‘The Almirah’ features a saree-clad woman performing inside an almirah, next to her neatly stacked sarees that remain unused due to the lockdown.

A woman stands inside an open almirah (cupboard) wearing a green saree with a red border with her hands folded. On the other half of the almirah are stacked sarees and clothes. The woman is depicting powerful as an emotion as part of The Almirah art project, conceptutalised by Kochi-based fashion designer Sharmila Nair.
Features Art Tuesday, October 27, 2020 - 14:25

What was your COVID-19 lockdown emotion? For some, it was ‘happiness’ as they got to spend quality time with their families. Some others were ‘calm’ as they believed that the pandemic would be over within a few months. Whereas a few others felt ‘trapped’ being confined to the house, with nothing but uncertainty all around. The majority of us have gone through mixed emotions, ranging from happiness to sadness, anger and hope.

The multi-disciplinary fashion art installation project, ‘The Almirah’, developed by Kochi-based fashion designer Sharmila Nair takes a look at the states of mind that women had during the COVID-19 lockdown period. The project, conceived during the lockdown and released through the Instagram page of Sharmila’s online boutique Red Lotus, portrays eight states of mind of women – ‘happiness, sensuousness, thoughtful, trapped, sadness, frustration, anger and powerful’.

Sharmila Nair
Claimed to be Kerala’s first multi-disciplinary fashion art installation, it is executed using techniques such as solo performance, fashion, photography, videography, structural design and poetry. “It began as a photo project. The multi-dimension angle came later,” says Sharmila, who is overwhelmed by the response. The designer is known for her previous fashion projects Mazhavillu, which featured transgender models, and 18 Shades of Black where she depicted restrictions faced by women with 18 black sarees.

The Almirah features a saree-clad woman performing inside an almirah, next to her neatly stacked sarees that remain unused due to the lockdown. She conveys her thoughts through expressions, accompanied by subtle music and poetry. Sharmila says the idea struck her one day while she was sitting in her office. “It’d been a while since I did a photoshoot after the 18 Shades of Black series. When I finally zeroed in on a new thought, COVID-19 came. All my sarees went back into my almirah. Sales declined,” says Sharmila, who like many others thought life would be back to normal soon.

However, months have passed without any change in the situation, leaving her in a confused state of mind. “Meanwhile, I was also listening to and reading about other people’s experiences during the lockdown. Many of my IT friends, who would otherwise be busy with jobs and shifts, were happy to have some time with their spouses. For elders like my mother and grandmother, whose happiness depends on going to temples and visiting relatives, the restrictions turned out to be quite uncomfortable. Above all, I read in the news that domestic violence was increasing during the lockdown. All these were on my mind. One day when I reached the office and looked at the unsold sarees stacked in my almirah, I thought ‘what will I do with them?’ I could resonate with the feeling of being trapped. I thought ‘why not picture a woman trapped in an almirah?’ That was the spark,” recalls the designer.

Sharmila was sure that women would be able to connect to the concept of almirah as it is an integral part of Kerala’s wedding culture. When parents and relatives visit newly-weds, they usually gift an ‘almirah’ and that remains a significant part of the woman’s life. “I have a wooden almirah handed down from my grandmother, in which I keep the sarees for my boutique,” says Sharmila. She decided to use the sarees in her almirah for the project.

Once she shared the idea with her team – photographer Ratheesh Ravindran, performer Ramya Suvi, make-up artist Ansari Izmake, art director Imnah Felix, project assistant Satheesh Mohan and hair artist Shireen Yasir – things began to pick up. “The challenge was that there were few references. No one had done a concept like this before. With the help of sketches, I explained the process. It was like an experiment for us and, right now, we’re enjoying the success,” she laughs. For Ratheesh, the challenge was to light up the almirah avoiding the reflection of the front glass panes. He solved it by putting the lights inside the almirah which ultimately provided an aura to the entire scene.

Sharmila put the almirah inside a basement, which she says is a metaphor. “Nobody cares what happens to objects in a basement, a metaphor to our patriarchal society’s attitude towards women.”

Ramya Suvi, a trained classical dancer who runs Bodhi Space for Art, did the solo performance. “I chose a performance artist as she’d be able to convey the emotions within a limited space. She has the experience of performing on stage. An almirah is a shrunk stage. Ramya was excited to be a part of it. I’d seen her photographs. She came to my mind when I thought about the project,” Sharmila says.

Subtle make-up has been done for her character. An interesting feature is the bindi she wears. It carries the international prohibition sign of ‘No Entry’, which denotes the various restrictions women face in society. Also, instead of the usual red for sindoor, black has been used. “It means not all marriages are auspicious,” says Sharmila, who now wants to take the project to the next level.

It was only after the execution that she could completely grasp the depth and social significance of the project. She is glad that she didn’t limit her work to photographs. “I have a single video of Ramya enacting all eight state of minds. I’d love to do an art installation in a gallery space where people can walk in and experience the work,” she says.

“The lit up almirah can 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, and experience and interact with the confined space. They could take selfies inside the almirah. Once inside the almirah, they’ll be able to see themselves on an LED screen mounted on the wall through the glass pane of the almirah as a camcorder records their activities. Being recorded and seeing themselves inside the 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,” she says hopefully.

Elizabeth Thomas describes herself as a wild woman who finds happiness in words, colours, coffee and journeys.