Divya Balakrishnan’s Editorial Powerfully Contrasts South Indian Tradition and Modernity

Photo of a man wearing a suit jacket, tie and a kasavu veshti with doc martens, and a skirt made from Bharatanatyam costume pleats styled over denim, styled by divya balakrishnan and photographed by sahil behal
Divya Balakrishnan

I remember hearing stories of my grandfather's time in Malaysia in the 1940s. He was an imposing man who loomed over others, and the most memorable photo of him, was his framed portrait in a formal shirt and suit jacket that hung in our dining hall. My father told me how my Velluppa (grandfather) had paired it with a Veshti/Mundu (the formal south Indian version of the lungi) and I couldn’t fathom the idea of it. In growing up, I came to realise that he carried himself like many of the impressive men of his time - from the great poet Bharatiyar to renowned dignitaries, professionals and professors of his time. When I chanced upon Fashion Stylist and Creative Director Divya Balakrishnan’s latest editorial series, the photo of the model in a shirt, dress jacket and veshti brought back a flood of memories. It also prompted me to look around with a new lens of how people carry markers of the varying facets of their identity sartorially while going about their everyday lives. 

Aptly titled ‘Character Study’, the photoseries was inspired by Divya’s time at Central Saint Martins College in London and how the fashion students expressed themselves through their sartorial choices. She saw them essentially as a ‘style tribe’ that she had never witnessed before. In her editorial notes for the series, she mentioned the impact it left on her. 

”It was invigorating, as it was far removed from my visual comforts. They were individualistic eclectic dressers. DIY. Contrarian in every sense. Yet smart, almost ironic layering. Intentionally far removed from polished and the normative pretty. Hints of grunge, emo. Oozing character.”

Divya Balakrishnan, Creative Director & Stylist

But in drawing parallels from the sense of play to that of the functional styling choices that she had seen in India, where mid-length dresses worn with trousers could very well be considered akin to the way women working in construction wear their hiked-up sarees with trousers underneath and with a shirt instead of a blouse. “Contrasts like a white lace wedding dress-esque look with a bedazzled hot pink thong sticking out and screaming from under,” Divya mentioned the many outfits that remained with her that she drew from for this series. She went on to say how one particularly memorable student dyed her hair to match her outfits, transforming herself every few days. For her, "...the atmosphere felt liberating, prompting me to ponder how such freedom of expression -this safety of play - might manifest in the urban landscapes of India.”

Photo of a man wearing a suit jacket, tie and a kasavu veshti with doc martens, and a skirt made from Bharatanatyam costume pleats styled over denim, styled by divya balakrishnan and photographed by sahil behal
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Everything from sarees/lungis worn over pants to tribal women and their tattoos and even Tamilian ear piercings, became aspects that influenced Character Study. But chancing up on the image of her great-grandfather who was a professor at a University in Cochin, was what inspired the image that had initially captured this writer's eye. Divya went on to say, “The photo showed the faculty wearing a blazer, a crisp shirt, and a tie paired with a kasavu veshti. This was truly when the inspiration for the shoot was sparked, I started playing with such elements, wanting to add a layer of grunge to them.”

Soon enough, Divya had brought in photographer Sahil Behal and makeup artist Pratiksha Nair (assisted by Saloni Raijada) into the fold, with Pooja Parmar doing the Hairstyling. When approached with the idea, Sahil Behal was intrigued from the get-go. He mentioned how he felt that Divya came to him with an idea that was truly out of the box, but also just right for him. He said, "There were so many details to the editorial, like the skirt she stitched with her mother, the elements and accessories of cigarettes to bindi-adorned headphones, and the experience she had at LCF when she was studying there that were being featured."

"It felt like there was a story that was waiting to be told. It's a very simple story, but it still holds so much value and depth. All of these interesting elements and ideas came together to form a story mood board. There was so much happening, which was fun and interesting."

Sahil Behal, Photographer

While Divya was the creative director and stylist (assisted by Zuee) and some of the pieces were crafted/sourced by herself, Khualboi Thawmte crafted the white Elizabeth Dress and the stunning sheer Blossom co-ords for the feature. A lot of the featured jewellery for the shoot was from the experimental jewellery label Baka. The other fashion brands who were featured include homegrown brands Blue Print, Days For Clothing, and Wasted World.

