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Sandhya Raman: More dancers should get serious about costumes
- Shveta Arora
Pics: Anoop Arora

February 9, 2018

When we watch a dance performance, the first impression which lasts through the performance and stays with us afterwards too, is the costume of the dancer. The costume can also make or mar a performance -the colours, the pattern and the extent of mobility it allows, its comfort etc. Sandhya Raman is one of the leading dance stylists, designing for some top dancers in India and abroad. In a conversation with her at her Desmania Studio in Delhi, we try to understand her work.

Sandhya Raman

How did you get into designing?
My training is from NID (the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad). Before NID, I was doing textiles in an export house for a year-and-a-half. My boss there wanted me to do fashion, and I knew nothing about fashion. He said it's not so difficult, draw fashion figures, you can do fashion designing. I would be very frustrated, because I would do some 200 sketches and only 4 or 5 would get picked up. Then I worked with this French designer who came to the export house. I would keep looking at how she drew - this is way back in 1987-88, when fashion was nothing great here. India was just a produce-and-send place. When I saw this woman do so much of it, I thought I should learn fashion. My boss never understood that textiles and fashion are two different areas and he can't get the same thing from one person. But today, I think differently, after being trained in both areas.

I quit and got into NID, where I did my postgrad from 1988-91. I did apparel design, that's the larger umbrella of clothing - it includes fashion, uniform design and costume. Before that, I had already worked with Suhag Traders, which was the export house, and Merchant Adventures of Narnia, which was a buying house for garments. So I already knew what was current in the garment industry from the perspective of a buying house as well as an export house. When I was in NID, I started designing uniforms. Then I did a movie called Totanama while in NID. Chandita Mukherjee directed this film, and it won the National Short Fiction Film award way back in 1992. I did the clothes for the main character called Khujasta. So that started the spark of interest - how do you make things for stage. It doesn't have to be expensive; it can just look expensive. A whole world of stagecraft was taught to us, which I learnt while doing that movie. I did my diploma with (apparel brand) Bandhej - that was the first time Archana Shah was coming out with a brand, so I did the entire collection for her for my final diploma project. It was a huge collection that she markets even now.

While I was doing all this as a student, American dancer Jonathan Hollander (Battery Dance Company, New York) had come to Ahmedabad as a Fulbright lecturer working with Mallika Sarabhai at Darpana. He'd come to NID to give a talk to students who were about to graduate - the textile and fashion department, the apparel department - and he explained what they did in terms of dance clothing. His wife Noelle, a dancer as well as a very good designer, gave us the exposure to what goes into making dance clothing. I was glued to her talk, as if she was telling me everything. I was inspired and decided that this was my area, because I was always interested in dance, and export never challenged me so much.

How did you branch out into dance costuming?
I got a job at Lakshmi Mills, Coimbatore, as their fashion consultant. But NID back home wanted me to put up a show, my final work, when we passed out, because we were the first apparel batch at NID. I came back and met the director and said that I'll put up my work, but not as a fashion show. He was totally aghast -here was an apparel design student who wanted to show fashion, but did not want to put up a fashion show! I made a huge collection while working at Lakshmi Mills. I called up Mallika Sarabhai and told her I wanted her to choreograph something that's a walk and not a dance production - dancers walking in my clothes. So in 1991, she and Jonathan Hollander choreographed my fashion line. It was such a beautiful show because at NID, we have this tomb kind of thing at the backdrop and the entire group of dancers walked around it, moving in beautiful, elegant movements. There were five collections I had done, and that's how I launched the first group of apparel products over there.

There was a program called Moonbeam, in which Mallika and Shashidharan Nair danced together. And back in '91, they were doing that semi-ballet kind of dance in which he was picking her up. It was exotic to look at because back then, everybody used to dance on their own on stage; nobody was in such close proximity. The costumes I had done were in Bengal cotton and sheers with stretch inside. The choreography was beautiful. On returning to New York, Jonathan called me and said he was going to launch Moonbeam in NY, so could I make the costumes again for his dancers. I shipped the garments to Jonathan, and that was my first project with him. I started with costumes. I never did fashion. Fashion I did later, because I had to keep my costume karigars alive. Costuming was not everyday, it was seasonal. It was very new in India; people did not want to take a costume, they preferred tailors who might've been less expensive because tailors cut corners. Very few dancers understand this; nobody wants to put money into this because they don't understand the value of it.

