The costume drama

History is a treasure trove of tales. Sculptors created magic by carving out dancing forms on temple walls, decked in beautiful costumes and intricate jewellery. Centuries later, these sculpted beauties in stone inspired dancers to come up with their own diverse styles of costume. The question is who were the original designers — the dancers or the sculptors? Only History can tell.

It is the aharya-abhinaya of a dancer that first draws the eyes and the interest of an audience, establishing the dancer’s identity. Half the battle is won with a good costume.

Through the years, costumes have undergone many changes. The nine-yard sari dress, which the temple dancers wore, not only looked graceful but also helped to strengthen the abdominal muscles, correct the posture and support the back. It slowly morphed into the pyjama costume.

With the art moving from small private spaces to larger arenas, the costume, too, took on new styles and colours. With her aesthetic sensibility, Rukmini Devi, the founder of Kalakshetra, revolutionised the dance costume, bringing into vogue the concept of the ‘tailored dress’. This concept was quickly adopted by other performers, many of whom were also performing dances in films. It was convenient for them to slip in and out of the tailored costume.

“In the early days,” says research scholar Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, “the pyjama costume had two vertical lines in the front with a fan, which dropped to the knees from the waist. Vyjayanthimala, Padmini and Kumari Kamala, popular dancers both on stage and in films, were known for their distinctive styles of dressing. Kamala’s mother was totally involved in costume designing, constantly innovating with fabrics such as chiffon and georgette, variations in brocade and checks, and experimenting with different styles of fans.”

A deep study of the Natya Shastra and the karanas motivated senior Bharatanatyam artist Padma Subrahmanyam to make changes in the costume. The need to move around the stage with agility and get more flexibility for the karanas prompted her to bring about a variation in the width of the fan and use a different material for it. Along with Aiyyulu, who has been her costumer for more than six decades, she designed step fans and short fans. Padma also began styling her hair into a bouffant, inspired by temple sculptures, making her appearance unique in every way.

Vyjayanthimala also took ideas for her costume from temple sculptures when doing the movie Parthiban Kanavu. “Vyjayanthimala,’’ says Sujatha, “used to change at least five costumes during a programme, and she was always greeted with applause for each appearance. She would also sport the Andal kondai and wear a garland, which became quite popular.”

The dance performances those days were divided into two segments — the first half was classical and the second had folk dances that included korati and the snake dance, with costumes designed to go with these themes.

Pioneering male dancers such as Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal attained cult status not only because of their art, but also because of their exotic costumes. Their ornate head dress and short dhoti, apparently inspiredby Nataraja, the lord of dance, also inspired Odissi artist Ramli Ibrahim’s flamboyant costumes.

Closer home, male dancers were bare-chested, wore a dhoti and minimal jewellery. C.V. Chandrasekhar and V.P. Dhananjeyan wore coloured sashes around their waist for a dash of style.

Sudharani Raghupathy stood out not just for her lithe moves but also for her costumes, the highlight being her blouses with sleeves in contrasting colours. Chitra Visweswaran also loved mixing and matching fabrics and colours. Alarmel Valli looks quietly elegant while Leela Samson is known for her simple drapes. Malavika Sarukkai’s costumes are designed to suit the theme and reflect her love for minimalism, while Anita Ratnam, who has constantly experimented with the art form, totally reinvented the attire with styles that range from classical to avant garde.

Accessories have also undergone changes. Says Sujatha, “Dancers earlier wore real gold, rubies, diamonds and emeralds.” Later, with temple jewellery became popular, the thalai saaman or hair ornaments ( chandraprabhai, suryaprabhai, rakkodi and jadai nagam ), the jhimki and the kunjalam became popular adornments. Dancers began experimenting to suit individual styles.

In recent times, silver and artificial jewellery have also gained Ground, but natural flowers have given way to artificial ones.

Sadly today, few dancers understand the importance of attire, blinding following fashion or cloning style statements of successful divas instead of making their own style statement. Today’s world is strongly visual, where people have seen glitz and glamour at its global best. Unless dancers pay close attention to the aesthetics of their performance, it will be hard to wow audiences.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 8:14:19 AM |

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