Oona Natesan: Costume Designer, Critical Thinker, and Creative Powerhouse
by Mukta Phatak
We’ve all seen it: the elaborate lion headpiece, the epic four-man dragon puppet, two actors inside of a horse costume, an adorable child in a too large hat with foam cat ears, even the occasional actual dog on stage (I’m looking at you, Dorothy!).
Having animals on stage is an invitation for creative solutions and designs, and Oona Natesan – our costume designer – dove deep, creating exquisite, specific and visually sumptuous looks for our Jungle creatures.
When I sat down with Oona to get a sense of how she approached these characters, at first she was a bit nervous – would I follow the intricacies of her thought process? In other words, was she making sense? I was busy fangirling over her brilliance, so to make sure I would pay attention, she pulled up her deeply researched, abundantly metaphorical designs and let her work do the talking.
"..I was interested in drawing a parallel between what humans are doing to the animals in the play and what humans are doing to both animals and indigenous tribes in the world, through my costume design"
Oona: So, the crux of this design process was that we didn’t want to try and make the actors look like real animals, because the movement would do part of that storytelling. It was a blend of hints at the animals and hints at a deeper message.
Mukta: That being?
Oona: Well, to start with, all of my designs are based in the indigenous tribes of the regions from which each animal is from. India is home to so many animals – and is home to a great many tribes and regions too. So, in my costuming for each animal, there are direct references to the indigenous tribes of regions that each animal is mainly found in.
My work in uplifting these indigenous crafts and traditions is to try to bring attention to the fact that these ancient communities still exist and that we are hurting them with things like urbanization, and draining their resources through our actions.
In the play, we see how humans have encroached on the jungle and are forcing claims on the space of animals – this is a core conflict in the show. That’s a familiar story to indigenous tribes and I was interested in drawing the parallel between what humans are doing to the animals in the play and what humans are doing to both animals and indigenous tribes in the world, through my costume design.
"..it made me wonder, what other erasures exist outside of the ones in this story?"
Oona drew a perfect thread (pun intended), weaving all the complexities of this script’s retelling into her art form (ok, I’m sorry, I’ll stop). She is honoring the original text’s setting, and infusing it with deeply researched authenticity thus reclaiming the story into a South Asian space.
It doesn’t stop there though – with the added layer of indigenous clothing, I found myself wondering how I could help indigneous tribes and animals reclaim their space, the same way The Jungle Book: Rudyard Revised is reclaiming the South Asian narrative of the story – something that means a lot to me as a South Asian creative.
It made me wonder (and will make audiences wonder) “what other erasures exist outside of the ones in this story? Am I participating in them? What can I do to learn more, and uplift those who need to be heard?”.
As I was still reeling from all of these questions, Oona calmly proceeded to walk me through her incredible research images and renderings. I am including a few snapshots into her in-depth and well thought out process below, and to enjoy the rest you’ll just have to come see the show.
Oona: Wolves are from Rajasthan. I based their costumes on the Lambadi tribe, lots of gray and black accented with oxidized silver accents and jewelry. Wolves roam in packs, and the Lambadi tribe does too.
As such, Akela, Raksha, and all the wolves are dressed in gray and black with coins as embellishments and lots of jewelry. They are high-status and wear specific jewelry to show they are Lambadis – and that is reflected in the costuming.
I looked this up afterwards – apparently the Lambadi are historically known to be nomadic wanderers – a tradesman tribe that roams all over the Deccan in groups. Sounds like wolves to me!
Oona: We used bandhani techniques for the wolves which is something that is very particular to Rajasthan. Even the textiles we used are sourced from every region in India in which the animals are found. I was very specific in doing that.
Tabaqui the Jackal
Oona: We approached Tabaqui as a character in relation to the wolves – in some ways rather like their lower status cousin. We drew from similar tribes to the wolves, but used rustic, earthy and muddy colors to show that he is not of the same level as the wolves in the jungle.
Some inspiration was from the tribes of Gujurat and Goa, where the jackal is found. The way Tabaqui’s costume is draped was also adjusted, since every region of India has its own style of draping.
Bagheera the Panther
This is where the theater design element came into play, since Bagheera is a trained dancer. This inspired Oona as she went into the design process filled with images of Bharatanatyam, an ancient classical Indian dance tradition.
Oona: Bagheera is fearless, and powerful. She has a regal pride and a certain sensuality in her power, so there is a lot of gold and grace to her design.
If you look at the silhouette of most actual animals and compare it to a human – it is immediate – you see that humans have much longer legs.
I now can’t unsee that, by the way. Imagine a tiger but with proportionately human length legs. Now imagine that same thing but on a bear.
Oona: So, we tried to reduce the legs of all the animal characters, including Bagheera’s. We used low crotch drop dhoti pants, and increased the amount of volume in the legs, so that from the audience they have the silhouette of animals.
Kaa the Snake
Kaa is being played by Dr. Anita Ratnam, an internationally recognized visionary dancer and artist. When Oona approached designing this character, she realized that there was something mythological about Kaa – hard to pin down and existing outside of the main plot of the story.
Oona: Culturally, the snake is either deeply worshiped or considered extremely poisonous in India. It’s given a lot of attention and sometimes adulation because it is the symbol of Lord Vishnu, a Hindu deity, who wears a snake around his neck.
Natesan also looked to one of Lord Vishnu’s incarnations, Lord Krishna, who in Hindu mythology often comes in and changes the narrative of a story.
Oona: This is just what Kaa does in the Jungle Book – you are never sure whose side she’s on, and when she appears she makes you question what you thought was going to happen in the plot.
We sourced an ikat print – which is a very famous textile of India – that looked like the patterns of a snake. We used it as a sari and draped it in a way that coiled and spiraled all over her body.
Sher Baagh the Tiger
Textile wise, the Sher Baagh fabrics scream tiger. Sourced locally once again, the ikat print is iconic in its Indian-ness and its orange and black tiger-like print.
Oona: The ikat print is actually a really hard weave, because the thread is dyed before weaving. This intricacy and the fact that it is a very native print to Bengal made me interested in it for Sher Baagh, because he is a very complicated, somewhat delicate character.
The Bengal tiger is also such a royal creature, and I see Sher Baagh as a sort of fallen nawab (king/ruler from the precolonial era). When the British empire colonized India, a lot of nawabs were either forced to assimilate in order to survive, or revolted and were killed. So, that image was really compelling to me when looking at Sher Baagh.
Oona went on to explain the colonial history of tiger hunting. When the British colonized India, with them came British gamesmen who prized tiger skins and poached tigers throughout their rule.
Looking at how the tiger’s conflict with the British Empire paralleled the nawab’s conflict with the British Empire led Oona to design Sher Baagh’s silhouette into one that looks much like a nawab – with a turban, some jewelry and all based in that beautiful tiger-like ikat print.
Oona: Mowgli is the only character I dressed in green, because it is a camouflage color. In a way, Mowgli is constantly having to blend and morph in order to fit in.
The fabric I used was also a typical cotton found in villages in the 1800s. In those days, fabric was really expensive and it made no sense to cut fabric – it was just draped over the body.
These days, the styles of wearing saris always include a “blouse” and “petticoat” – two words that were brought to Indians by the British – who told them that wearing clothing without a blouse and petticoat was uncivilized.