Twenty-four sculptural figures stand in the 1,100 sq. ft L-shaped white space of Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery. Billowing drapes of black cotton-silk-plastic cover the gender-neutral, human-like figures. Miniature brass sculptures dot the gallery, setting off a contrast in colour, scale and material.

With his exhibit Random Access, Kolkata-based designer Kallol Datta examines our sense of proportion. He refers to himself as a clothes maker, but his practice exists at the intersection of fashion and art.

This year, Datta has given the ongoing Lakmé Fashion Week a miss. “This is my presentation for the year. Prateek and Priyanka (Raja, founders of Experimenter) approached me about a year ago and I thought they weren’t serious. Not many art galleries show design," says Datta.

The designer is not new to a conceptual approach to fashion. “Even within the context of fashion week, it’s never been just the clothes, but to ask why the clothes were made so, accompanied by a journal or soundtrack. For me this didn’t seem much of a stretch," he says.

A work on display at ‘Random Access’.
A work on display at ‘Random Access’.

Datta, who started his label Kallol Datta 1955 in 2008, has been experimenting in the art space, taking part in residencies at the Khoj International Artists Association, first in 2011 and then in 2013, and Galleryske in 2014. “I’m a big believer in collaboration. I like doing non-textile things as well." In March, Datta collaborated with Delhi-based lighting designer Nikhil Paul of Paul Matter to create a collection of ceiling-hung and floor light sculptures whose metal lampshades beautifully embody the ripple of fabric.

Not just models or mannequins, Datta even does away with a dressform to exhibit his creations. The canvas, then, is a cylindrical form, “with no shoulders, front or back, no armholes, the waist is not thinner than the shoulders"—questioning our assumptions of ideal body proportions. The only resemblance to a human form is a globe-like head, reminiscent of wooden dolls. “It makes me question my practice: Am I cutting clothes like I always cut? Should clothing always fit a desired body?" asks Datta.

The subversion continues in the material. Datta has been using cotton and silk, often reclaimed from waste, but this time he’s added a layer of plastic film to the fabric, “forcing the textile to behave differently", and playing with notions of beauty.

Datta’s skill as a designer lies in pattern cutting and that is what comes into focus, for a gallery setting allows a closer, more intimate look at how a garment has been cut and put together.

Datta’s influences come from architecture, culture and, of course, fashion. “I’ve always admired how Martin Margiela would deconstruct and reconstruct items of clothing to form shapes and silhouettes." His early days in Dubai and Bahrain only strengthened his inclination towards free, billowing forms. “In that part of the world, you see men and women wearing the same flowing silhouette. I also find that I like to cover up the body rather than uncover parts."

In trying to clothe the cylindrical forms, Datta compares his experience to “collapsed structures after a demolition crew took them down".

A work on display at ‘Random Access’.
A work on display at ‘Random Access’.

Random Access embodies Datta’s nomadic inclination to simultaneously inhabit the worlds of fashion, design, art, architecture and more.“I’ve never been satisfied with just staying in one place. Yet the only thing I know is making clothes. But clothes are not always just clothes. When we study the history of costume, we get to know about a civilization by what people wore. I’m fascinated with how there might be metadata attributed to clothing," he says. Datta’s addition to this metadata is almost an undoing of what we’ve attributed to it so far. “I try to push what fashion believes should be—proportion, drape, structure—and what we believe should be the body." Because, as he says, they, of all people, should not be “so exclusive all the time".

Random Access is on view till 31 August, at Experimenter, Kolkata. For details, visit Experimenter.in.

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