Closed within the walls of her house, shut out from the world that liberated her from the strain due to the responsibilities bestowed on her by the house, the lady broke down. The ecstasy of watching her young one’s first steps in the walk of life, along with her family, her elegant face lit up like a full moon. The pandemic showed her all, it broke her down and built her up, stretched her limits, and compressed her reaches. In conversation with Sharmila Nair, whose brainchild, The Almirah portrays the different faces that a woman takes as the pandemic continues to do pirouettes around the globe.
What is The Almirah project? Tell us about the concept.
The Almirah is a multidisciplinary fashion art installation project depicting the several mental states of a woman during the COVID times combining the elements of fashion, structural design, solo-performance, still photography, videography, and poetry. The Almirah represents the mind and its intangible feelings and expressions. For some women, this COVID lockdown meant happiness as they could spend more time with their families. Some women felt trapped and experienced frustration, sadness, emptiness, longing, etc. There’s a tradition in Kerala where the parents gift an almirah to their daughter after she is married off. This almirah becomes her private property, one of her biggest assets she inherits from her parents. Such an almirah is present in almost everyone’s life, not merely possessing your wardrobe, but also your secrets, your desires, your hopes, and other intangible emotions.
What inspired you to do this? Why do you think drawing attention to such an idea is important?
It’s been one year since I did the fashion art project ’18 Shades of Black’ in which the restrictions faced by women were expressed through 18 black sarees. When the COVID pandemic struck, I was seized with fear. As a fashion artist, I had procured a few sarees before the COVID crisis happened. I had many plans to do with the saree collection, but they stayed inside my almirah for months due to the COVID lockdown. I felt trapped in the COVID times and insecurities started building up in my mind about the future, the end of the world, and the diminished scope of doing the next art project. I looked at my sarees stacked away in my almirah and they resonated with my situation. That made me think of the emotions the women all around the world would be facing in the pandemic times. If my emotion was that of fear and insecurity, some women found happiness in staying inside their homes with their family and engaging in work-from-home. Some women entered into severe depression as their public space was restricted. I saw elder women suffering as their only chance of being in the public space was going to the markets and worship places as many of them remain closed. The COVID pandemic was one of the biggest catastrophes that affected the world in recent times. In every catastrophe, it is always women and children who are largely affected. All of these emotions found a place inside my almirah and I decided to depict these emotions through my sarees that got locked up in my almirah due to the lockdown. That’s when the idea of a woman inside the almirah occurred to me.
Tell us a little about yourself and RedLotus.
I am a social entrepreneur, fashion artist, and a creative producer hailing from Kochi in Kerala. I have done a wide variety of works from fashion art to producing films and media content. I run a production house named DocArt Productions as well as my online boutique RedLotus. Most of the fashion art projects I execute through my RedLotus banner. I have been actively involved in collaborating with weavers across the country and showcasing their talents to my clients through their sarees.
A multi-disciplinary fashion art installation is no easy feat. How did you achieve it? What was the process behind it?
Yeah, true. The Almirah was the first multidisciplinary fashion art installation project from Kerala. First of all, I thank my collaborators for trusting my vision and standing beside me to execute this. There were lots of challenges in executing this project. The first being that there was no visual reference to show it to my collaborators to arrive at a common point to start the discussion. I had this vivid image in my mind, though it was also abstract. So this was the starting point of our discussion. As I said, there’s this tradition in Kerala where the parents gift an almirah to their daughter after she is married off. This almirah becomes her private property, one of her biggest assets she inherits from her parents and this stays in her life as a companion with whom she shares her happiness, sadness, fears, insecurities, and secrets. It is in the same almirah that the patriarchal society interferes. So for me, this Almirah stands as a metaphor for the limited public space women experience in a patriarchal society.
We decided to place the Almirah inside a basement, as it is in the basement that things are stored for ages. Usually, nobody cares to look into what happens to the properties rotting away in the basement. This is a metaphorical way of looking at the condition of women in a patriarchal society. I chose the classically trained dancer Ramya Suvi as the talent inside the almirah. Ramya’s solo performance wearing my sarees was categorized into eight emotions namely Happiness, Sensuousness, Thoughtful, Trapped, Anger, Frustration, Sadness, and Powerfulness. The solo performance of these eight emotions was captured as eight frames of still photographs and eight separate videos. A video of the solo performance where the performer had merged the eight emotions into a single piece was also recorded.
