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All tied up in heritage

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 29 Mar 2017

Sumitra Selvaraj’s saree tales are woven with threads of family and culture, identity and ultimately, female empowerment.

KUALA LUMPUR: Sumitra Selvaraj wears a saree to work every day – in fact, there’s very little she can’t do in one.

“I do the housework, walk the dogs ... I’ve climbed over my house gate in a saree before, when I got locked out,” said the executive producer of Vbuzz, an English language TV talkshow.

Her simple daily practice has become an inspiring journey, woven with threads of identity, culture, perception and female empowerment.

Sumitra, 39, chronicles her saree love on her Instagram @sarees andstories, and on her blog, Sarees and Stories – both have proven to resonate with women in particular.

On Instagram, she has almost 11,000 followers and receives hundreds of messages with saree-related questions and stories from fellow enthusiasts.

On March 11, she was a speaker at the first “An Afternoon of Sarees and Stories”, a gathering organised by her friend and fellow saree enthusiast Cheryl Teh, who also chairs The Philharmonic Society of Selangor. This will go on to be a regular affair.

“When I started the Instagram account, it was just to document my sarees – I didn’t expect this sort of response,” said Sumitra.

“I’m not here to tell women what they must wear, but to let them know what they can wear – my platforms are about possibilities,” she said.

In her first blog post, Sumitra wrote about how wearing a saree had her “going through the same deft motions that connects centuries of Indian women all the way back to the Indus Valley civilisation”.

“I’ve always been interested in the concept of identity. I struggled with it as a young woman, and this is something I explore with Sarees and Stories,” she said.

At 16, Sumitra wore her first saree as part of her coming-of-age ceremony. In the same year, she joined the very first BRATs programme run by The Star, for aspiring young writers – both would turn out to resonate in her life.

“Writing has been a constant throughout my life, and writing about sarees seemed the most natural thing,” she said.

Unlike many of her generation, Sumitra has always liked cotton sarees.

“They are light, airy and fuss-free, and after a couple of trips to India, I realised that every state has its own heritage for cotton sarees,” she said.

For her, being comfortable and confident in a saree comes with the regular practice of wearing it – not so different from being comfortable in your own skin.

“I get a lot of questions from college students, who say that they wore a saree and people stared at them, and how do they deal with that? I say, wear another saree, and then another one – until they are comfortable with it,” she said.

She also feels that societal perception is a major issue.

“The saree is just another item of clothing, not some holy and sanctified thing.

“The perception of such sanctity is more damaging than anything else, because it is part of a culture of shallowness – of being more interested in the trappings than the person,” she said.

That shallowness of thinking leads some to be surprised that within the drapes of her daily wear, Sumitra’s heart beats to a feminist rhythm.

“Of course I’m a feminist! I struggle with people who think feminism is a dirty word. It’s simply about addressing the inequality that is still so dominant in our world,” she said.

“No one has the right to tell a woman what to wear – everyone has the right to look away.” — By Suzanne Lazaroo