“It is costume oriented piece and you have to do this. I need you to be on board as a designer.” One fine day I got a call from an old friend and director Satish Manwar. He was directing a production as a guest director at our alma mater ‘Lalit Kala Kendra Gurukul, SPPU’. It was a theatre piece based on a bunch of tribal tales from different parts of India. The project seemed interesting but pretty demanding time wise and as you all know, time had become the rarest commodity in my life. So I hesitated a bit first but Satish convinced me somehow and agreed to design the costumes. I became the guest designer for the production.
The production, Aadikatha is a theatrical presentation of a bunch of tribal folktales from all different parts of India. Simplicity, innocence and oneness with nature were the common factors of all the selected stories. Satish wanted to present these stories on the lines of what we can call ancient ritual drama.
Satish gave me few important pointers with respect to costumes. He did not want realistic costumes in the stories but the whole look should be realistic tribal. He wanted it to look like the actors have become tribal and then they are presenting these stories.
The stories are from different parts of India from extreme north-east to deep down south to islands like Andaman-Nicobar to western part of Gujrat and of course the central states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand etc. Costumes of tribals of these different regions are way too different from each other.
Designing costumes of each story differently as per the region would have looked like a 26 January’s National Integration parade. That could have been a disaster. The little note ‘Not realistic costume yet realistic tribal’ became a key factor in solving this issue.
Looking at all different costumes, I sketched a base or neutral tribal costume, which would make them look like realistic tribal people but it will not define the region other than India. A short dhoti is a typical Indian costume feature that can be seen almost everywhere in Indian rural regions barring few exceptions.
In rural India the dhoti is generally soft cotton white or unbleached. I only used the basic drape of a dhoti and decided to use different textures n colours than usual dhotis used in rural India.
Dhoti tied around waist and held in place with a sash giving extra support became a basic thing for every actor. Boys and girls included. In case of boys the knot of the sash was kept in front and in case of girls it was kept on left side.
Bare upper body is also a typical feature of men in rural and tribal India except the north-east, north and north-western parts where the climate is drastic n cold most of the times. Covering the upper body is more urban feature. I decided to keep the boys’ upper body bare. This became the base or neutral (in terms of the play only) costume for all the boys.
A blouse or choli like stitched upper garment which covers shoulders and arms is historically an urban or upper layer of society thing in Indian costume history. In tribal communities breasts would be covered either by a shawl like garment or something that would look like a bandeau or they would kept bare just like men. So for girls, I worked out a drape that would cover the breasts, mid-riff and also the sash tied around the waist. It would be held in place by a knot on left shoulder keeping most of the shoulders bare. This was a neutral costume for all the girls.
When it comes to Indian costume history, jewelry is a big thing. May it be urban, rural, tribal and may it be of any region, religion, caste, creed or community jewelry is an important part of the whole ensemble. For base costume I decided to use a neckpiece, an ankle piece for everyone, boys and girls. A heavy bracelet and a pair of earrings for all the girls were used in their base costume. Also I used many multicoloured bobby pins in the front hair on both side of the face for all the girls. This was a distinct feature that can be seen in Lamans; a nomadic tribe of India and Dongriya kondh or Orissa.
But I did not want this to look like a parade. So colours, colour combinations and textures differ for all of them. Ofcourse inside a frame of reference, in a specific colour palate. I used neutral colours of stones, wood, soil for dhotis. The sash colours were from flowers or animals. For girls’ tops I used bright saturated and primary or secondary colours. I decided to use rougher textures for dhoti. The rougher textures for stage are a result of really small print in same colour, self checks or stripes or the weave. Sash were of solid colours and girls’ top fabrics were printed in repetitive patterns.
Body tattooing is seen in all the ancient tribes of the world. India is no different. I checked references for body tattooing in Indian tribes and also went through motifs of different tribal art such as warli. I found few common things in tribal body tattooing and tribal art of India. They were small simple geometrical shapes, repetition of shapes and lines and dots, the motifs are closely placed, shapes represent common things of their everyday lives, no intricate shapes. I went with this theme. For boys two areas were fixed for tattooing. One was area starting below bicep till mid of the forearm on left arm and another was starting from right breast and covering right shoulder and arm till the end of bicep. For girls, since their right shoulder was bare, right shoulder to end of bicep was fixed just like a Raglan sleeve.
This was realistic looking tribal costume. This was going to make the actors transform into tribal people.
Quick renderings for base costumes
And now for the enactment I was supposed to go the non realistic way. Also non stylised way. So when it is a story about animals, the actor was not supposed to have an animal headgear made in a stylistic way. We needed to make sure the ‘the actors who are tribals now are impersonating all these characters.’ is maintained throughout. But the characters needed to have something defining them from the rest of the base costumes so it would be easier for audience to understand.
I borrowed different accents in costumes from different tribal communities all around India and used those accents as per the characters and the context of the story. These accents were a very basic and easy headdress, a headband, striped fabrics, calf bracelets from north-east, a length of fabric used like a shawl and held in place with a knot on one side , coin necklaces from many places, jewellery collar neckpiece from northeast, feathered headdress of north east, Hansali (big ring) like embellished neckpiece from Chhattisagad tribals, use of pompoms in jewellery from Muria tribes, different ways of draping a dupatta over the base costumes from everywhere, a very simple headgear made by tying a sash around your head, white with red border fabrics and checks fabrics from Assam, tattered fabric skirts from Andaman and Nicobar islands and so on.
You can see all of these things in my quick renderings in the following PDF.