Published: 06th November 2020
Why Sharmila Nair's performance art will take you into every woman's state of mind — inside an almirah
Sharmila Nair's fashion and art project aims to speak about the restrictions that most women face through a simple almirah and about how the pandemic adds to their lack of freedom
She opened an almirah that had been passed down to her from her mother and grandmother before her, and Sharmila Nair remembers seeing a woman stare back at her amidst her collection of handloom sarees. The designer, artist and entrepreneur herself refers to this as her ‘lockdown eureka moment’ when she suddenly saw how much a woman’s life could be constrained to material objects and small boxes that contain them. So she built a small cupboard and created Kerala’s first installation fashion art virtually.
The project brings together photography, performance art and literature where she's dressed up in various sarees and locked within the six-foot cupboard to portray a sense of suffocation that many women feel, that has been magnified due to the pandemic. Shot on October 5, The Almirah is an 8-part photo and video series on Facebook and Instagram. It celebrates subversive feminist narratives through subtle references like a bindi representing a prohibition symbol.
“The pandemic changed everything,” says Sharmila. “For a lot of people, these were good changes. My friend, who got married recently, was overjoyed that she got the option to work from home because it was the first time her husband and her got to spend time together at home. But for others, like my grandmother, it was a cause for isolation. Her trips to the temple were the only opportunity she had to meet people and socialise. And being in a high-risk category, she felt trapped at home.”
She continues, “Everyone was affected by a sense of insecurity during this time, leading to an increasing number of crimes. The lockdown forced us to reconcile with our own imperfections. I run an online boutique, so I store my collections in a small almirah. One day, it just hit me. I wanted to speak about how this situation has impacted women. I thought, 'Why not speak about the mental state of women during the lockdown?'.”
Sharmila set up her production company Red Lotus three years ago with the idea of promoting handloom sarees which had always fascinated her since she was a child. And she set up her platform online because she did not want to run a physical space. Although handloom sarees were not as popular at the time, she discovered a few weavers in Tamil Nadu who dedicated a loom for her. Her main focus was to cut out the middlemen and find the best possible materials straight from the looms.
“I have always spoken through sarees,” she says, “They were always my main mode of expression. I was a part of the arts club in my college and I loved wearing different types of sarees. The more bright, colourful and loud they are, the better. You can always drape a statement as well as you can say it, is what I believe. So an online boutique allowed me to share this perspective and to speak through my collection."
The Almirah also stems from Sharmila’s own frustration following the COVID lockdown. A year ago, she had procured resources for a major shoot she had been planning. And the lockdown was declared at the time she had hoped to launch her latest project. And when the restrictions and health risks extended much longer than she expected, her own cupboard became an instrument of freedom. With the show, she hopes to share it with more women like her.