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Clothes too have stories to tell
- Ashwini Kaarthikeyan

February 10, 2014

For four days, I had the privilege to attend the master class conducted by internationally renowned, revivalist fashion designer, Sonam Dubal, entitled, 'Clothes tell stories' at Adishakti Laboratory for Theater Arts & Research, in Puducherry.

My preoccupation with redesigning the Bharatanatyam costume began a couple of years ago, when I began sharing my art as a soloist through the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. Through this workshop, I felt a kinship with Sonam's rich cultural heritage and childhood. Watching me work with the saree to help redesign my dance costume, during this workshop, he astutely observed and told me, "As a first step, begin to write in as much detail, all that restricts your dance in the present costume. Take a clear look at how things have slowly been evolving in your life. Where do your roots lie? The whole dance-scape is the world you are coming from, not having to do much with what you are technically learning in your dance. What is it that attracts you? What do you feel repulsed by? How are you being true to yourself, your individuality? Each accessory and detail on your fabric is reflecting you. Visualise where you can be more comfortable. Observe in as much detail where the restrictions in your costume are stemming from. Where does the problem lie? To break the conditioning, don't follow the tenets of the original design. Also steer away from the Kanjeevaram silks that are traditionally used in your costume. I observe how comfortable and at ease you are in the everyday saree. I see how free you are with it, so why don't you begin with tying two or three sarees together and see where it takes you? Continue to reflect on the heritage that makes you, who you are today. Let go of fear or any need for approval. Liberate yourself from the costume!" So as a first step, I found myself questioning: What is my heritage? Where does the uniqueness of my cultural root lie?

Since childhood, I remember feeling being deeply drawn to the sensuous, fluid, six yards and nine yards fabric of the saree. I would observe with care, how beautifully some of the elder women in my family draped these, almost liquid, fabrics of varying textures, weights and hues. Ironically, I recall that the most striking and poetic saree-drape was in the way that my blind, maternal grandmother, Veermati Patil, whom I lovingly address as Maa, wore her saree. Though born with perfect sight and health, her sight faded into complete blindness, when I was about five years old. Gifted with a deep sense of aesthetics and an eye for beauty, her nimble fingers transformed anything ugly, unkempt, or distasteful into a work of art and beauty. While her sight faded into darkness, as the eldest granddaughter, I was her ever-eager apprentice in all manner of things. She patiently tutored me into the art of grooming oneself, caring for the home and the hearth, which nourishes our body, mind and soul. Nestling in her warm arms and chest at night, she carefully whispered into my eager ears, colourful and detailed stories about our ancestors, our Maratha heritage and the artistic skills that lay dormant within each member of our lineage.

Every morning after her bath and just before twilight, she opened her ornate wooden box that stored her ivory comb, a bottle of coconut hair oil, Afghan Snow face-powder, three small silver boxes. The first stored beeswax upon which she smeared a careful round circle of vermillion kumkum that came all the way from Baroda. And the third silver box held the sparkling Gold dust called mukis that she patiently outlined the red circle of kumkum with. Though having grown blind, she needed help only in a few things like: if the hem of her saree, evenly laced the stone floor, or if the powder on her face was evenly caressing her soft face, or if any unwanted red kumkum dust had fallen on the smooth slope of her regal nose, or if the golden penumbra from the mukis kissed her red kumkum at its lyrical rim! By divine grace, I was the privileged, eldest granddaughter, whom she gave the choicest place of exclusive apprenticeship throughout my summer holidays, when all her four children and nine grandchildren journeyed to stay with her at our simple coastal home in Mumbai. Through those precious childhood years, she sowed within me a sacred seed about my heritage and our ancestral Maratha roots that stemmed from the historical town of Kolhapur in Maharashtra. She groomed me with stories about what it was to be a Maratha woman from a cultured and respectable family. Her sensitive eye for traditional jewelry too had stories to tell. She awakened me to the intensity and luminosity of 24 carat gold, vis a vis, a lesser metal. She gifted me my great grandmother's ornate gold earrings that encased a pair of tiger's nails. My ancestors, she said, strongly believed that wearing these keeps one fearless through life's many challenges. She made me aware that everything we do, speak, wear, or drape has a story to tell...

Living inside this consciously for the past four decades, a few years ago after I began my journey as a soloist in the classical form of Bharatanatyam, I recognised that despite being at ease in the traditional saree and jewelry in daily life, I'm restricted by my dance costume and its layers of jewelry. I'm happy to have been initiated to the world of fashion design through Sonam Dubal's intuitive flair for design and fashion.

I share here with you, two photographs of my courageous baby-step at redesigning the Bharatanatyam costume using the knitwear fabric that was provided to us, during the resident Master class on Fashion Design at Adishakti, Puducherry.

Ashwini Kaarthikeyan is a poet, artist and Bharatanatyam dancer.

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