Song and dance about a sari

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal  

Karunasagari V talks about the making of Thunnal, a dance drama on Indian textiles and inclusivity, presented along with Tamarai Design Studio

A showcase of Indian ethnic wear that also speaks about inclusiveness in fashion: this is the idea behind Thunnal: The Stitch and Beyond, presented by Coimbatore’s Tamarai Design Studio and Bhakti Natya Niketan (BNN).

Karunasagari (right) with Swaroopa Muthusivan

Karunasagari (right) with Swaroopa Muthusivan  

“Swaroopa Muthusivan of Tamarai saw our production on the Noyyal and realised how evocative Bharatanatyam could be,” recalls Karunasagari V, the founder of BNN. “When she approached me, she spoke about how fashion was not just for tall, fair, thin models but for everyone to look and feel their best. Comfort and confidence were her keywords and what she said also resonated with our motto of dance to dissolve divisiveness.”

Since there was no pre-ordered sequence or storyline to follow, “I decided to look at the humans in the textile industry and at the impact of clothing on our lives.” As the production took shape, they didn’t need too many props or backdrops. “It was all about the dance. The only difference was that Bharatanatyam is known for one single costume. Now we are wearing four costumes per dancer but otherwise we have stayed true to the idiom.”

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal  

Naturally her starting point was the weaver and “so I turned to Kabir.” Along with Muthusivan Karunasagari visited the Janapada Seva Trust, Melkote, and used what she saw to choreograph her first scene. There she heard about how the cloth woven by a weaver who was having a bad day would be knotted. “So I was looking at a micro-aspect: how a person's emotions could affect his work. Kabir, on the other hand, brought in the world. In his lines, the rotation of the spindle is day and night and the warp extends in parallel lines forever. What brings the threads together are human interactions. I also got a a traditional weaver’s song from historian Vijaya Ramaswamy for this section.”

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal  

The next was to bring in fabric design and this, admits Karunasagari, was tough given the variety of textiles in India. Finally she homed in on Kalamkari, “which seemd to have a performative aspect in that it told stories and so did we.” As she began to look for a literary angle, she chanced upon the Molla Ramayana. “I wanted it to be Telugu because we were looking at the Kalahasti tradition. I didn’t want anything classical because we were talking about nomadic storytellers who were also Kalamkari artistes. So it had to be something from the oral folk tradition. Molla’s Ramayana fit the bill. So this is a linking of literature, performance and fabric art.”

The third angle was the people who wear textiles. For this section, her inspiration was AK Ramanujan. “In one poem, he talks about a house. In the front, the father uses official languages — English and Sanskrit — for his work. At the centre, the parents communicate in the mother tongue. But in the rear, the mother comes into contact with a multitude of dialects, as she deals with the different people involved in running the household." This, Karunasagari says, shows the interconnectedness of a woman’s world. Within the social segregation and stratification were interactions between people who were not like each other; not premeditated but connections that came about naturally. “Like talking to the vegetable vendor or a milkman.”

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal

Showcasing textile heritage A scene from Thunnal  

She decided to focus on three types of women: the homemaker, the dancer and the queen. “The homemaker because she is the lynchpin around whom the dynamics of the household revolve. As far as the dancer is concerned, I see her as an artiste who could enjoy art in any form no matter where it came from. I am not concerned about social status or the history behind it.” Her choice of the queen came from the inscriptions at Thanjavur’s Brihadeesvara temple. “So many women have made donations in their own names,” she muses. “They brought together different kinds of people — goldsmiths, sculptors, weavers, jewellers — for a common cause.” Not surprising then that this section is called Her Story. “They are not placed in any historical time and context,” she explains. “I was searching for women’s role in the economy and wondered about what constituted ‘work wear’ in those times.” The empirical basis for this scene came from Vijaya Ramaswamy’s Women and Work in Pre-colonial India.

The final scene, she says, is a medley of music, textiles and colour. From the celebration of Navaratri in different parts of India to how the British influenced clothing in India, it questions claims of purity and reminds one of the inter-cultural interactions that make up our heritage.

What she would like the audience to take away is not just recognition of the work that goes into the textiles and a corresponding empathy for the weaver but also “an acceptance of diversity. Today, you have people in power making statements like women who don't wear a sari are not fit to be Indian. On the other hand you have the 100 sari pact. Why are we ‘othering’ ourselves?” she asks passionately before adding more quietly, “Look at the golu. You have dolls representing traditional deities, aspects of socio-cultural life, elements from other countries and cultures... you put whatever you want there and it comes together. That’s what we want to focus on: see the differences and appreciate them. I think if a sari had a voice, it would say the same thing.”

Behind the scenes

Chennai-based Jyotishmati Sreejith worked on the music for Thunnal. Having worked on productions like Don Quixote, she was familiar with works outside the regular Bharatanatyam themes. Karunasagari laughs, “I would say things like the bobbins are rolling, I need music for that. And she would get it.”

Garba from Gujarat, percussion from Bengal, Muthuswami Dikshitar’s nottuswarams, Bharathi’s poetry sung as a ghazal... the music “infuses newness into what already existed. We worked for hours and literally had to stitch the music together too.”

The production does not use live music. Around 12 musicians worked on this project and the recording was done in Chennai.

Info you can use

When: on July 28 from 5.30 pm to 8.30 pm

Where: Hindusthan College of Arts and Science, Behind Nava India, Avinashi Road

How: Entry free. Register on

Call: 6380337673 or 8610176930 for details

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 6:51:53 PM |

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