By Shweta Bhandral
Entrepreneur and fashion artist Sharmila Nair’s latest project The Almirah is a fashion art installation that showcases the emotions that Indian women went through during the Covid pandemic.
“There’s a tradition in Kerala where the parents gift an almirah to their daughter at the time of her marriage. This almirah becomes her private property, one of her biggest assets that she inherits from her parents, and it stays in her life as a companion with whom she shares her happiness, sadness, fears, insecurities, and secrets,” says Sharmila, who is based in Ernakulum, Kerala.
“It is in the same almirah that patriarchal society interferes. The almirah stands as a metaphor for the limited public space women experience in a patriarchal society.”
Sharmila’s love for saris was ingrained in childhood. She started wearing saris while in class 12 and, fascinated by her mother’s collection, began to look closely at weaves, styles and textiles.
At the same time, even as a high-school student, her father encouraged her to take on summer jobs, which gave her good exposure in running a business, attracting consumers and delivering services.
After completing her education, she put both her passion and skill to good use and began travelling across the country, researching and collecting saris.
It marked the beginning of her online sari brand Red Lotus. The first collection was put on sale on Facebook; it sold out in two hours.
But online sales were not enough; a desire to talk about issues troubling society was also brewing inside Sharmila, who decided to use her sari brand to raise social issues in artistic ways.
“I think artists through their art should also reflect contemporary reality rather than doing art for art’s sake. To resist, struggle, and pass on your vision to society so that society at large may benefit from your art – that is the highest reward and satisfaction you get from doing an art project. I have a personal inclination of transforming art into a public activity,” she says.
Sharmila began expressing her concerns with projects like the Mazhavil Collection, for which transgender models wore her sari collection. The next project 18 Shades of Black talked about gender and colour discrimination; it received international attention as well.
The Almirah is a step ahead of earlier two projects as it combines the elements of fashion, structural design, solo-performance, still photography, videography, and poetry. The project aesthetically depicts the problem of mental health during the Covid lockdown.
Sharmila herself felt trapped during this period as her business came to a standstill. Her collection for the season had been sourced but was stuck due to logistics, and uncertainty about the future troubled her.
She explains, “I looked at my saris stacked away in my almirah and I began to think about all the emotions women are facing right now. I decided to depict these emotions through my saris. That’s how the idea of a woman inside the almirah occurred to me.”
Sharmila’s colour palette for the project was inspired by the saris in her own almirah. Each colour depicts an emotion, and every emotion finds an expression in our classical dance forms.
Sharmila chose Indian classical dancer Ramya Suvi to model her project. Ramya flawlessly showcased eight emotions: happy, sensuous, thoughtful, trapped, angry, frustrated, sad and powerful.
Photographer Ratheesh Ravindran captured Ramya’s expressive performance and Sharmila’s ideas beautifully in his camera.
The Almirah project began on Instagram and gained traction. Sharmila is now thinking of installing it in an art gallery so that people can take selfies inside the almirah.
She also plans to extend the campaign to public spaces under the title ‘Open the Almirah’ where people can donate items inside the almirah to those who need it the most.
First published in eShe’s December 2020 issue