Have you ever thought of being yourself but somewhere, somehow you think of the world and shy away? If yes, then get your inner shyness away with Sumitra Selvaraj! She’s the one who can be your inspiration when you’re going through a dull day by being judged for being yourself. And interesting, you will love her affairs with her generation to generation old sarees. Trust me, we’re drooling over her beautiful sarees and of course, her beautiful soul. Let’s get to know her more!
WSL: Can you tell us more about you and your love affair with Sarees?
I wore a Saree to my high school prom. I was 17 going on 18, and when the prom was announced my girlfriends were all excited about the shopping trip that they were sure would ensue. Truth be told, I though about a Saree as an outfit because I didn’t want to ask my parents for a dress. Not because they couldn’t afford it, but because it wasn’t in my nature to ask for things. I had been fortunate enough to have parents who provided me with stacks of books, regular holidays to broaden my horizons and daily dinner table conversation to assuage my concerns about the state of the world. I wanted for nothing, and in that spirit, I never thought it was necessary to ask for anything. When the question of a prom dress arose, I asked why I couldn’t wear what my mum wore to my parents frequent dinner parties. So at my high school prom, I danced the night away in a black Chiffon saree matched with a black velvet blouse adorned with gold embroidery. I have never worn anything but a Saree to a formal do since.
WSL: How didn’t you shy away from wearing Indian Sarees in International Work Environment? What inspires you to be the way you are?
My mother wore a Saree every day to work when she was in the civil service, so I grew up believing that Sarees were perfectly acceptable office wear. When I started working myself, first in the magazine industry and then on to broadcasting, I never felt out of place in a Saree. Malaysia is a muti-cultural society, made up of Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnicities. The local Malay women wear the ‘baju kurung’ or ‘baju kebaya’ which is their cultural outfit, and many non-Malay (i.e. Chinese and Indian) woman are also quite happy to adopt the ‘baju kurung’ as part of their wardrobe. And because this cultural dress was widely accepted as office wear, there was no reason for me not to wear the Saree, which I was far more comfortable in anyway. Public Relations and Advertising was a whole different ball game than the Media; it was certainly a whole lot more international and corporate. However, I still felt that the Saree had its place as office wear. When I first met with Clients, they’d be a little taken aback, but the good thing about the private sector is that the only thing that matters is results. You could be dressed in your pyjamas, and as long as deliverables are met, that would have been absolutely fine!
I don’t really draw inspiration from anyone when it comes to leading my life. I’ve always been an outlier; when I was younger it used to bother me that I didn’t have a clique in school, or that I couldn’t find common ground with my peers. But by the time I left school, I had grown to understand that it was completely acceptable to blaze your own trail. I think my voracious reading habit contributed to this, the more differing points I was exposed to, the more comfortable I became with my own inability to fit in with the crowd.
WSL: Why do you think every Saree is the story?
When I look through family pictures, I love picking out the photos of my grandmother carrying me as a baby in her arms; she was always in a Saree and some of those Sarees are what I now wear to work. Nearly 80% of my Sarees are not my own, they are hand me downs from my grandmother, mother and now also mother-in-law. So intrinsically, my Sarees connect me to my family. Every single Saree carries the stories and secrets of the women who were and are closest to me; their Sarees have seen their happiness and despair, also their unbridled joy, longing and love. It doesn’t matter if every single story is spoken out aloud, I think it’s enough that it has melded into the material. I value this connection, that I’m wearing something that someone else has worn before me. In a way, it makes me part of that Saree’s history.
WSL: Your favourite Saree memory?
I wrote a blog post about this some months ago, that my grandmother used to rig a makeshift cradle under the stairs for me when I was a baby. I think this is definitely my most endearing Saree memory.
WSL: If there’s one Saree you could drape a lifetime, which one would it be? And why?
It would have to be a Chettinad Cotton. I’d love to be able to spend the rest of my days in a kaleidoscope of Raw Silks and Kanjivarams, but I’d never be able to get anything done in such finery! I’m really a roll up my sleeves and pitch in kinda girl; there’s cooking to be done, the garden needs to be tended to, the dogs love to tumble about and play… these are all things that I do daily in my beloved Chettinad Cotton Sarees. The Sarees are of a coarse material, which I love, and they are durable and vibrantly coloured. That ticks all the boxes I would want in the perfect Saree.
WSL: How can you incorporate in everyday life and not just for special occasions?
I was hoping you’d ask this question, because this is a subject that I’m particularly passionate about. If you only buy ‘occasion’ Sarees, you will ONLY be able to wear them to occasions. Too many women buy Sarees for a special event, and they spend and arm and a leg on what may be a very beautiful outfit, but one that they are unlikely to ever wear again because 1. They don’t want to be repeating Sarees or 2. There isn’t a grand enough occasion to merit a re-wearing. Buy simple Sarees; pared down, unassuming handlooms that you can pair with an array of heavily embroidered blouses or designer tops for occasions, but still wear out with simple cotton blouses to work or for casual meet ups. Of course, with Sarees, the first step is to be comfortable in them and the only way that happens is with practice. I find that if you’re someone who is not yet comfortable wearing a Saree, being made to drape it for an occasion is a highly stressful situation. Pick a weekend or afternoon where you have nothing going on, call a few girlfriends over if you like, put on some music and YouTube videos on draping, and have fun! Spend a few hours messing around with the pleats and length, experiment with styles, Try and repeat this a couple of times a month, and soon you’ll develop a level of comfort that you would not have thought possible. THEN when there’s an occasion, hopefully you’ll have had plenty of practice by then.
WSL: What type of works/embroideries do you like on your drape?
Not a big fan of zari, but it’s perhaps quite unavoidable in Kanjivarams. I generally like ‘quiet’ Sarees, so even though the colours might be bold, it’s unlikely to have any embellishments at all. I do like thread work borders and pallus; which is I wear Odisha Cottons and Coimbatore Cottons quite regularly.
WSL: Are women who wear Sarees are judged for being old-fashioned and outdated?
Absolutely. But do we care?
WSL: Would you like to say something to women who shy away from being themselves?
I know the clarion call for women is to ‘be yourself!’, but this is really easier said than done. I understand that life can be limiting, and challenging; and that sometimes you feel like your voice or opinion carries no weight. But it DOES. Who you are, and what you think, matters deeply. And the trick is to surround yourself with people who want you, to be you. Who like you, for who you are. These may not be the people in your immediate vicinity, so you might have to set out on a journey to look for them. When you find them, and I guarantee you will, you’ll look back at the shadow you once were and wonder how you could have ever lived like that. Go out there, and be yourself. Whoever that may be.