He reaps as he sews

Dal Chand at work at his shop in Shakarpur market in Delhi   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

The little markets of big cities often hide pleasant secrets behind their unpleasant realities. So it is that in New Delhi’s Shakarpur market, once you’ve negotiated the suffocating fumes, the one-to four-wheel vehicles, the piles of refuse, a variety of stray animals and other determined pedestrians, you may come across a greenish building with the signboard “DC Costumes”. The entrance is in a side alley, sometimes blocked by parked cars and motorcycles, and the occasional garlanded bull.

Climb the stairs to a large room rendered small by the sheer mass of its contents. At the far end of the room, behind a low bench for cutting cloth, sits Dal Chand, founder of DC Costumes. Among mounds of material, his assistants are stitching, beading, ironing, sorting and completing multiple other tasks. A sewing machine hums, the handle of an iron clicks, and the little television set beams an old Hindi movie at low volume.

Over the decades, though the name of his business has not changed, Dal Chand’s area of expertise has enlarged beyond the clothes and ornaments worn by the characters of a theatrical production or by dancers. A look around the three-day exhibition he recently presented at the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Meghdoot Complex was enough to remind one of the wide definition of “aharya” given by the ancient theoreticians of Indian theatre: Aharya, sometimes translated as costumes and jewellery, encompasses also stage sets, props, lighting design and general décor. (It also includes the use of animals trained for the stage, though that is one area Dal Chand has not entered.)

Dressing up a mermaid

His wares include decorative pillars, faux temple bells, peacock and rooster models made for a recent production. Though these props, as also wigs and moustaches, may be sourced from other makers with Dal Chand’s team adding the detailing, the clothes are mostly tailored in-house. Folk costumes and the complex stitched saris, angarakhas and churidars worn by classical dancers of different hues are regularly made to order here, or available on rent. Also in stock are gigantic conch shells, apt for a mythological drama. Harking back to less ancient times is an array of old telephone sets. And a mermaid. “People do ask for a jalpari sometimes,” he explains. “I bought the figure, but designed her costume.”

He has supplied to theatre directors D.P Sinha, Ram Gopal Bajaj, Bapi Bose and numerous others, besides film directors including Shyam Benegal, Prakash Jha and other luminaries. He has designed costume for leading classical dancers such as Sonal Mansingh, Komala Varadan, Purvadhanashree and Nisha Mahajan.

Before Dal Chand found his speciality, he was already a known name among the Capital’s tailoring circles. “I was a gents’ tailor. I had the knack of figuring out how to make a garment just by looking at it. My boss would give me a hundred rupees and say, ‘Go and have a look around town.’ I would observe different types of clothes and replicate the designs. Yaad Ram was a close friend and neighbour. He worked for All India Radio, and so did his son Naved. They introduced me to Battuji (D.D. Battu, 22 September 1926-28 August 2003), saying I would get work in Doordarshan,” says Dalchand.

Working from a small establishment in Shakarpur, Battu was a master of costume design retired from the Song and Drama Division, renowned for his vast knowledge of drapes, including classical dance costumes and 24 ways of tying a dhoti. A close friend of Lekh Tandon, he had also worked in Bombay and considered Balraj Sahni his theatre guru. Battu was also steeped in a spiritual sadhana. Dal Chand joined him in 1987, accepting his mentorship in both the art of costuming and the theatre of life.

But things were not always smooth. Payments were erratic, and at one time Dal Chand wanted to call it quits. “Kamalini Dutt and Ved Rao (then working for Doordarshan) persuaded me to stay on. They and Battuji said I would realise my own worth only later.”

Respect for guru

Though his respect for his guru was paramount — “Main unhi ki naukri kar raha hun (I am still working only for him)” — Dal Chand’s self-confidence brooked no interference. Once a hard-to-please classical dancer feared by television producers had to be decked out for a recording on Doordarshan. “She brought saris costing ₹35,000. Guruji started advising me. I said, ‘If you interrupt (tokaa taaki karenge), there will be problems. Just let me work, I’ll ask when I need guidance.’”

The master confessed to another disciple, “I’m afraid to cut these expensive saris. If something goes wrong, how will I pay it back? But Dal Chand is not afraid.” Dalchand recalls, “The disciple replied, ‘You’re the guru and he’s the disciple, but he will go very far’.”

Prophecies become blessings. Dal Chand states that the financial grant he received from SNA was the first given by the apex cultural body for a costume exhibition. And theatre practitioners continue to make a beeline for his little shop, as once they turned to D.D. Battu. Nearly 14 years after his guru’s demise, Dal Chand says, “By the grace of God, there is so much material now that if SNA had given me all the halls in Meghdoot complex, I could have filled them.”

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 1:59:54 AM |

Next Story