Text and photographs by Nandini Muthiah.
My work is primarily about identity. I am constantly looking, watching people and seeking out things that I identify with. I see something of myself in what I shoot or I try to relate to what it is I shoot in some form. It may be, the Indian middle class lifestyle, something that is so confined and restricted and regulated that might fascinate me. I see it all around me but yet I can’t be a part of it as it is very unlike what I am or how I was brought up.
Visual memory therefore plays an important part in my photographic work. A recent project, which is being showcased here, currently named “Variety Entertainment”, is based on my memory of an event that took place in my childhood.
I photographed school children at a school fancy dress competition. I set it up at a particular school. I introduced a particular background and professional lights. The rest was in the hands of the children and the teachers of the school. The children who participated were from kindergarten up to 13 years of age.
Most schools which can, will hold a fancy dress competition for their wards once a year either on the school’s annual day celebrations or on November 14th, which in India is celebrated as ‘Children’s Day’ to honor a former prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru who was very fond of children. This project was produced under a Grant I received from the Tierney Foundation, New York, in July 2008.
I plan to continue the project for a few years and produce a book at the end of it.
I remember as a child going to a fancy dress birthday party dressed as a witch along with my sister who was also dressed as a witch. Another time we went as pirates to Christmas party! Later on when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I remember attending the birthday party of a girl named Ketaki Sood, clad as a 19th century Englishman in his night shirt and night cap along with a candle holder and all. It was such a simple outfit to make and wear and it won me the first prize and a lot of respect from the girls at the party! My mother and sister designed that outfit for me! So for me the idea of a fancy dress competition brings back happy and fun memories of a time gone by.
The whole idea of a fancy dress competition to me brings to mind a parents’ ingenuity, as they are the ones who either procure the outfit or make the outfit for the child. I find that how the parent dresses you depends greatly on the kind of socio-economic background they come from. In my case my parents had immense exposure to the western civilization, which in the ‘80’s was an uncommon phenomenon in India. They traveled overseas regularly which was not possible by everyone. Therefore their exposure resulted in us going to Christmas parties and birthday parties dressed as witches, pirates and as a sleeping 19th century Englishman.
Mind you the fancy dress competitions I went to as a child in which I took part in was not at school, in both situations it had nothing to do with school. Today, to a great extent fancy dress competitions occur mostly in schools especially middle class schools. I have found that for parents it is a way to ‘show off’ their children’s talents, for along with the ‘character’ outfit the children are expected to recite rhymes, poems, alphabets and or dialogues of the characters they play. I sometimes think that parents live vicariously through their children and nowhere is it more evident than in such a scenario. They want their children to be what they never could be.
I find that in the middle class home, the parent so badly wants the child to excel at everything he/she does. They are willing to hire a costume and have a makeup man do the special make up required so that the child looks more like the character they are dressed as, at a great expense. In fact I sense that the judges (often the school teachers themselves are the judges!) at these competitions give better marks to those children who wear these specially hired costumes and maquillage. (Strangely I never thought to ask which child won the first prize in their respective age category and I never thought about it until I wrote it here.)
What I found most intriguing was that some children came dressed as Hindu Gods and Goddesses. To me it shows how god fearing the middle class is and it also shows that we in India consider God to be of Human form. For us to dress as God, as a child or as an adult is not considered blasphemous.
Costume houses that started off as suppliers to the movie/film industry have found that this line of business of hiring out costumes for fancy dress competitions is lucrative enough. These shops where you hire costumes, wigs etc are so few and the outfits look so tired and worn out yet they continue to be circulated what ever their state of disrepair may be. All the shops have the same characters to hire out! So naturally you will see the same character or personage appearing in different age groups, as you will see in my series.
Why do children and even adults love the idea of a fancy dress party or a fancy dress competition? It probably lies in the fact that we love to pretend to be someone else from time to time, especially as kids. Dressing up is great fun. For that short span of time you get to be someone great and important and you get your five minutes of fame in front of an audience, what could be more thrilling.
I wanted to relive a memory of my childhood and I feel that most people do recollect with a giggle or a laugh the times the got dressed up for fancy dress competitions in their childhood. Ultimately, it is interesting for me to look at the South Indian middle class family through their choice of costume for their child. It gives me a lot of food for thought. I hope it does so for the viewer also.
For more photographs please visit Nandini Muthiah website.