When you go to Tamil Nadu, there is this inexplicable beauty that you start to see in the life that surrounds you. It is often noticeable in the smaller details – the husband buying jasmine garlands for his wife, the easy loud laughter of dusky women whose hands and faces show remnants of turmeric, the bright sarees that they wear and the thick anklets that jingle on children who run past you. They are symbolic of a community that holds steadfast to their history and their exuberant culture.
For Divya Balakrishnan, a 24 year old creative stylist flitting between Bengaluru and Mumbai, her works have always been influenced by ideas that merge the romance of the past and the present. Going back to her roots, she started observing the typical south Indian hairstyles that were still seen amongst a lot of the women from the streets – the typical Brinjal braid seen on the younger girls, the frizzy hair made into a long and thick braid, wet hair worn loosely and held together with barrette clips, the iconic M.S. Subbulakshmi middle parted way hair, all adorned heavily with flowers like jasmine, kanakambara or violets. These details inspired her to show a pictorial representation of her home state, through the small but ignored details.
While on the road, Divya had a habit of making note of minor details. Her observations of conical bras dustily place in an old lingerie shop, Tamil men wearing stripe on stripe lungis, women on the street whose ears shone subtly from multiple golden piercings all gave inspiration to her photo series titled ‘Mylapore’. Collaborating with Lekha Rathnam, a photographer with whom she had worked before and shares the Tamil heritage, Divya attempted to capture the beauty of the many aspects of the culture and to depict it authentically and with simplicity.
To bring her vision to life, Divya sketched her ideas out and figured out the details that she wanted to depict, down to the woven multicolored pai (mat). When it came to the model, they were very particular and in her own words, “we wanted to find someone who fit the look for the subtle beautiful eyed Tamilian girl who dripped melanin, smells like turmeric, honey and jasmine wherever she went. We wanted her to have long thick black hair to show how they wear their hair and skin as naturally as can be. This is the beauty we tried to capture through this series.” They found their model in Pooja Shree Rao, a 21 year old Bangalore based model that Lekha chanced upon, who matched all the criteria they had in mind.
For Divya, the biggest challenge while doing the shoot was to capture the authenticity of the culture without forcing it. This involved making the images cohesive to modern times and yet reminiscent of how the older Tamil generation used to dress up. Digging through thrift stores and wardrobes of her relatives, she found vintage floral dresses with shoulder pads and bows and vintage polka dot shirts that were paired with huge frames. Old lungis and cutout checkered table clothes were used to create one outfit, while Hakoba conical bras formed the base of another. According to Divya, the difficulty was “…to get this subtly without overpowering as they never overdress, they had a simplicity to the way to wore their clothes.”
For Lekha Rathnam, the photographer, the challenged laid in a more technical aspect – ensuring the continuity in lighting as well as ensuring that the backdrop did not collapse. But more than that, the biggest challenge was in finding satisfaction with the images as this series was very different from her usual style. But ‘Mylapore’ a series that is close to her heart was submitted to Photo Vogue Italia and has now made her and her work a part of the photography platform curated by the photo editors of Vogue Italia.
While Divya is getting back to designing and setting up her own label, Lekha is hoping to shoot more fashion and editorial pieces. As fashion creatives who find inspiration in collaboration, both of them are hoping to collaborate with other artists and influencers to do more creative works.
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