The glamour of Bharatanatyam is the dazzling costume and its varied styles
The uniqueness of Bharatanatyam is firmly imprinted by the elaborate costumes that the dancers wear. It is this look that gives the dance its final USP. Probably, ever since Bharatanatyam was conceptualised in the temple environs, costumes have been an integral feature of this classical dance. Ancient sculptures portray women bare above the waist, with a loosely-draped dhoti-style garment tied below. Later, they began to tie a cloth above; when stitched clothes came to India that modified into a blouse. The sari was traditionally wrapped in the Maharashtrian style, passing between the legs, like a dhoti. In ageing photos of the devadasi dancers, one sees them wearing several layers of skirts, or being draped in saris in a different way.
Whatever the style, glamour of this classical dance from South India is indeed its dazzling costumes made from the famous Kanchipuram silk saris woven in the region, especially in Tamil Nadu. The costumes are crafted from these elaborately woven saris, and are stitched in several alluring styles.
The costume most in vogue today—the stitched pleated costume—evolved sometime during the 1930s. This costume consists of “pyjama costume” where the dancer slips into a pair of loose trousers that are pleated at the thigh and knee to provide for flexibility. A knife-pleated fan, either to knee length or mid calf, links the two legs of the pyjamas and unfurls with geometric precision as the dancer strikes the ubiquitous Bharatanatyam ‘arai mandi’ posture.
A variation on this basic style is the ‘cycle cut’ pyjama where the lower ends are not stitched together, but are clenched tightly by the ankle bells. Or it could be a skirt costume which is a sari stitched like a skirt; or a sari costume which is cut and stitched to drape like (what else?) but a sari. Fans, pleats and borders are aesthetically manoeuvred to give each dancer a unique look. In fact, the costume has evolved constantly and variations of each style are undertaken to provide for distinctiveness.
But today, like everything else in Bharatanatyam, costumes too are being modified to suit the changing visual aesthetics of the dance and to flatter the particular physical frame of the dancer, even while keeping a sharp eye on how the clothed body will look in motion. Several renowned dancers have added punch to the evolving dance costume. Yamini Krishnamurthy abandoned the melaku (dupatta) favouring a fan that added mystique to her blouse. With her tall frame and sharp movements, her costume improvisation worked like a magic. But alas, when others tried to embrace that style, they ended up looking rather shabby.
Vyjayanthimala Bali dazzled with her uniquely -draped sari that bestowed on her the unerring image of a dancing goddess on the stage. With a careful eye choosing best of Kanchi silk weaves, her costumes were as much discussed as her dance. Leela Samson worked extensively on evolving a sari style that flattered her dance persona and emphasised her unique style. Among the younger generation, Malavika Sarukkai and Priyadarshini Govind have both moved the costume dialogue. Malavika’s quick changes of fans, and Priyadarshini’s innovative mixes of fabrics and patterns have yielded new visuals to their dance.
Costume designer Sandhya Raman has researched on costumes for dance and is enabling several dancers to alter the visual aesthetics of how dance can be clothed. There are several others too, I am sure, who have embarked on a similar journey.