Blogging from Germany: Alle Freund Fliegen Hoch

It’s a special field, creating costumes for theatre. In India, I’ve always felt it to be an under-explored one, especially with contemporary theatre. I’m not referring to folk or traditional Indian theatre that has had 5000 years to get its act together. With contemporary theatre we err in two ways: 1. For want of funds we “put together” costumes. More often than not, they are borrowed & assembled. In itself this is not a bad thing, but often the costumes lack overall coherence and a sense of history, irony and imagination. 2. Costumes for theatre are often confused with fashion and ends up looking more pretty and less theatrical.

Amba Sanyal in Delhi is one of our rare costume design experts. She has studied both art and fabric and to attend one of her workshops is to feel her passion for cloth and weave and dye. She comes from a family of artists and theatre practitioners. Her parents were instrumental in starting Andretta, an artist’s retreat in northern Himachal Pradesh. But her best qualifications by far are her understanding of irony, ability to have a good laugh and her enjoyment of a nice whisky. She is now part of the Ranga Shankara team that is working with Schnawwl and is now working with Eva Roos, the costume designer from Schnawwl. I imagine the two are currently pottering around Chandni Chowk in Delhi, with a Benarsi mask-maker, conjuring up 32 character masks for the new Ramayana production.

Which brings me to Alle Freund Flieghen Hoch or All Friends Fly Up. It’s a 50 minutes play for 3-6 year olds and Eva did the costumes for this. It is a story about a Fish, a Pig and a Bird who become friends. They try to do what the other does - the Pig fly, the Fish Walk, the Bird swim - and they completely fail at it but continue being friends. They talk about their parents who have come from elsewhere and the children, who are often from immigrant families, get the story perfectly well.

The costumes and make up are just so right and fabulous that they epitomize what good theatre costume is all about. Their inspiration is Circus and they draw upon that specific performance tradition to articulate animal characters rather than aim for cuteness or imitation. The texture of fabric used for each character is different. Smooth, shimmery spandex for Fish, soft, worsted felt for Pig, ruffles and feathers for Bird.

Before the appearance of each animal, they represent themselves with an element that is theirs. A squirt of water for Fish, mud being kicked about for Pig and feathers falling from the sky for Bird. The references to the parents are beautifully done. Fish (who inhabits a water-filled bath tub on stage) uses two differently sized flip flops to show his parents, Bird (who hangs like a trapeze-acrobat) uses the end of her boa which has two hand puppets on it, Pig (who digs her way out of a sty) uses objects of memory – high heels and a scarf – from her hand bag. The make up is Circus inspired – cheeks, lips, nose, eyes. Ring around the nose for Pig, rings around the eyes for Fish and a beaky mouth for Bird.

Here is a costume list:

Pig – Old-rose pink skirt suit. The skirt is made from a worsted fabric that looks half felt and half fur. The jacket is a dull pink lace. Pink stockings. A darker pink faux-fur scarf, a pink hand bag and black hoof-like high heels. Her hair pulled into a single off-centre pony tail.

Fish – Black spandex shorts and cream-gold spandex singlet. Two tattoos, one an anchor and one that said Mum in a heart. Hair slick.

Bird – Sky Blue crushed cotton short frock over layers and layers of white can-can and underskirts. White feather boa. Beige-pink tights with ridges on them. Dark grey ankle high Converse keds. Hair braided into two knots on either side of her head.

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