As the almirah had the glass pane in front, we had no other option to light it from outside as this will cause reflections. So we decided to place the lights inside and light up the sarees and the talent. The emotions expressed by the talent had to complement the colors that are used in the frame including the saree she was wearing. I chose the sarees that were locked up in my almirah and the color of these sarees was going to resonate with the emotions and we decided to complement that color in the backlight. The colored backlight coming from behind the almirah became the extended-expression of the woman inside the almirah. We decided not to follow a color theory associated with psychology as color theory can vary for different cultures, and this approach gave us lots of freedom to experiment with the colors.
You have often talked about social issues through your work, from Mazhavil to The Almirah. Could you tell us how fashion and RedLotus have helped you express your thoughts on the issues of society?
I was always interested in textile, and fashion and my journeys across India when I was doing my research on the traditions and practice of handloom weaving opened my eyes. I was appalled by the variety of weaving and dyeing practices that we practice in our country. This inspired me to start an online boutique named RedLotus where I thought I could also help these struggling handloom weavers. I am an artist who gets inspired by the news and current affairs and the events around me. And if something exceedingly catches my eye, I develop that into an idea or a concept and use my sarees to convey the concept. RedLotus has been very instrumental in helping me to take my projects to a larger audience. Fashion I feel is a powerful tool not only to create beauty but also to spread awareness in society.
Tell us a little about your personal lockdown experience. Did you go through the different emotions depicted in your fashion installation?
I had a few plans to execute before the lockdown. I was about to produce a short film through my banner DocArt Productions, and due to the lockdown, I had to postpone that. I had procured a few sarees before the COVID crisis happened. I had many plans to do with the saree collection, but they stayed inside my almirah for months due to the COVID lockdown. I felt trapped in the COVID times as I could neither sell my sarees nor do an art project with them. In the beginning, we all took that in a sportive mode and wished that a vaccine will be soon discovered and things will arrive at normalcy. But conditions worsened around the world. That made me think of the emotions the women all around the world would be facing in the pandemic times. That’s when the idea of a woman inside the almirah occurred to me. The COVID pandemic was one of the biggest catastrophes that affected the world in recent times. In every catastrophe, it is always women and children who are largely affected. The woman inside the almirah was the best way to express this situation.
Do you plan to exhibit The Almirah soon or is it solely an online project?
The initial launch of the project had been a virtual launch through Instagram due to the COVID crisis. Once the crisis is over, the installation can be mounted inside an art gallery space. The lit-up almirah could be erected inside the gallery space with the eight framed photographs and the performance video playing in a loop. The audience themselves could get inside the almirah, experience, and interact with the confined space of the almirah. They could take selfies inside the almirah. Once they are inside the almirah, the audience would be able to see themselves on an LED screen mounted on the wall through the glass pane of the almirah as a camcorder will record their activities inside the almirah. Recording the audience with a camcorder and seeing themselves inside a closed lit-up almirah will evoke a sense of surveillance. In this manner, the almirah in the gallery space will cross the boundaries of confinement and privacy to the act of public surveillance.
Tell us about the team behind the project and how you met each other.
Ramya Suvi the talented dancer got my attention through the works she had showcased on her Instagram page. I met her and in the first meeting itself, I felt she could emote well. The photography, videography, and poetry were done by the cinematographer/filmmaker Ratheesh Ravindran. I and Ratheesh collaborated in his debut feature film named ‘Pixelia’ which I co-produced. Afterward, Ratheesh became a collaborator in DocArt Productions. Satheesh Mohan who is an assistant director was my project assistant in The Almirah. Imnah Felix did the art direction, Caroline Joseph was the stylist, Ansari Izmake did the make-up while Shireen Yasir worked as the hairdresser. Anzar Mohammed a frequent collaborator with DocArt did the video editing. The basement where we kept the Almirah and shot the project belonged to a furniture shop called ‘Woodstruck’ which was owned by my friend and well-wisher Ziad Abdul Rahman.
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