Indian Classical

Fashioning the dancing body: Tracing the evolution of the Bharatanatyam costume, from Devadasis to modern times

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Throughout history, Bharatanatyam costumes have walked a tightrope between revealing and hiding the female form, reflecting the underlying conflict between the sensual and the spiritual as it evolved

‘Curious Fashion’ is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.


I decided to KonMari my clothes a few weeks ago. This involved heaving down several timeworn suitcases from the loft that were now useful only as storage rather than luggage. In one such case, bundled into a blue plastic bag, were three Bharatanatyam dance costumes from different stages of my life.

One was a hot pink polyester and gota child’s costume – a teensy blouse with a frilly fan on the chest, and a pajama with another big-sister frilly fan along the front. Another was a red cheap silk skirt-and-blouse set with a black and gold border, and a pleated separate palla. And finally, there was an adult, proper Bharatanatyam costume tailored by master Radheshyam of Mandi House in mustard yellow Kanchipuram silk with magenta and gold borders, an elaborate five-piece set that should have come with instructions for assembly.

They still shone like a treasure even after decades in ignominy.

Even as I decided which pile to put them in, I wondered about how the Bharatanatyam costume had changed over the years. As I’d grown, I could see the number of pieces in my costume had also grown, with layers added as pleats over my blouse and various extras around the hip. This sent me down an internet black hole, thanks to one fantastic link, that took me deeper and deeper into the history and evolution of the costume.

The first tailored costume is said to have been the innovation of Rukmini Devi Arundale, as she began her lifelong project to sanitise and popularise the dance form, originally performed by Devadasi women. A photograph of Arundale’s first public performance on stage in 1935 shows her in a stitched ivory and gold costume, designed by her Italian seamstress Madam Cazan.

Rukmini Devi Arundale. Twitter/@prasarbharati

But one can’t separate the origin of the costume story from the narrative of how Bharatanatyam was reinvented and ‘made respectable’ by Arundale and others at a time when the British were outlawing the Devadasis as immoral (being seen as a conduit for prostitution and sex work). Erotic elements and shringara were minimised while spirituality and bhakti were embellished. Intricate footwork and the physicality of the dance dominated over abhinaya and its emotive, seductive aspects. Arundale’s stitched pajama-style outfit with blouse and attendant frills and fans (literally) was novel, genius even, to allow movement with ease in its vigorous new avatar.

The new costume befitted its new environs and status – no longer performed in temples and courts as ritual by poor Devadasis, but on stage essentially by middle-class non-Devadasis for the entertainment of a savarna audience with pious tales from Hindu mythology.

I had imagined the sanitising of the dance form would have involved more covering up of the body. That perhaps before this ‘intervention’, the costume worn by the Devadasis may have been more erotic. But this is not so. Most unexpectedly, it seems that as Bharatanatyam attained more respectability, its costumes became sexier and more garish.

Texts and images predating the 30s show Devadasis’ costumes as being a nine-yard sari usually of cheap fabric, worn in a dhoti style or over a pajama, with the palla bunched around the waist in a bulky manner. Far from being sensuous, GS Ghurye, who wrote a book on their costumes in 1958, called it “a slightly ugly corpulent look”.

Over the decades, as Bharatanatyam was domesticated, the costumes became more glamorous. Every dancer had their quirks. Arundale herself had a fondness for innovative sleeves – adorned with stiff fans and pleats, like flattened rhino horns. The famous Tanjore Balasaraswati (known as “the last great Devadasi”) continued to wear her costumes in the simple way her foremothers had. CS Lakshmi, who wrote a book on classical dancers called Mirrors and Gestures recalls in a video dialogue how Shanta Rao courted scandal when she wore her sari costume below her navel. Yamini Krishnamurthy created a stir when she raised the hemline “to show more leg”. Her blouses were also infamous, with fans in different sizes at the chest, some with golden lace outlining the bosom area.

