The Margazhi dress code

(Left to right) Rithvik Raja, Jyotsna Jagannathan, Christopher Gurusamy, Sushma Somasekaran, Sumesh Narayanan and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, (in centre) Sriranjani Santhanagopalan

(Left to right) Rithvik Raja, Jyotsna Jagannathan, Christopher Gurusamy, Sushma Somasekaran, Sumesh Narayanan and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, (in centre) Sriranjani Santhanagopalan   | Photo Credit: S R Raghunathan


As powerful as the ragas they belt out are the costumes Carnatic musicians choose to appear in during the sabha season. We find out why...

A few weeks ago, almost like a prelude to the Margazhi season, Carnatic musician Rithvik Raja began sharing the many aspects that go into gearing up for the sabha on Instagram.

In addition to planning what to sing and how to preserve one’s voice on the day of a concert, what stood out was Rithvik’s keen eye for aesthetics and his nuanced sartorial choices. The season is an “excuse to shop for new clothes and wear them at concerts”, he wrote in the post. For this year, Rithvik has added natural dyed ikat and Mashru silk kurtas, which he will pair with coloured khadi dhotis from Ponduru, to his wardrobe.

“I draw inspiration from my music, and I enjoy the process right from sourcing and understanding the dyes, yarns and wefts to the cuts and styles that I experiment with to create the final piece of clothing,” he says.

Performance enhancer

He is not the only artiste poring over textiles and textures to make a lasting impression. Over the years, there has been a seismic shift in the way performances are produced and consumed, with equal importance now being placed on not only the content but also paraphernalia that has the potential to raise the bar of a concert.

“I feel powerful in my costume,” says Bharatanatyam dancer and actor, Christopher Guruswamy, who was born and raised in Australia, and has lived in Chennai for over a decade now. “The costume is almost like an armour; it gets me into the headspace of what I’m going to do,” he adds.

It is little wonder then that Christopher chooses his costumes with care and conviction. “I think about my list of items; the mood it evokes in me, the ragams… and I think of the colours that will go with it,” he says, adding, “Sometimes I see a sari and, in my head, I hear a varnam that will go with it. I know it’s crazy but it really makes a difference when you think of a costume as a tool to enhance your performance than just something you drape.”

Medium of expression
  • Sushma Somasekaran is convinced that clothes have the power to convey what a person may, at times, struggle to convey in just words. Which is why she believes in the importance of curating a look “as it is the first thing people notice about you”.
  • But ask Carnatic musician Sriranjani Santhanagopalan about the importance of planning an ensemble wear, and she says, “It shouldn’t be all-consuming in a way that it takes away from your music. But I always remind myself that, as a musician, it is important to engage the audience not only aurally but also visually.” For example, she says, “I tend to relate certain ragams, kritis and the poetry with certain colours. So, in many ways, the colour of my sari is inspired by the palette of the ragam that I intend to present that day. I always think of dark red and black when I think of the ragam Thodi, the colour pink when I think of ragam Kalyani and light blue when I think of the ragam Bilahari. This year, almost organically, the theme of my outfits is looking like fifty shades of pink.”

But what if the dancer’s personal style contradicts with what they opt to wear for concerts? Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer Jyotsna Jagannathan’s personal fashion aesthetic is quirky, bold and eclectic, but when it comes to the sabha costume, she prefers the conventional. However, there are experiments that occur within the traditional. For instance, Jyotsna never uses a full sari. “I always cut the borders and pallu out of saris and match them to the body parts of another sari,” she explains. The result: “I find the freedom to visualise a costume without being bound by the framework of a sari,” says Jyotsna.

Experimental space

For percussionists, inspiration for their attire is linked with the instrument. Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, a mridangam artiste, says that he attempts to pair his veshti karai (the border) to complement or match his kurta. “I also try to choose a complementing mridangam cover to go with my outfit,” he adds.

Singapore-based Carnatic musician Sushma Somasekaran, who says she is “almost vegan” and environmentally conscious, has been re-using the saris she wears to the sabha. “In fact, I stopped buying saris for the stage ages ago,” she says, adding, “I borrow them from a close friend or her mother and curate a look that is rooted in tradition. Off it, I love experimenting with blouses and mixing them spunkily.”

Is what you wear on the stage, a reflection of who you are? “Not really,” says Sumesh Narayanan, a mridangam artiste. “I’m not one to judge a book by its cover. And it is not about what you wear, it is more about how you wear it.”

In traditional performances, Sumesh is hoping to experiment with traditional wear — a double ikat jacket or a patola stole worn in an interesting manner. But he is more known for being “experimental and adventurous” as a contemporary musician, and so when he is off stage, the thumb rule is “less is more”.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 12:06:54 PM |

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