The question of 'where did our individual expression go?' is what came to mind for Makeup Artist Pratiksha Nair, when she was brought into the fold. As she started to work towards the projects, she mentioned, "The concept was directly inspired from her lived experience in the UK and the things she had observed in her time at CSM, London. The brief made me think to myself - where and when did we lose our uniqueness? Our individuality? Because I remember my grandparents and great grandparents having their distinctive personalities and styles. They had character. Where did all that go? Where did my uniqueness go?" But ultimately, through this project she mentioned how it felt like she was exploring those question through this project and felt connected to her self and her roots.

Portrait of woman wearing blossom co-ord set sheer and a kasavu veshti with doc martens styled by divya balakrishnan and photographed by sahil behal
Divya Balakrishnan

Divya mentioned in her editorial notes that she started by playing around with the male looks, layering skirts over trousers as was common practice at her alma mater, in a South Indian context of mundu over shorts and trousers and paired with chunky footwear like Doc Martens. But the reality of one’s experience is more than just of wonderment and cultural exposure. "There was also some layered and nuanced racism I felt, and I wanted to translate that experience, so all of the models had haldi stained nails to represent the 'curried' Indian stereotype,” Divya explains. The addition of these details are what brought the characters to life, for Makeup Arist Pratiksha Nair.

"There were a lot of details involved in this shoot. Each feature of the models were enhanced to put forward their uniqueness. We had haldi nails, henna tattoos, blocked eyebrows, ombré lips and clustered eyelashes. That’s a lot of details to put across in one editorial without it being “too much." So it was a thin line I had to tread."

Pratiksha Nair, Makeup Artist

From crafting a mini skirt accented with safety pins from Bharatanyam skirt pleats and pairing it over denim to adding payals to thong slippers - Divya took a playful DIY approach to styling. But in bringing together the inputs and skill of the creatives she worked with for the series, backed by Divya's experience as a stylist and costume designer - The Character Study became a rich, cohesive visual story of an Indian Style Tribe of sorts. 

Considering the many, tiny details of the clothes, makeup, props and more, is what prompted Sahil to take his signature clean and simple approach to photography with this project as well. He mentioned, "the language of my photography is quite simple because I chose that approach. I think Divya and I were the perfect match for this project because there's already a lot happening with the images. There's a cigarette behind the ear, a lot of makeup, a volume of clothes, hair, and everything. The images try to convey a lot—there's jewellery and more. When I saw these characters come to life, I thought about how to photograph it. That's where my expertise lies. I decided not to do too much, just to add a few subtle touches. If you look, the images are clean but still have a lot happening at the same time."

But Sahil also mentioned how the team altogether left a large room for innovation and spotaneity all through the shoot. He mentioned, "The work didn't happen overnight; it took a couple of months. Even when we finally came to shoot, I was learning new things and coming up with ideas. We always left 30-40% of room for spontaneity. It was very exciting, and that was my approach and thought process." Pratiksha also echoed how the same element of creative collaboration and in-the-moment changes made this shoot stand out. While Divya’s nuanced understanding and Sahil’s beautiful imagery was a sure shot combination that she knew would work, the absolute trust and confidence each artist had in each other was something wonderful for Pratiksha and gave her "the freedom to create and even push boundaries."

"Because we are all artists with different aesthetics so it’s hard to do this without trust. You’ve got to trust that we all have the same vision and can deliver something beautiful that bring out the best in us."

Pratiksha Nair, Makeup Artist

Divya Balakrishnan also mentioned how every model brought the character to life in their own way and helped her realising her vision by embodying the eclectic, stylish tribe she had thought up. By bringing together familiar elements (and people) in new and playful ways, the editorial series is a study in reinventing one’s attire, an inspired creative exploration for all the creatives involved, and perhaps even a way to beckon the audience to look at the familiar through a whole new lens. 

You can see the whole series and follow Divya Balakrishnan here.

You can follow Sahil Behal here.

You can follow Pratiksha Nair here.

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