mind having a costume change. However, this should not become the norm in all recitals,” cautions Sridhar, adding, senior dancers including himself and his dancer-wife Anuradha never change costumes in between items.

On changing costumes during the performance, dance historian, Ashish Mohan Khokar remarks: “Devadasis and ranis in those days also used to have two to three costume changes but this used to happen in a totally different context.” They changed their costume according to the time of the puja, rituals of the temple, or if the royalty gifted them some ornaments or textile. “Also, please remember, these were not two-hour performances but long drawn affairs,” explains Khokar, distinguishing them from today’s urge to change costumes for the sake of immediate attention.

What is prompting dancers to go overboard with their aharya? In dancer and scholar Padmaja Suresh’s opinion, the art is increasingly getting diluted by the influence of virtual media. “In the virtual world only visibility and noise seem to matter. True devotion and hard work for excellence naturally are taking back seat,” she observes. For budding danseuse, Suhasini Koulagi, it’s the larger consumerism which is making dancers go grand.

B. Bhanumathi too says it’s to please the masses. “Audience who are not connoisseurs get excited with the grandiose and acrobatics. If dance is just that, then what is the difference between dance and circus?” she asks with a pinch of sarcasm.

For Sridhar, all kinds of dancers exist today. “There are always those for whom their art comes before everything else, there are also those for whom glamour is all that is. It all depends on the individual. Dance reflects one’s inner self,” he adds.

“The problem with dancers is they think ‘they’ are dancing on stage. They must forget themselves once they are on stage. It is the art that audience take back with them,” Bhanumathi stresses. In the words of researcher Jayachandran Surendran, “costume has to be forgotten by the audience in order to experience true art.”

Ways of seeing beauty

What happens if dance is dominated by aharya? “The audience clap and forget it then and there. It becomes like any other entertainment we have today. But the purpose of art is to create experience of the rasa and in turn, long lasting memory. Therefore, satvika forms the crux of any classical dance,” explains Bhanumati.

For Ashish Khokar, one cannot change the public taste. “The culture should emanate from the guru. If parents are rich and the guru is greedy, arangetrams become mini weddings. Unfortunately, today we have teachers not gurus,” he complains.

On the brighter side, Sridhar comments: “At the same time, we are witnessing practice saris and dhotis not only in lecture demonstrations but also in performances. Cotton has its own aesthetic appeal. From these developments we can infer that this generation is beginning to realise that it is sadhana alone that makes them better dancers, not appearance, privilege or influence.” Sridhar feels, developments in dance -- which includes costumes -- are always a reflection of the transformation in societal consciousness.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 7:08:03 AM |

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