Sandhya Raman

Anyway, that was my starting point. I continued to do one or two more projects for him from Coimbatore only. Then I half-moved to Ahmedabad - 15 days in Ahmedabad, and 15 days in Coimbatore. At that time, I did an exposition on Nehru's book The Discovery of India at Worli's Nehru Centre for NID, themed on the waterways of India-how the drape, the colours and the motifs change along the waterways. One section was on the Rajasthani tribal area. I still remember that because I got these terracotta mannequins with the help of people from CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad). They actually baked the terracotta mannequins and I draped the garments on them. It was fun and good learning. Every project has to teach you something, otherwise how is it exciting? I also did a Himachal project - the life of Kinnaur, etc. Everywhere I would go, I would document the garments there, the fabric, what is traditional, and my love for textiles - because I'm a textile designer also. It would help me understand the textiles, the why and what of them.

Then I shifted to Delhi and got married. My husband's also from NID, he's a product designer. At that time, Jonathan called me and said he was working on a project called Songs of Tagore, an Indo-US collaboration. They had Mallika Sarabhai as the Indian dancer, American ballet dancers, Sanghamitra and Sameer Chatterjee - Sanghamitra sang the Tagore songs and Sameer was on the tabla with Badal Roy - and I was roped in as designer. There was no email - just phone calls and fax. When he gave me the concept, I asked how I would know what it was. He gave me the music (seven compositions) and asked me to revert. I got translations done and we interpreted it as seasons - the final season was spiritual.

I chose to do a transition from cottons to silk, and depicted my costumes through sketches, created a mood board and colour board and everything, and sent it all to him by fax. He approved and one day, Jonathan told me to go to the Air India office and "pick up your ticket." It was a surprise! We never even knew how to talk about fees. He had said he was sending the money so I said okay. You never thought in those days, how much am I going to make out of it. It was just sheer excitement. And then I reached New York. I didn't know that it was a 7 city tour. I was nearly five months pregnant with my first child. People would give me a standing ovation when I would come to the stage because they'd say, oh, this girl is doing it! Mallika (Sarabhai) was very protective because she was an experienced mother and here I was a young mother-to-be. I had the best time of my life.

What projects did you work on?

Anita Ratnam's costume for 'Faces: Blessed Unrest'
Photo courtesy: Arangham

Gauri Diwakar

After I came back to India, I continued doing projects for Jonathan, through whom I met Anita Ratnam. My first project with her was called Purush, in which she was the sutradhar. She would introduce the character and move out, and then introduce a character and move out again. So I did a long anarkali kind of thing with a drape that you could tie as an angavastram or as a shawl or keep changing the form, depending on the way you want to look. It was interesting as a costume but I wasn't expecting her to dance in that costume. We'd never met - it was over the phone that this was worked out. Later, I got to know that she wanted to also dance, and this costume restricted her because she's a Bharatanatyam dancer. After that there was no looking back - I worked with Sonal Mansingh, Leela Samson, Geeta Chandran, costume after costume…

An exciting project I did three years back with Hema Rajagopalan in Chicago was on Varna - Colours of White. It was a lovely concept, and last year she did something called Incomplete Gesture, where I didn't have to stick to the Bharatanatyam form of costuming. I feel costuming is like a bridge between the dance, the dancer and the audience. That is why I'm very careful about which genre of dance it is. I do not mix genres at all. If someone is rooted in Bharatanatyam, my costume will also have elements of that, though it can be changed depending on who the dancer is. If it's a completely modernized dance, let's say like Anita, whose Neo Bharatam does not fall in the category of pure classical, I can use any kind of fabrics. For Geeta Chandran or Malavika Sarukkai, I like to use traditional fabrics because their format is rooted in tradition. Also, I like to use as many pure materials and traditional materials because I feel that as dancers, they're very inspirational to youngsters. You would aspire to pick up what she's wearing. And what does that lead to? It doubles the benefit for the artisan. Also, I work on 'imaging' each dancer. I don't like to do clones. If you see my costumes for Geeta, over the years she has an image. But if there's another dancer of the same genre, Bharatanatyam, I've created a different image for her. Each dancer is special.

Geeta Chandran's costume for 'Gandhi'

The costume sketch

Has there been somebody you have taken inspiration from -any previous dance costume designer?
Taken inspiration from in terms of work? Not really, because there aren't many Indian costume designers whom you can look at and say… Abroad there are many, but their dance form is different. I do know a lot of people, but the way they silhouette the body and the way it's done in our dance are very different. I can't take inspiration from them, but it's interesting to see what all the fabric can do. My favourite designer has always been Issey Miyake; I like the way he treats his fabric. It's always dramatic clothing he'll do, and that drama I like on normal people.

How many forms of dance have you worked on?
Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathak, flamenco, American ballet, Kathakali, Sattriya, Kalbeliya, Bhangra, Naga dance... quite a lot. One of the more interesting projects was working with Rama Vaidyanathan for a concept for a school, in which 1,200 children were performing dances across India. It was not a professional dance project, it was a simple project for 40 years of St Mary's school, but it was very interesting.

