Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
DANCE: December 27, 1998
An aesthetic statement
The stage is set. The air crackles with tension and the audience is in a state of expectation.
The dancer enters. In those first few moments, the all important impact is made. If the costume is attractive, the grand entrance is assured.
A costume cannot make a great recital, but it can certainly mar it. Insipid or unsuitable colours, and slipshod attire can detract from a fine performance just as garish hues and too much glitter can overshadow the artistes personality. One is often ama zed by the lack of taste in costume that some well-known dancers exhibit.
The costume proclaims a dancer's identity - the school of dance she belongs to as also her individuality and aesthetics. Through colours that complement her complexion, a style that flatters her figure and ornaments that enhance her features, the dancer makes her aesthetic and personal statement.
The novice or young dancer is eager to establish the classical genre she belongs to. In her costume and in her performance, she conforms totally to tradition. As she grows older, just as her style gets its own individual stamp so does her attire. Within the bounds of tradition she experiments and innovates, choosing the type of ornaments and design that best suit her personality and the numbers she executes. The evolution in attire is important for her growth as an artiste.
Dedicated artistes spend hours researching and designing their costumes; they are meticulous about how each frill and flounce is stitched. Balance and restraint, a fine colour sense and a critical eye go into the costuming of a graceful dancer. Comfort, elegance and beauty are the ingredients of a well-made costume.
Bharata's Natya Shastra mentions four mediums of expression or abhinaya. The angika abhinaya (physical expression), vachika abhinaya (verbal or musical expression), Satvika abhinaya internal: (evocation of feelings and sentiment) and Aharya abhinaya exte rnal: (decorative presentation).
Suitable costumes are prescribed for male and female dancers according to their age, social status and the region they belong to. The Aharya is further divided into four categories. Alankara which includes costumes and jewellery, Angarachana (make up of face and body, Pusta (stage props) and Sanjiva (the use of live animals on stage).
"Certain concepts and colours mentioned in the Natya Shastra are still followed in some regions in India and also in places like Indonesia," says dancer Padma Subrahmanyam. "Green for Rama and blue for Krishna, for instance. The Natya Shastra states that no gold should be used, only ornaments which are painted like gold so that they are light and easy to wear. The Natya Shastra's guidelines are practical, economical and sensible.Unfor- tunately, they are not followed now."
The dancer exquisitely arrayed is an oft depicted figure in our sculpture and painting. The beautiful dancer of the Hoysala period in the Belur temple is elaborately and tastefully bedecked. The Karanas in the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram and the Briha deeswarar temple in Thanjavur, show the dancer striking various poses sporting attractive hairdos and intricate pieces of jewellery. The paintings dating back to 1000 A.D. on the western wall of the Big Temple are superb examples of Chola art. Here can b e seen graceful slim-waisted dancers adorned in breathtaking finery.
Rig Veda manuscripts in the Saraswathi Mahal library in Thanjavur contain splendid paintings belonging to the mid 18th Century, the period of King Serfoji II. Among them are the illustrations for the Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam. The one of the birth of Ugra Pandiyan shows a dancer accompanied by a Nattuvanar attired in Marathi style. The artiste is clad in bright red, in a costume strikingly similar to that worn by Bharatanatyam dancers today. The ornaments for the hair and the fan on her dress resemble tho se sported by our contemporary dancers. During the time of King Serfoji II, (in his court lived the illustrious Thanjavur quartette) rules were laid down as to how a dancer should dress, says indologist Nanditha Krishna.
The Kaccham saree and the blouse for the Bharatanatyam dancer probably dates back to the Nayak period. The Devadasis in the early decades of the century wore the Thuyya saree - silk tissue with zari and an extraordinary amount of jewellery.
The jewels were loaned by the Chettiar families and the Devadasis would stitch diamond earrings borrowed from them on their buns, says Padma Subrahmanyam.
With Rukmini Devi came the concept of the stitched costume - the fan in front and the upper cloth worn in the Coorg style. "Rukmini Devi's taste was impeccable and she had an unerring eye for colour. She designed the costume to suit her height and appear ance," says Sarada Hoffman, a close associate of the pioneer who was dance teacher for 40 years at Kalakshetra. "Her style of costume may have been followed by other dancers but we did not use it for artistes in Kalakshetra. For our dance dramas, she des igned costumes to suit the characters - the Ramayana inspired a whole range. The sarees used in our productions are always draped and not stitched," she adds.
With an excellent colour sense and love of traditional weaves and designs, Rukmini Devi spearheaded a renaissance of our textile heritage in addition to dance. E.Krishna Iyer is also said to have played a role in the design of the Bharatanatyam costume.
Films also contributed to a great deal of refinement in costumes in dance, says Padma Subrahmanyam. Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini and Vyjayanthimala used tailored costumes which were sleek and neat. From the Forties to the Sixties, the accepted form of Bharat anatyam dress was the pyjama with a fan made from the pallu of the saree, a back sheet and an upper cloth, the Thavani. As dancers developed their own style, they designed costumes to suit it. Dancers chosen at random explain how their costumes have evol ved. Padma Subrahmanyam was inspired by sculpture to design coiffures, costumes and jewellery to suit her Karanas. Malavika Sarukkai feels that bright colours and thalai saaman look overfussy for her style "which has passion but also has austerity." It i s necessary to find the balance she says. "My costume is not to make me an object of beauty. The emphasis should be on the dance rather than the dancer. Too many colours in flowers and costume detract from the dignity of dance. As one grows older, it is necessary to reduce the amount of jewellery. Minimal is needed but minimal is beautiful."
