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We are What We Wear

The Kathakali wardrobe tells a story

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There is a deep connection between Kathakali costumiers from 500 years ago and how Malayalee migrants dress in London, Kalamandalam Barbara Vijaykumar tells British youngsters at the We are What We Wear project.

In the borough of Redbridge in London, there lives a small community of Malayalees. On an average day, they would melt into the crowds except for the colour of their skins. They wear the standard issue office clothes to work, jeans and tees to schools and outings, maybe with a baseball cap facing back. But come Onam, and streets and temples around see a riot of cream and gold.

There is an entire ethnology hidden in the Redbridge Malayalee's clothes cupboard. It actually tells many stories. When did she migrate? From which part of Kerala did her ancestors come? How strong is her connection with her homeland? How keen is she to merge with the local landscape? The answers to these questions are what a bunch of schoolchildren at Redbridge are looking for in the two-year project We are What We Wear, an effort to understand the connection between society, the arts, individual and clothing. It is curated by Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar who learnt chutti (the ritual art of makeup in Kathakali) in Kerala from one of the masters of the art, Kalamandalam Govinda Variyar.

Even as they look at contemporary dressing styles in the UK, the children will be taken through the 500-year-old history of the elaborate make-up and costuming in Kathakali.

"If you look at a Kathakali artiste, you will see the number of people involved in the artistry - the tailors who were so skilled they were ranked high in the caste hierarchy, the silversmiths, the blacksmiths, the kings who patronized the arts. It was an established world of arts, " says Barbara whose project is being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It will culminate in October with an exhibition at the Redbridge Museum where children will display their own understanding of how clothes make a man.

The homogenous jeans and tees that now define the youth, says Barbara, might make for comfort dressing but it takes away from an individual's sense of cultural identity. She also believes that communities will return to more individualistic styles of dressing when they get weary of the uniformity and tyranny of urban fashions.

"We have a very powerful connect with our roots even in a highly globalised world. Letting go of this connect can make us very uncertain about ourselves. What is happening in India now is very similar to what happened in the UK in the '60s - people are beginning to dress alike, abandoning the sari, the mundu, the juba (kurta), wearing them only on occasions, " says Barbara.

The British artiste's own connection with Kathakali began on a strange note. In her search for the meaning of colour in art, she had traveled to Kerala, got off at the wrong station and landed up at Kalamandalam - Kerala's premier Kathakali institution. She chose to learn make-up and costuming with Govindan Asan for two years. "I was totally stunned by the beauty, power and spirituality of chutti, " she recalls. Later she married a Kalamandalam graduate, Vijayakumar, and they moved to London.

The couple who run the Kala Chetana Kathakali Centre have been popularizing the ancient art form in the UK, especially the philosophy behind its flamboyant and elaborate costuming and make-up.

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