How much do you like to stick to tradition, and how much do you deviate from it?
I would only deviate if needed. It's needed when the body is out of shape. If it's a young body, the dancer is in the early stages of dance. They are establishing themselves as dancers and in the dance form. I wouldn't change anything for them. But if I see that this is a slightly more senior dancer, then it's like branding the dancer. It's what you wear, how you move, your song choice, what kind of lighting etc. Then I might not stick to tradition, like I might not have the pleated fan for Bharatanatyam, I'll do improvisations then. I like the tradition also, but it doesn't work on older dancers because they are out of shape in terms of the body. In fact, the traditional costume is made for a beautifully arched, small body.

There was an interesting article in The Hindu about aharyam in which they discussed purists' views on costumes, the odhni etc. One of the points discussed was what ancient sculptures of dancers show - the costume is lower than the waist etc, and so what are the conformists trying to establish…
The only thing is that's a statue, not movement. There is a very fine line between sexy/seductive and sensuous. Dance should be sensuous, not sexy and seductive. At the end of the day, this is not just entertainment, it's also learning. It's also a cultural experience. This is not a Bollywood show where titillation is most important part. So if you talk about an odhni-less costume, Aditi Mangaldas carries an odhni-less costume better than a heavier dancer. These are subtleties…

How much of the concept and form do you get into?
Most of the dancers, earlier never used to involve me at the rehearsals/concept stage. Now they're aware that I can contribute a lot to their dance, so they bring me in right at the concept level. I'm there to see most of the rehearsals, sketching -like for Malavika's Thari, Anita's, Geeta's, Vanashree's rehearsals. I can't do that for dancers abroad, but for Lata Pada, we were Skyping when she was doing her rehearsal. For me, as soon as you enter the stage, you set a mood for the audience. So I have to decide the colours thematically and see what's going to happen, if change is needed, entries and exits, formations, if colours need to change, am I getting drama in between… I'm very particular about using the right colours. I have to convince the dancer. It's not easy because they have to spend the money and then senior dancers use good silks only. I don't let them use polyesters and stuff like that.

Geeta as Ravana in Anekanta

Dancers in 'Thari'

How much do you tweak the costume from tradition, and do your designs make it easier to change?
Geeta's costume is completely modern now, but she looks traditional. Nobody wants to take a long break to change backstage. I do everybody's costumes in such a way that within seconds, they can come back to the stage. One thing for sure is that there cannot be a malfunction. Touch wood - in the last 27 years, I've not had a problem. I work really hard on the finishes of my costumes and the detailing. Tweaking happens, and with traditional also, I'm giving it another edge. Like I've started working on the colour schemes of traditional costumes. I do double colours on the borders and things at the bottom, and recently I saw on Facebook, somebody in Chennai has also done the same thing. So it's good, people are also following. How long can you keep everything under lock and key (in terms of copyright of designs)? As long as the aesthetic is moving, it's good fun. In the traditional also - what colour of the zari, the thickness of the border, these are things I work on. If you are buying a silk sari for 15-20,000 Rs, and the gold is going to shine like brass, then what's the point? Those kinds of sensibilities I'm trying to inculcate. It's difficult because the sensibilities of a dancer in Bengaluru or Hyderabad will be different from those of a Delhi dancer. It's difficult to balance everybody's sensibilities.

I introduced lycra blouses, and now I've taken it to the next stage - I don't do lycra blouses any more, I do silk with lycra blouses. Also, my costumes don't show sweat marks under their arms, because I treated that also. I use stretch at the end of the sleeve. Malavika says I have made her addicted - because she does large movements, she says she can stretch her arm out fully now. Such nice feedback, no? With Geeta and Anita, it's always been great fun because I can do anything I want to, there's no restriction. With Malavika also it's slowly coming to that level.

I've done both traditional and not-so-traditional costumes for Anita - I want to give the Bharatanatyam fan even in the modern ones, because her root is Bharatanatyam. So I have to somehow give the Bharatanatyam look somewhere, whether it's in the melakku, or the fan, or the pleats. It's very important to give the connect somewhere. Chitra Sundaram was doing a production abroad in which she throws off her melakku to show that the burning desire for Krishna is inside. But in India, audiences would be horrified if she threw off her melakku. So she asked me what to do. I designed something to look like a melakku on her blouse so that even when she removed it, it would look like she was wearing one.

Do you do backdrops also?
I do the backdrop for some people, but not usually. Like I've done the backdrop for Anita's Faces… I don't publicize myself as a set designer, I describe myself as a costume designer, but if people want me to do the sets I do those also. I've done many sets for Anita.

