Back to the blog

Special Series: Indian Festival Costumes Issue 1, “Home Away from Home”

Emma Hollows is a student from Manchester, England, going into her final year at the University of Cambridge. From August 7th to September 24th she is spending 7 weeks of her summer vacation in India exploring Gujarat and Kerala to investigate the costumes and make-up of Indian celebrations. During her trip, Emma is writing a blog series for Performing Arts Abroad as she participates in various festivals and attends Kerala Kalamandalam, a performing arts university teaching students the music, dances, costumes and make-up used in festivals.  This is the first issue of this special series…

When I decided that I would go to India to learn about the culture and costumes I had no idea what to expect. Having no prior experience of Asia or of travelling alone, most people back home in England told me I was crazy, but to me it sounded like an adventure and in the short time that I’ve been here that is definitely what India has been!

After 18 hours of travelling I arrived in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to a warm Indian welcome from my host family who were laden with food and applied tika symbolizing the family’s joy to host a guest. Having a host family has been the best way to see India; they have been teaching me Gujarati and straight away I felt like one of the family. I could not count the number of people who have referred to me as didi (sister)! Then there is the food. Oh my gosh the food! I have had so much amazing food while I have been in India. Everybody says “you will be sick of curry three times a day!” but, with a majority vegetarian population, there is so much variety and so many tastes that you will not get bored. Unfortunately my body couldn’t quite keep up and I did end up with “Delhi Belly” for a couple of days, so advice to any travellers: make sure the food you eat has been prepared hygienically and only drink bottled water!

I am with the Vishvet Foundation for my first two weeks here who are an NGO based in Ahmedabad. They have organised a program of sight-seeing, a trip to Jaipur and visits to various institutes related to costume design. Seeing the work at the National Institute of Design was amazing; the textile students are taught how to weave using traditional methods in which they must calculate how to lay up to 64 threads to create their designs. An understanding of these properties of fabrics is essential for costume design because you must consider how they will appear on stage or in front of the camera.

homestay sister

My arrival in Jaipur was welcomed by monsoon rain which I was about to get pretty used to! For three days I stayed with another host family with whom I celebrated Raksha Bandhan, a celebration of the support between brothers and sisters. Radhika, my host, helped me to dress in traditional Rajputani paushak. Each state of India has its own traditional dress and way to drape a sari so each outfit makes a statement. The quality was beautiful with hand stitched decoration that must have taken hours. It is evident how important appearance and presentation are to Indians.

I was treated to a rehearsal of Oedipus in Hindi when we visited one of the theatres in Jaipur. Having studied the play at school I was able to understand what was happening despite the language barrier. The costumes had been given an Indian twist with the Chorus dressed in turbans and kurtas. Previous productions which I have seen in Britain have stuck true to the authentic Ancient Greek robes so it was nice to see an alternative adaptation.


Next week I will be heading down to Kerala to begin my work at Kerala Kalamandalam, a performing arts university. It will be sad to leave the new family I have made in Ahmedabad but I am excited to explore a new part of this vast nation and learn about the intricacies of Indian performance costume.

Aaw jo!

Emma with friends

Written by Emma Hollows

Performing Arts Abroad guest blogger and costume designer

Apply Now