At Mudra 2024, Indian classical dance exponents will delineate the motivations that determine the splendours of aharya adorning an artiste.

By Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe

Sometime during our conversation for this article, Kathak stalwart and choreographer Aditi Mangaldas takes a moment to gaze upon the setting sun. To her, the interplay of deep orange hues in the sky with the trees means more than merely recognising that the leaves are green or the sky is orange. When twilight falls on the pleasant spring evening, she notices the darker and lighter shades of green and the yellowed autumnal leaves. Mangaldas, with a career spanning over four decades, draws upon this sublime landscape to discuss how aharya becomes impactful when it is inspired by detailed observation. Later, she will also discuss ancient miniatures and modern couture undergirding costume design to note that aharya is determined by “aesthetics, content, form” and most of all by “context”.

At this year’s edition of Mudra—the NCPA’s annual thematic dance festival—six exponents of Indian classical dance will explore, with their troupes, the conceptualisation of aharya, or the textiles, make-up and jewellery as well as stage design characteristic of varied dance forms. Through multiple performances, workshops and exhibitions, the month-long annual festival will bring to the stages at the NCPA Kathak, Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri blended with classical text and folk cultures to highlight how aharya, along with movement and rhythm, shapes a performance.

Reconstructing text

At Mudra, research scholar and Bharatanatyam artiste Piyal Bhattacharya will present his study of the performance traditions described in Bharata’s Natyashastra through his signature production, Marga Nritya. Curating the aharya for this enterprise is challenging, the dancer concedes, because even as he decodes the couture of ancient nartakis using archaeological panels and sculptural evidence, he also tries to borrow from living traditions to go beyond simply “copying” the text.

Imitating aharya would mean representing only a particular period, he explains, but art cannot be confined to one era. With this production, launched in 2011, Bhattacharya’s aim has instead been to “reconstruct” the performance styles prescribed in the Natyashastra—a foundational text for most Indian artistic practices.

Aharya for Marga Nritya is an elaborate affair. It comprises adornments made out of wooden beads wrapped in 24-carat gold foil using a special white wax. Bhattacharya’s reading of the Vastusutra Upanishad has led him to examine the “philosophy of lines and angles” to design lightweight jewellery that will enable mobility for dancers without deviating from scriptural mores.

The costume is made either from exquisite muslin or raw silk, sourced from Bhagalpur in Bihar, with its borders stitched separately akin to an overlay. Bhattacharya is going to incorporate natural makeup, devoid even of a pancake base, for this recital. He explains, “We have created a base with shankha or conch dust and coffee powder and a little bit of pearl ash, topped with real gold blusher.”

Bhattacharya will conduct a workshop at Mudra to elaborate on these aspects of his troupe’s aharya, including the Assamese-style eagle mask that is part of his recital. The dancer will perform an adaptation of the mythological play Nagananda, composed in the seventh century, to narrate the story of Jimutvahana, who sacrifices himself to save the Nagas

In context

According to Mangaldas, “Imagination is a very important part of any artistic endeavour.” It is aharya that helps ignite an audience’s imagination by becoming a crucial entry point into a performance. So, she emphasises upon the need to employ aharya contextually and bring costume, light, soundscape together as a broad spectrum of entryways into a multidimensional performance. For her, costume reflects the mood of the dance. For instance, while performing a tarana she asks what she is invoking— monsoon or summer, love or anger—to decide the colour, texture and cut of her fabric.

Elaborating upon the need to recognise this contextual specificity, she illustrates the longstanding use of the dupatta in Kathak. Going beyond a gendered understanding of the wrap, Mangaldas suggests that this fabric is not about giving the female dancer’s form a third dimension. Bringing aharya out of accepted notions of morality, she explains that more than covering one’s bust or head, the dupatta has to resonate with the performance. In one of her productions, both, male and female artistes don the dupatta. “Not only covering their head, but their full face,” she says, to symbolise our inability to see who we are within.

At Mudra, the stalwart will present two Kathak solos and group recitals, showcasing excerpts from mythology that revolve around several themes, including the divine forms of Krishna, Shiva and the element of fire. Here, her aharya will be a symbolic reflection of “the imagination of the god”. In her interpretation of Krishna, the costume will allow free and swift movements for the dancer, and a dupatta, favouring green and blue hues, will kindle the image of the peacock feather that adorns his crown.

