Chotubhai Bollywood Dresswala

You may well ask, “how on earth did you get to meet a Bollywood Dresswala? The first time I saw him it was in the midst of what looked like Alladin’s Cave – it was the den of Bollywood’s best known Dresswala, the famous Chotubhai!

It was the end of January 1994 and the Taj Mahotsav, was being planned in Agra and I was given the happy task of organising a mini dance ballet ‘The Legend of the Taj Mahal’, on behalf of the Tourism Guild of Agra. The ballet was to entertain a host of international personalities.

I had earlier contacted Delhi’s Kathak Kendra and convinced one of the dance tutors to take on the task of choreographing the ballet with a team of 10 young students.  The ballet was ready in a week, but finding suitable costumes for the Kathak team in Delhi, became a real headache.

I was told that the easiest way to get costumes on hire would be to take the next plane to Mumbai, and drop in at Chotubhai Dresswala’s workshop in Andheri East. It seemed a long way to go for some costumes, but there was no other option as time was short. I was given a ticket on an Indian Airlines flight to Mumbai and back on the same day. Reaching Mumbai Airport, I booked a cab to take me to Andheri East and back the airport, for the return trip to Delhi. The taxi Driver was all smiles on hearing that I had come all the way to Mumbai to meet Chotubhai. I found the address quite easily, Chotubhai Dresswala’s shop was known to everyone!  

Entering the workshop was like stepping into a Bollywood carnival. There were headdresses from all historical eras and grinning masks and ferocious animal faces were suspended from the ceiling. Armour, swords, lances and shields rubbed shoulders with peacock plumes and crowns! Boxes were piled high with artificial jewellery and shoes. In the middle of all this finery, stood Chotubhai and his efficient right hand man Ramesh. Chotubhai hardly looked like a person involved with the business of costume design, who could design and whip up a period costume and even have it altered, within half an hour. All one had to do was to give him the name of the character and lo and behold, the costume would appear like magic!

Chotubhai, handed me over to Ramesh, who swung into action and collected and in less than an hour, the costumes were shown, approved, and packed neatly in a trunk. Costumes for the young and old Shah Jahan, two costumes for Mumtaz Mahal, one each for the others and a few extra costumes for both male and female performers, were also added in case of an emergency.

Shah Jahan’s headgear and black and white beards were also carefully included along with strings of pearls and other jewellery.  Chotubhai offered me a cup of tea, but since I had to check in at the airport within two hours, I promised to have tea with him when I returned in a week’s time. The trunk was carefully lifted into the taxi and within three hours I was on the flight back to Delhi, with the precious cargo.

The costumes were a hit and the Ballet went off without a hitch, receiving plenty of applause. Soon I found myself again on a flight to Mumbai and in a taxi with the trunk of costumes heading for Andheri East.  This time I was not in as much of a hurry and sat down to share a cup of tea with Chotubhai and Ramesh. This is when I learnt the story of how Chotubhai stepped into the business of costumes - the story of a chartered accountant with a doctor for a wife, who chose to take up the lucrative profession of a Dresswala!

Chotubhai’s foray into costume design had its beginning during his school days, when he would invariable become involved in the school productions. The idea of starting a costume company took a more concrete shape, when he was in college. It was then that he decided to indulge his creative instincts side by side with his professional career as a chartered accountant.

Chotubhai launched his business in a small way, starting with a tiny workshop and one tailor.  He felt that since costumes play such an important part in any play or film, there was bound to be a good market in Mumbai. Soon well-known film directors began to notice his work and he was commissioned to do period costumes for their mega productions. One of the films that gave him great satisfaction was ‘Dharamveer’ for which he created over 200 Greco-Indian costumes. However, what really plummeted Chotubhai to fame were his costumes for the TV mega-serial Ramayana, for which he was awarded the Indo-American Society Award for Costume Design.

Soon after this award, another plum assignment fell into his lap. Sanjay Khan was planning a TV serial on the exploits of Tipu Sultan and offered Chotubhai the opportunity of designing a whole range of spectacular costumes. The serial was extremely well received and brought Chotubhai the Andhra Pradesh Journalist’s Award for the best designer of the year. When asked from where he drew his inspiration, Chotubhai said his main ideas came from museums and period institutions from where he collected authentic details. 

Now so many years later, when there was talk about a film’s costumes, I asked someone connected with film production about Chotubhai Dresswala’s workshop and learnt that there were many more dresswalas now in Mumbai and like all types of businesses, the costume business was also going through its own problems and was not as lucrative as before. All I can add to this is that if one needs a period costume for a theatre or a film in a great hurry, they should definitely consider a visit to Mumbai’s Andheri West and make a beeline to Chotubhai’s workshop.