Two years before Thari, Malavika met me about her new production, said it's going to be on weaving, and to tell her what I knew about it. I told her I'll give her a book to read it, and then we'll take it from there. Looms of India really energized her. She spoke to many people, not just me. The most beautiful thing she did in the whole production, which I keep telling her, is to incorporate the movement of the shuttle of the loom in her dance.

What's the difference between any other kind of designing and dance costuming?
There are hundreds of differences. Costuming is very, very challenging. It's like couture garments - in couture, the person is wearing the garment and sitting. In costuming, the person is wearing it and moving. So it makes or breaks the show. The costume can be really beautiful in design but if it doesn't work on stage, it's a useless product. It has countless dynamics - fabric, cut, finish, side detailing... Most important is that the clothes start the performance even before the dancer starts her performance. Somebody like Aditi wears her final costumes and does all her rehearsals, so the wear and tear has to be there. If she's done five rehearsals and one show, that means she's already worn the costume six times. It has to withstand all that. Any garment is a fashion forecast - it's a seasonal thing. But a costume is not seasonal - it is totally subject specific. Then you're working on a theme, so if it's a choreographed show, not the regular margam performance but a thematic thing, then everything, from the colours to the fabrics to the pleating, has to be there for a reason… It's very challenging.

Then there are deadlines like nobody's business. If I have to give a costume I have to, no show can stop, so I have to work backwards - tomorrow if the courier has to go then it has to go. So whether day or night or Diwali, we are all working.

The traditional costume is a five-piece one, four pieces for children without a melakku. If I'm playing with the fabric, I might only highlight one piece of it and subdue the others. I only emphasize on one aspect of the costume. I don't like to overplay every part of it. That's like too much ghee in your halwa. I work on the pleating depending on the body. I have made one that does away with the fan and incorporates it in the garment. I've done away with the fan and put in a wrap. I've brought in a dhoti instead of a pajama.

Tell us a little bit about your work with Desmania and the performances you host.
Every month I have a show here in my studio for my Desmania Foundation - this is what I started three years back, and I've done 21 shows. I mix senior and junior artists. With junior artists, the problem is that they think only the stage, the proscenium, is the place to dance. My idea is that for the common man, you don't need the media's attention. My intention is to promote dance. It should not be an obligation, it should be out of interest, and it should be open to the commonest man who can come and sit in without having any problems. Second problem that I've seen is youngsters want everything on a platter - they want the guru to get them shows and other things as well. You have to find your own audience, your own groups; you have to find everything for yourself. So I'm giving you free space, lights, audience, whoever wants to come can come, but we have seating space for only about 70 people.

Junior dancers are looking at it seriously now because they don't often get a stage. It's only when they reach about 35-40 that they get a proper stage. How do you popularize your dance when you're in good form, when you know the dance well, you have something new to express? You take it to the common man purely for the love of dance, nothing more than that. We've done 21 shows now, and recently featured Kathak dancer Garima Arya. She was so good, such a young girl, just 26, and she's done so much. And with her was tabla exponent Pranshu Chatur Lal, who's phenomenal, such energy. We had a full house. We had a Kuchipudi and Kathak dancer collaborating at another session.

Do you do accessorizing as well?
Certain dancers are paying a lot of attention to accessories, like Anita. But then her form lends itself to all that. In a classical performance, it becomes difficult, like I can't expect Malavika Sarukkai to have jewellery that's different from usual dance jewellery. The only advice I'd like to give dancers is to keep the jewellery minimal. Sometimes they put too many things all over, and the face looks heavy.

Are you trained in dance yourself?
As a child I learnt, but then my father was not in favour of me dancing on stage.

Why are quality dance costumes integral to performances?
I think more dancers should get serious about costuming, simply because you spend 14 years learning a dance form, then why trivialize yourself on stage by wearing something inconspicuous or badly made? If you don't want to spend too much money on fabrics, at least get them well made. Sometimes you see threads hanging from costumes. That means you don't value your dance. Would you wear that for your own marriage function? Then why the last priority to the form that is giving you your bread and butter? It's high time people realise that. It really pains me when I see people say Indians have very tacky costumes. We have the best fabrics, the best taste, the height of subtlety in Indian garments. From a tanchoi to a full kanjeevaram… tone-on-tone, tussar, we have all of that. Hundreds of people must be making costumes, dancers should at least go to them. It shouldn't be loud - your dance is subtle, so why shouldn't your costume be? If you're in Bollywood I understand - there you are the showstopper. But here you are carrying your heritage forward. To do that, the thread has to be really solid. If your dance is strong, that means your music sense is strong as well. Then why not your costume? Slowly the awareness of the need for good costuming will come.

Contact Sandhya at

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