According to Raman, costume is a study of heritage, space and time, events that take place nationally, globally and politically, which are emulsified into a design that can hold an audience in its grip.
“The costumes start their performance before the dancers even set foot on stage, because they say everything about the show,” remarks designer Sandhya Raman while elaborating on the role costumes play in dance performances.
A costume is a visual narrative that sets the mood and tone of a recital, resonating with the audience long before a dancer adds the flourishes of movement and abhinaya to the representation. It’s an image that hooks concertgoers, Raman explains, and if unattractive, it may as well put off the audience.
To discuss these nuances of costume design for the stage, Raman is set to draw on her three-decade career as a costume designer for traditional and contemporary dance productions throughout the workshop, Reinventing dance costumes, presented by the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. During sessions spread over two Fridays, Raman will not only outline his journey as a costume designer, but also focus on reinterpreting designs for the contemporary scene, sharing his insights with budding artists on their specific design projects.
Raman points out that costume for the performing arts is a very niche profession, which is still becoming established, “and you have to be very passionate about the performance itself, the dance or the theatre.” “Passionate about dance”, designing costumes for dancers is her way of being close to art. “In my head, I dance with my fabrics,” she says.
Raman’s career as a costume designer began with American choreographer Jonathan Hollander’s 1991 ballet, Moon Beam, which featured dancer Mallika Sarabhai as the lead. One of her most cherished projects, she recalls dressing Sarabhai in pure white Bengal cotton, creating an almost ethereal and erotic impact, with leotard tights and a dress that shone brightly from the yellow lights and blue sewn into its fabric. For the designer, who would go on to work with stalwarts like Astad Deboo, Hema Rajagopalan and Aditi Mangaldas, among others, her first assignment continues to be an “all-time favorite” steeped in memories of her youth.
According to Raman, costume is a study of heritage, space and time, events that take place nationally, globally and politically, which are emulsified into a design that can hold an audience in its grip. It is this journey of understanding the underlying themes of a choreography and then molding the details and design of a fabric to the concept that Raman aims to share with artists and performers during his workshop.
Additionally, creating costumes for a production is a collaboration, she argues, where the dancer and costumer need to be “in sync.” Thus, an important facet of his creative process is to interact with performers and choreographers from the ideation phase to discuss the motifs that the project is trying to explore. This step is crucial, Raman points out, “Over the past ten years, dancers began to involve me from the very beginning”, allowing him to research the stories and ideas that would be represented in the performance before creating its silhouettes.
Costuming for productions in New Delhi or Chennai, Raman also attends several in-person rehearsals to understand the choreography while for his international projects, video calls are scheduled to match erratic time zones because “All things considered, dancers have a budget,” she says with a smile, and can’t get her designer to come to every rehearsal.
With this process allowing for a deep understanding of choreography, lighting, and formations, Raman introduces interventions in fabrics, details, and cuts that would be comfortable for a performer executing rigorous movements while simultaneously engaging the audience. in aesthetic activities.
In one of her most ambitious projects, Raman describes how she explored a fusion of Bharatnatyam and circus: one, an immaculate classical art, the other, a light and colorful experience of picnicking in a space open. For the performance that would take place in a London park, the designer, with her team, created a plaid fabric that both celebrated the classical repertoire and symbolized the mats often spread out at a picnic on which people can extend.
On the other hand, within the classical repertoire, Raman’s thought process, she admits, tends to highlight the lineage of the dance form. “If I’m promoting Odissi,” she says, “I look at where the fabric comes from, where the dancer got her moves, and then I bring that culture into the dance to reconnect the materials and the dance and the dancer.”
“We have the best taste,” she says, sleek combinations like white with zari or fabrics like multiple, Chanderi, brocades and jamdanis. Even tribal sensibilities like bright fuchsia pinks or fluorescent yellows portray an austerity that’s anything but garish. “That’s what we have to bring to the public.”
And yet, there continue to be challenges along the way. Raman recalls designing a deep royal blue costume for a dance drama performed by artists Geeta Chandran and Rashid Ansari which depicted the story of the mythological queen Kaikeyi. Behind closed doors at the Akshara Theater in New Delhi, against a backdrop of “chatai” color, this combination of blue against brown “looked phenomenal” but for the same recital planned on a stage with a black background, the blue color was lost in the darkness. “The situations demand a re-change,” laments Raman, describing how she recreated a new costume in a “deer color” with multiple layers that represented the varied personalities of royalty, with 24 hours for the live show.
This workshop then becomes an opportunity to learn more about these and many other varied aspects of costume, from understanding color and texture theory that takes into account a performer’s body type to the type of curtains suitable for a certain place.
Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, head of dance at NCPA, explains that like most performers, she also had her own share of costume faux pas where she chose to wear a sari simply because it looked good without considering whether she was beautiful in it. That’s where a costume designer comes in, she suggests, because a costume “shouldn’t distract from what you’re trying to present.”
In the post-pandemic space, as performers perform live on the virtual stage, new challenges have arisen in assembling the curtains, adjusting the lighting and the available space depending on the digital medium.
“A major thing during lockdown has been the background,” Dasgupta remarks. Perform a ashtapadi (a poem with eight verses) depicting Radha and Krishna, in the context of her living room, decked out in traditional attire made for a very comedic experience, she notes cheerfully.
The big challenge then is for a performer to reconcile costume, choreography and backdrop with the new medium and specifically for that, says Raman, “We have now created a line for people who want to do digital performances.”
Another hurdle, the designer points out, for a performer who draws a virtual audience in the thousands is that once a recital is performed, another cannot be staged in the same outfit. So, as a costume designer in the post-pandemic world, there is a need to help performers create new suits from their existing wardrobe that will appear different on screen every time. “You don’t have to have a full set, you can just have a few select pieces,” she advises.
Acknowledging that as a result of the pandemic, the entertainment industry has taken a financial beating with no new projects, Raman says the purpose of this workshop for her and Dasgupta is simple: to allow participants to take a perspective from the sessions to their wardrobes which allows them to revisit their pre-existing costumes, recycle some, restore others, and return to the stage with a new look, instead of spending money creating new dresses.