My very first costume design project was a one-act play ‘Rangapanchalik’. This was in 1997. So why am I telling you about this now? Because this was my first costume designing. Because this project is close to my heart. Because I directed and designed it. Because I am being nostalgic here. Because this is one of the smallest budget period costume design I had done so far. Because.. just because!
I was doing MA in theatre at Lalit Kala Kendra, Pune University (Now Sawitribai Phule Pune University). In my final year we were supposed to direct a one-act play. Since I was more inclined towards the design side, I chose Rangapanchalik by P S Rege.
The play is about a little incidence in the story of Mahabharata. Beautiful language is one of the most important aspect of this play. It is the journey of Princess Uttara being a young innocent girl who is attracted to the Man in Brihannada to a mature young woman who accepts to marry Abhimanyu (Arjuna’s Son). Uttara and her two friends play a game of dolls, this very game takes the play ahead.
I had watched tele serial Mahabharata and also Marathi Sangeet Natak (Music theatre) based on different stories from Mahabharata. It is obvious choice to get design ideas from such things but for some reason, I was never convinced about the costumes used in the serials or plays. They never look authentic or convincing to me. Also the zero budget that we had would not have allowed me such elaborate clothing.
Research was needed and had no idea where to start but ‘books would tell me what they wore exactly in those times!’ so was my idea of research like any other newbie. When I started researching there were many moments of realization. Starting from the exact era of Mahabharata, which is not known or not confirmed yet. All we know is that the earliest text found is from 400 BC. Which means Mahabharata must have happened – if at all it happened – before those times. Information available with respect to costumes of that era is pretty limited and somewhat vague. Which meant that taking that limited information as a framework, I needed to build the characters totally. This was my first lesson regarding research. Research will always provide you a framework but the design of the character needs to be built by the designer considering many different aspects, but within the framework.
This play was of lyrical nature. It was not realistic.
The research did not talk about over shiny embellished garments and excessive jewelry like it is shown in serials or movies. Also the subtle and beautiful nature of the text did not allow the shine and bling. Fabric textures needed to be softer but non-reflective. The kind of drapes I was looking at needed the fabric to have less volume and a good fall.
Obviously cotton fabrics was my main choice. Thin cotton dupattas (scarves) were trendy in 96-97. You could buy these dupatta fabrics by the meter. This fabric was a bit thicker than cotton lining fabric. There was a huge variety in colours available in this fabric. Also this fabric was in 44 inch width which was perfect for draping a dhoti or a saree.
Uttara is innocent and pure. She needed to look fresh like a flower. Also I thought she is a princess and the fresh pastel greenish white would enhance her status.
Her friends are of few steps lower than her considering the social status. So I used bit darker, a bit muddied colours for them. At times in the play we don’t even know whether these friends are real or it is just one friend or there are two of them. So their colours were kept in same family but a different hues.
Jewelry is a big thing when it comes to Indian period costumes. The research did not say much about specific designs of the jewelry. The play was not realistic so I decided not to use gold in any of the jewelry. But I needed some jewelry to accentuate the costumes in a similar way it is done in ancient sculptures.
And oh yes! I did not any budget for this.
The only option I had left with respect to jewelry was to use oxidised silver looking pieces. Pune’s ravivar peth area had costume jewelry wholesalers. There you could get steel anklets pairs in traditional design by the kilo. I bought those to and got it layered with a chemical which gave an oxidised finish to all the pieces. I used these anklets to make necklaces, waistbands, shoulder decoration, hair decoration etc. I connected and disconnected these anklets to make all these pieces. I also used multiple strands of tiny off white pearls to make Uttara look royal.
This project earned me my first masters in theatre and also helped me get into UGA’s masters program in costume designing.
Looking back at these pictures, I can see many flaws. Design wise and construction wise as well. But it is important to me because this is where I started taking interest in costume crafts and jewelry making. This is when it all started.