In a similar vein, Odissi danseuse Sujata Mohapatra will use aharya to portray Ardhanarishvara, the deity embodying the male and female forms of Shiva and Parvati. For Mohapatra, the aharya of dance denotes a coming together of a stylistic narrative encompassing the bhushana, or ornaments, blended with ragas, music and choreography.

In describing the innovations in the attire and jewellery to be used in her performance, Mohapatra pays tribute to the imaginative vision of her guru, the pioneering stalwart of Odissi, Kelucharan Mohapatra. She describes how the Odissi costume that is popular today can be traced to the saree he would tie, similar to a dhoti, in a rather innovative way that is nonetheless rooted in traditional practice.

She ventures that shifts in costume are significant, particularly to deliver a theme or emotion to the audience. In a dance-drama, she elaborates, donning a character or showing panchbhoota [the five elements] or six seasons means introducing slight makeovers— like changing the pattern of the dupatta—to show varying climates. Eventually, aharya ought to centre on practicality and neatness, she elaborates, and on minimising loud ornaments and heavy make-up which can overshadow the artiste’s talent.

Exploring aesthetics

Aharya then is about delivering an aesthetic most suited to the content and context of a performance. Such are the contemplations of Bharatanatyam artiste. Prachi Saathi who reconciles classical dance with Warli art in When Walls Dance, which she will present at Mudra. Drawing from the extensive research by her uncle and woodscape artist Rajendra Chaudhari, she blends the folk art form with Bharatanatyam to tell the story of a young girl, Champa, and her namesake tree. For this performance, she recalls, before she had a story, she knew her aharya. It was during a visit to a Warli village, where the feel of the sari fabric and jewellery in the marketplace stirred her creativity into shaping a narrative.

Aharya serves as a subtle messenger that accentuates mood or character, Saathi says. For instance, to de-age quickly, she adopts a short plait as her hairstyle. Bedecked in Warli jewellery, complete with a crescent moon bindi, a khun blouse and a hibiscus flower headgear designed by Chaudhari, her aharya epitomises the folk essence that is characteristic of the tribe.

Saathi’s performance creates the world of a young person onstage whilst integrating animation and multimedia projection with classical movement. The underlying idiom of Bharatanatyam reflects a poignant narrative accentuated by her collaborator Upasana Nattoji Roy’s animation. Crafted from figures painted by Chaudhari, the multimedia work blends dance and motion design bringing forth Roy’s perception of “animation, design and multimedia as another performer and character in the narrative.” Each element complements and supports the other to create a complete picture. Saathi explains, “I don’t approach live performance and projected elements as two mediums different from each other but as one unified experience.”

Designing aharya is a collective endeavour here. Saathi credits Chaudhari, Roy, Mumbai-based costume maker Gulambhai Tailor, award-winning mask maker Bhagwan Kadu and her family as moving factors instrumental in breathing life into the motifs of the production.

Another spectacle revolving around aharya is Manipuri stalwart Latasana Devi’s recital that highlights the form’s renowned costumes. Comprising the distinctive raas leela attire, the polloi, along with a showcase of martial arts like Thang-ta and Pung Cholom, the dancer is set to showcase Manipur’s classical and folk aesthetic in all its sublime glory. A practitioner and teacher of the dance form for decades, her focus is on presenting aharya associated with Manipuri in complete adherence to tradition, without even the slightest deviation. This authentic depiction of a culture threatened by relegation to oblivion amidst rising conflict is critical, she avers.

“Manipur is burning,” Latasana Devi laments and, in a performance themed on ‘palem’ or mother, she depicts a land crying for her children in this volatile climate. The curtain ultimately falls on the bride whose aharya exemplifies a mother yearning for a peaceful beginning, like the bride about to embark on a new journey.

In classical dance, aharya then spurs on the quest towards the metaphysical, taking audiences on a journey inspired as much by movement and emotion as by a design aesthetic tailored to suit shifting contexts.


This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of the On Stage.