Designs were also influenced by popular films, and interestingly, by State patronage.

In post-Independence India, Indian classical dance was used to advertise for tourism, and symbolise national unity in diversity. Dancers went routinely to the USSR, China and the UK as cultural emissaries, their exotic costumes a source of fascination for foreign media and audiences. They had a special role in how the world imagined the new India. Even Jawaharlal Nehru understood this. An oft-repeated story is of dancer Indrani Rahman (also Miss India 1952!) in 1955 being told by Nehru at a preview of a performance before a trip to China that the pajama under her sari costume was not looking nice and she should cut it. She did, at the knee. Rahman’s son called it “another example of Nehruvian modern”.

The Bharatanatyam costume served several agendas, and was simultaneously protected by purists, its sanctity held up as a symbol of tradition.

Dancers today experiment with colour and design as per individual preferences, but stay within some unspoken rules. Except for the odd rebel.

Geeta Chandran was the first I saw dressed outside these limits, in a full-sleeved black blouse, later an all-black costume with a sash of maroon silk to match her massive bindi. Leela Samson, another vanguard, chose to do things differently as well. Rejecting the constant accentuation of breasts and hips at the heart of design innovations in Bharatanatyam, she advocated comfort, sometimes wearing a half pleat rather than a full one, and experimented with asymmetry. The only dancer to have viscerally rejected the “dolling up” to service the male gaze has been the ‘rebel dancer choreographer’ Chandralekha.

Chandralekha’s students performed in earth-toned cotton saris. She did not bother with ghungroos, preferring the music of feet stamping the ground over the rabble of bells. Chandralekha brought back to centre-stage Bharatnatyam’s engagement with the body. In an interview, she said of the form, “It has energy. It has power. Conceptually it is so strong. It tells you that your body is the centre of your world.”

You might forget that sometimes, with the ambivalence towards the female body that has been evident in Bharatanatyam. A woman’s body has been so central, yet such a nuisance to its obsession with middle class ‘respectability’. Throughout history, Bharatanatyam costumes have walked a tightrope between revealing and hiding the female form, reflecting the underlying conflict between the sensual and the spiritual as it evolved.

It has served to define the desirable Indian woman, in the eyes of everyone but the woman herself. The costumes, ghungroos, ‘safetipins’ and pancake makeup. Those extra buns, hair clips of all manners to tame our modern hairstyles and bobs into submission, the long sheaths of false hair to be braided into a long dangling swishy plait. In retrospect, it all feels like an exercise in deception. A way of telling us what the ideal nayika looked like — without our own opinion on the matter.

Today’s costumes don’t take into account that the nayika is changing, as is the gaze of the audience. She is not the long-haired, dark-eyed, silk wearing, coy curvaceous beauty. But has bodies, hair, eyes, sensibilities, sensualities of multiple kinds.

One only needs to watch male dancers of another generation to understand the gendered baggage that the traditional costume encumbers us with.

I remember watching Odissi guru and dancer Kelucharan Mohapatra in Delhi many years ago. He was in his 70s, with a wizened face and wheatish complexion. The audience watched, mesmerised, as he turned from Radha to Krishna like quicksilver. Here he was an enraged Radha, accusing Krishna of a dalliance with another, her long strand of hair evidence on his shoulder, stain of her lips still on his lips. Then he was Krishna glibly protesting that no, no, the hair was Radha’s. The stain? Why, it was from a jamun he’d just eaten off of the jamun tree. He was bare-chested, in a cream coloured dhoti, with his sacred thread dangling loosely off him. Perhaps his eyes were lined with kajal. Perhaps he had a sandalwood tika on his forehead. Perhaps he wore earrings? The thing is, I don’t remember.

I don’t remember because it didn’t matter.

Nothing mattered except that mischievous expression, that twinkle in his eyes, not silk nor pleats but that invisible cloak that transforms the dancer into the dance.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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