Designer Sandhya Raman on her journey of costuming for dance performances, design innovations for a digital stage

·7-min read

"Costumes start their performance even before dancers put their foot on the stage, because they say everything about the show," remarks designer Sandhya Raman while elaborating on the role costuming plays in dance performances.

A costume is a visual narrative that sets the mood and tone of a recital, which resonates with the audience long before a dancer adds the flourishes of movement and abhinaya to the performance. It is an image that hooks the spectators to the concert, explains Raman, and if unappealing, can just as easily put off the audience.

To discuss such nuances of costume designing for the stage, Raman is set to draw from her three-decade-long career as a costumer for traditional and contemporary dance productions through the course of the workshop, Reimagining Dance Costumes, brought forth by the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. In the sessions spread across two Fridays, Raman will not only describe her costuming journey but also focus on reinterpreting designs for the contemporary stage, sharing her insights with aspiring artists on their specific design projects.

Raman points out that costuming for performing arts is a very niche profession, one that is still establishing itself, "and you have to be very passionate about the performance itself, dance or theatre." As a 'passionate dance lover', designing costumes for dancers is her way of being close to the art form. "In my mind, I am dancing with my fabrics," she asserts.

The costume designed by Sandhya Raman for Jonathan Hollander's 1991 choreography, Moonbeam, featuring danseuse Mallika Sarabhai.
The costume designed by Sandhya Raman for Jonathan Hollander's 1991 choreography, Moonbeam, featuring danseuse Mallika Sarabhai.

The costume designed by Raman for Jonathan Hollander's 1991 choreography, Moonbeam, featuring danseuse Mallika Sarabhai. Image via sandhyaraman.com

Raman's career as a costume designer began with American choreographer Jonathan Hollander's 1991 ballet, Moonbeam, that featured danseuse Mallika Sarabhai in the lead. One of her most cherished projects, she recalls dressing Sarabhai in a sheer white Bengal cotton, creating an almost ethereal and erotic impact, complete with leotard tights and a robe that shone brightly owing to the yellow and blue lights 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 favourite" infused as it is with memories of being young.

According to Raman, costuming is a study of heritage, space and time, of events unfolding nationally, globally and politically, all of which emulsify into a design that can hold an audience in its thrall. It is this journey of understanding the underlying themes of a choreography and then moulding the detailing and design of a fabric to suit the concept that Raman aims to share with artists and performers during her workshop.

Moreover, creating costumes for a production is a collaboration, she maintains, where the dancer and costumer have to be 'in sync.' So, an important facet of her creative process involves interacting with performers and choreographers right from the ideation phase to discuss the motifs the project attempts to explore. This stage is crucial, Raman emphasises, "In the last ten years dancers have started involving me right in the beginning," allowing her to do research on the stories and ideas that would be depicted in the performance before creating her silhouettes.

Costumes designed by Raman for a performance entitled Seasons.
Costumes designed by Raman for a performance entitled Seasons.

Costumes designed by Raman for a performance entitled Seasons. Image via sandhyaraman.com

Costuming for productions in New Delhi or Chennai, Raman also attends multiple rehearsals in-person to understand the choreography while for her international projects, video calls are scheduled to match erratic time zones because "All said and done, dancers have a budget," she says with a grin, and cannot fly their designer in for every rehearsal.

With this process that makes for a keen understand of choreography, lighting and formations, Raman introduces those interventions in fabrics, detailing and cuts that would be comfortable for an artist who is performing rigourous movements whilst simultaneously engaging the audience in aesthetic pursuits.

In one of her more ambitious projects, Raman describes how she explored a fusion of Bharatnatyam and circus: one, a pristine, classical art, the other, a light-hearted, colourful experience of picnicking in an open space. For the performance that would take place at a park in London, the designer, along with her team, created a chequered fabric that at once celebrated the classical repertoire and symbolised the mats that are often spread out at a picnic for people to sprawl upon.

On the other hand, within the classical repertoire, Raman's thought process, she admits, leans towards highlighting the lineage of the dance form. "If I am promoting Odissi," she says, "I am looking at where the fabric comes from, where the dancer got her moves from and then bringing that culture into the dance to re-establish the connection between the materials and the dance and the dancer."

"We have the finest of taste," she says, elegant combinations like white with zari or fabrics like mul, chanderi, brocades and jamdanis. Even tribal sensibilities like bright fuchsia pinks or fluorescent yellows depict a starkness that is anything but garish. "That is what we have to bring to the audience."

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. In the closed sitting of New Delhi's Akshara Theatre, against a background of a "chatai" colour, this combination of blue against brown "looked phenomenal" but for the very same recital scheduled to happen on a stage with a black background, the blue colour was lost to the darkness. "Situations do demand a re-change," Raman rues, describing how she recreated a new costume in a "deer colour" with multiple layers that stood for the varied personalities of the royalty, with 24 hours to go for the live performance.

This workshop then becomes an opportunity to learn about these and many other varied aspects of costuming, from understanding colour and texture theory that considers a performer's body type to the kind of drapes suited for a certain venue.

Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, the head of dance at NCPA, explains that like most performers, she too has had her own share of costume faux pas where she chose to wear a saree simply because it was beautiful without considering whether she looked beautiful in it. That is where a costume designer comes into play, she suggests, because a costume "should not distract from what you are trying to present."

In the post pandemic space, as performers take live shows to the virtual stage, new challenges have emerged in putting together drapes, adjusting the lighting and available space to suit the digital medium.

"One major thing during lockdown has been the background," remarks Dasgupta. Performing an ashtapadi (a poem with eight couplets) describing Radha and Krishna, against the backdrop of her drawing room, decked up in a traditional attire has made for a very comical experience, she notes good naturedly.

The big challenge then is for a performer to reconcile the costume, choreography and backdrop with the new medium and specifically for this, Raman says, "Now we have created a line for people who want to do digital performances."

Another hurdle, the designer points out, for a performer who attracts a virtual audience in the thousands is that once a recital is performed, another one cannot be staged in the same attire. So, as a costume designer in the post-pandemic world, what is required is to help performers make new combinations from their existing wardrobe that will appear different on the screen each time. "You don't have to have an entire ensemble, you can just have some select pieces," she advises.

Acknowledging that following the pandemic, the performing industry has taken a harsh financial beating with no new projects coming in, Raman says that the purpose of this workshop for her and Dasgupta is a simple one: to enable participants to take back a perspective from the sessions to their wardrobes that allows them to look afresh at their pre-existing costumes, upcycle some, restore others and get back to the stage with a new look, instead of doling out money on creating new dresses.

NCPA's two-part workshop, Reimagining Dance Costumes with Sandhya Raman will take place on 18 June and 25 June. To register, write to kpuranik@ncpamumbai.com or mdsouza@ncpamumbai.com

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