Lakshmi Viswanathan feels that since present day Bharatanatyam is mainly solo recital the norms laid down in the Natya Shastra for costume for theatre (comprising a group of characters) no longer apply. Since the appropriate jewellery, music, repertoire and costume make up the aesthetic link that defines a Bharatanatyam performance, the traditional look is important.
As willing to experiment in costume as in content, is Anita Ratnam. Group productions and innovative ventures have made her think in terms of gender neutral costumes, different modes of draping and using the assymetrical effectively. "But while choosing costumes, it is essential to retain Indianness as Indian drapes suit our figure best."
Innovation within the bounds of tradition is the yardstick most leading dancers use while arraying themselves. At the far end of the performing spectrum are those who eschew ornamentation as they feel it obscures the stark beauty of the movements. While the female dancers have a number of styles - the saree, the skirt and pyjama type - to choose from, the male dancer has a limited range. It was Rukmini Devi again, said Dhananjeyan (when interviewed some years ago) who evolved a truly masculine cos tume without excessive frills for the male dancer.
The textile riches of the country have provided a wealth of material to clothe the dancer. Each region has a distinct textile vocabulary and this in turn is reflected in the costume of the dance form. The Odissi dancer arrays herself in the beautiful Ikk at weaves, while the Mohiniyattam performer is clothed in the alluring white and gold bordered Kasavu saree of Kerala. In Manipuri, the costume differs according to the role - whether it is Krishna, Radha or the Sakhi. The gorgeously decorated skirt (mou nted on a bamboo frame) of the female artiste and the peacock feather adorned head dress of the artiste playing Krishna, at once identify the style.
The wide skirt used in Kathakali facilitates the majestic movements and gives the larger-than-life look. The make-up is of course all important. The colours used represent the gunas of the characters with red, black, yellow, green and orange being the pr edominant ones.
The Kuchipudi costume is brighter and has a more dazzling quality than the Bharatnatyam costume to suit the love lyrics which form the essence of the repertoire.
Ornaments too echo the artistic traditions of the region, whether it is the filigree silver jewellery of Odissi, the gold jewellery of Mohiniyattam or the stone-studded ornaments of Tamil Nadu which hark back to the Sangam Age.
The ancient Tamils were great sea-farers and had access to imported gems which they used lavishly. Tamil Nadu was well known for its stone-studded jewellery, especially those set with cabochon rubies. Rubies, uncut diamonds and emeralds were set with gre at precision and beauty in etched gold on a solid gold base. The bridal headdress or Thalai saaman consists of ornaments that outline the forehead and parting and are flanked by ornaments shaped like the sun and the moon on either side of the parting. Th e sun symbolises brightness and power, the moon, peace and romance. The serpentine Jada Nagam adorns the whole plait, beginning with a small jewel shaped like Adisesha and ending with the kunjalam or tassels. The Rakkodi, a circular jewel carrying the de sign of a peacock tops it all.
The Devadasi dancers believing themselves to be brides of the Lord adopted the bridal jewellery and the tradition has continued, says Shakuntala Jagannathan in 'The Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu' (edited by Dr. Nanditha Krishna).
The necklace with tiny gem studded mangoes linked together (the mangamalai), the gold coins strung together (the Kasumalai) and pendants designed in the shape of swans, peacocks and parrots are all typical South Indian items that adorn dancers today. The vanki (arm band), odinayanan(waist band), nose stud and swinging ear ornaments (jhumiki), are also derived from the heritage bank of Tamil Nadu.
As dance schools dot the capitals of the world and as students of NRI teachers launch out on their arangetrams the demand for jewellery has increased. Silver has replaced gold, and artificial gems, the rubies. The demand has increased five fold in the p ast ten years. "To bring down costs and make it easier to wear, the jewellery has been brought down to one-tenth of its original weight without sacrificing the artistry," says A. Kalkirajan of Sukra Jewellery whose address book reads like a map of the wo rld. The making of the jewellery is a closely guarded secret of the hereditary craftsmen of Nagercoil.
Whatever be the dancer's requirements and design, far away from the arc lights and the glamour work the costumers who create the magic of the attire. With imagination as sharp as their skills, they tack and sew, cut and paste, displaying the dedication o f the true craftsman. And always with the personality of the dancer in mind, whether she is a debutante or a prima donna.
Tailors like Aiyyelu and T. V. S. Mani in Chennai are bywords in the art of making costumes for Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi or Manipuri. The very mention of Aiyyelu is enough to make leading dancers go into raptures about his flair in design, his di scerning eye for colour and the manner in which through skilful cutting or subtle padding he can enhance the artiste's figure.
For dance costumer T. V. S. Mani the rhythm of his sewing machine has kept pace with not only the firm footsteps of various dances but also with the march of time. Mani who has been in the field for 30 years has kept abreast with the computer age by equi pping himself with E-mail and Fax. "My NRI customers in the past had to wait for six months to obtain their costume. Now they get it within 10 days."
But discerning costumers like Aiyyelu and Mani are few. Dancers who blindly trust their costumer can end up with disastrous results on stage. In the Sixties, a Bharatanatyam dancer would change her costume as many as five times to perform the Andal, Kurathi, snake dance and other items. Now she goes through the whole recital in just one or two costumes.
The emphasis on a neutral costume that lends itself attractively to the performance has increased. All the more reason for bestowing greater attention on a well-fitting and pleasing costume. For far too often does the audience's collective heart sink on seeing the garishly made up and attired danseuse walk on to the stage threatening to make the next two hours a visual ordeal to be endured.
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