Seamstress. They are in the business of telling stories…with clothes. Founded by a mother-in-law-daughter-in-law duo, Vimala Viswambharan & Rasmi Poduval, in 2011 in Kerala, Seamstress’s latest collection, The Theyyam Project, is an ode to Theyyam — an ancient ritual art form of Kerala.
Rasmi loves a good story. And she is forever chasing one, even as she gallops around the country reviving and recreating ancient weaves. Though a native of Kerala, she sheepishly admits, she hadn’t seen a Theyyam performance, up close, until 2015. And when she did for the first time (“It wasn’t even a really good one,” she says), she was hooked. The powerful beats, the fiery colours, thousand-year-old rituals and nuances rich with symbolism, telling age-old stories that somehow seemed relevant even today…— Rasmi was sold on Theyyam.
Theyyam is usually performed in temples and in the courtyards of people’s homes. Soon enough the sociable Rasmi found herself witnessing “really good Theyyam performances. The sight of people going into a trace, dancing without any inhibitions, the raw emotions on their painted face…” she recalls, her voice laced with excitement. Theyyam impacted Rasmi in ways unbeknown until then. It also triggered her design-cells 🙂
Theyyam is a form of worship where man invokes the spirit of God — he dances, sings and goes into a trance; performing to appease the Gods and to find favour for the people of the land. It is highly ritualistic with the artists sometimes going on month long fasts before a performance. It’s performed at the end of the harvest season (Oct-Nov) and before the next one (May-June) begins. The art form is inherited and comes from the mother’s side of the family — performed only by male members of certain communities, the ones who are bracketed as ‘lower caste’ in God’s own country.
But art, as always, is a great leveler. During Theyyam, the artist is considered to be possessed by the spirit of the Gods, so for that one day he becomes God — the one that the upper-caste reveres, respects and fears. There’s an interesting legend about how this came about. Shankarachaarya, the 8th century theologian and philosopher, was on his way to Mt Kailash to ascend the Seat of Omniscience. However, for all his knowledge he was still caste-conscious. To remove this unwanted kernel from his mind, Lord Shiva along with his consort and eight acolytes appear in front of Shankarachaarya in the guise of Pulayas (deemed untouchables in Kerala). An angry Shankarachaarya demands that the group make way for him. A debate ensues. Shiva tells Shankaracharya about the futility of casteism and the lack of reasoning behind such a system. Shankaraacharya, a Brahman, realising his mistake, prostrates himself in front of the Pulayas — the lower-caste. And it is the Pulayas and the Malayas (tribal communities) who perform the Theyyam. Out of the 450 Theyyam forms, the Pottan Theyyam performed by the Pulayas is considered to be the most mesmerizing.
When you ‘wear’ powerful stories, you shine the spotlight on important tales — of people and the society — adding to the warp and weave of the world that you live in. That’s what The Theyyam Project does. It hoists a garment into a story.
The Theyyam project draws inspiration from the colourful and elaborate theyyam costumes — large head gears, breastplates, armulets and skirts. Most of the theyyam costumes are made out of coconut fronds. White, red and black are the dominant colours. It also involves elaborate face painting with intricate designs.
It was Rasmi’s photographer friend Pepita Seth (who has been working with Theyyam artists for more than eight years) who encouraged Rasmi to translate her love for the Theyyam into stories in fabric. “She took us through her brilliant photographs of different kinds of ceremonial Theyyams to see if something would pop,” recalls Rasmi, who found a common leitmotif in the various Theyyams – “applique work in black and blood red.” Pepita introduced Rasmi to theyyam artists. “I assumed that there would be a few specialized tailors doing this work and maybe we could employ them during the Theyyam-off season or better still get them to shift to our design studio temporarily so we could look at experimenting with the original,” Rasmi says. But she was in for a shock when she met Lakshmanan Peruvannan, a leading Theyyam artist. “I learnt that the artists themselves made their costumes – from the wooden bust to the elaborate head gear to the ceremonial robes. They make it from scratch. We were stumped at this point and also slightly ashamed that we knew so little about the lives of these artists.”
For The Theyyam Project Rasmi has collaborated exclusively with the Theyyam artists. Seamstress is known for their western silhouettes in traditional fabrics. But for The Theyyam Project, Rasmi couldn’t think “western”. “The art form is such,” she says. “Also, traditional clothing can take a lot more drama than its crisp Western counterpart.” And Theyyam is all about drama. Yet, Rasmi avoided the ‘elaborate styles’ that is usually associated with traditional garments. Instead the collection showcases austere pattern. But the fiery colours and the appliqueing bring on the drama. For example, there’s the Kalimannu Theyyam Kurta – in rich earthy brown colour and a high collar made of applique work patch (striking orange and red strips against tiny dull grey and earthy brown flags edged with circus stripes). It is inspired by the intricate face-painting of a Theyyam artist – a ritual in itself.
As a mark of respect to the “divine” art form and to avoid backlash from purists, Seamstress decided to design only upper-body garments for the collection. So you will find tunics and kurtas, but no skirts or trousers. Nevertheless The Theyyam Project collection tells the story of the ancient art form in an undoubtedly powerful manner. And Rasmi makes it a point to regale each and every customer with the Theyyam stories. Now, to answer the original question: Can you wear a story? Yes, you can and you should.
All images courtesy: Seamstress