[EXCLUSIVE] Malaysian Designer Behind Stunning ‘Merdeka Saree’ Celebrating Our Unity, Culture & Frontliners Talks Inspiration, Challenges & Cultural Appreciation
There’s no doubt about it, 2020 has thrown curveball after curveball at us and as we approach the final quarter of the year, it seems like we are both as divided and as united as before. Recently, following what is seen as a controversial move to market a product using the traditions of a different culture, there has been much debate over the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. With a country as diverse as Malaysia, where do you draw the line and how do you educate people on this? Often times, it takes small steps and that is what the founder of ZOBHA, Pavithra Varathan, is trying to do with her new Merdeka saree. Likely has spoken to Pavithra on her inspiration behind the brand as well as the Merdeka saree. Pavithra explains that the reason why she wanted to make the Merdeka saree in the first place was…
“I was deeply disturbed by the current situation in Malaysia, both with the unfortunate [COVID-19] outbreak and the subsequent social issues involving injustice and racial barricades. My inspirations were weaved in the saree to remind our nation about the significance of Merdeka – that it is where unity and strength lives within us as Malaysians. Just like the lyrics in the Jalur Gemilang song; ‘satu suara, satu semangat’ we march forward together, making the country a better place for all,”
What is ZOBHA and how is the brand changing the fashion climate in Malaysia?
“ZOBHA means ELEGANT in Sanskrit and combining the beautifully perfected craft of handwoven Kanjivaram silk sarees (by weavers in Kanchipuram, India, who work with silk for hours) with elements of our Malaysian culture allows us to create the best of the best sarees – pieces that exude beauty, elegance, boldness, confidence, and femininity. When I first started doing my research on the fashion industry here in Malaysia, I realised that there was a lot of untapped creativity and ideas that had not been brought to life and thus, was something I felt I could change as a designer. I’ve always wanted to be different – ever since I was a little girl. I don’t feel comfortable being similar to or compared to anyone. After almost 6 – 7 months of ZOBHA’s establishment, I faced challenges from competitors and it took a lot for me to keep moving forward; to justify that what we are creating in this industry is helping us make a change in the world. I’ve had a lot of elderly customers (who are Kanjivaram saree enthusiasts) who are amazed that there is a place like ZOBHA in Malaysia. This makes me happy as a designer and brand owner – to inspire and be inspired by people and art, embracing the Indian fashion legacy woven with our local history and culture.”
What were some of the challenges you faced creating and running ZOBHA in Malaysia?
“Honestly, my wish was to make sure we produce and sell genuine handloom Kanjivaram sarees when I first started. However, the response we got from customers here and worldwide made me feel energized and I strove to push myself to look into a wider global market. Of course, nothing is easy to develop and grow – it takes time. It’s been almost 5 years since Zobha opened its doors and I know what customers want and what their expectations are.”
“There were tough times too. I realised that some competitors in the market tended to imitate our products and claim them as their own designs. But these competitors merely handpicked them from India and sold them here, with the intention to capture and attract customers to purchase from them. As a result, I decided to work on making customers realise the difference between designer wear and handpicked sarees. I wanted to educate the public and raise awareness of these differences. I wanted people to know that when it’s ZOBHA, it’s about the authenticity, being genuine and maintaining quality. After all, there will be people doing the same thing you want to do and better, but what I realised I needed to keep doing was to show the best I have in me while embracing the fact that I am blessed to be able to incorporate elements from my diverse range of customers, who have their own cultures to bring to our stories. Because a handloom Kanjivaram saree itself already equates to royalty and is highly looked upon in the Indian society what we design and weave defines the best of the best. There is a lot that can be done fashion-wise using a Kanjivaram saree and I am so proud to be able to prove that through this meaningful campaign and that will always be very close to my heart. “
What is the inspiration behind the Merdeka saree and ‘Standing together with ZOBHA’?
“The inspiration behind this one-of-a-kind design was the Jalur Gemilang, our Bapa Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence) Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Kuala Lumpur’s signature skyline. The body of the Merdeka sare, especially, was inspired by our Malaysian flag. The colours reflect both the design and the meaning behind our prestigious flag – the mighty strips of glory embodied with our national colours of freedom, independence and the all-encompassing strength of a unified nation. The distinguishing feature of this Kanjivaram silk saree is the heavily contrasted border and pallu (decorated end) as it is embellished with gold and depicts the bravery and courage of Tunku Abdul Rahman, who fought endlessly to unite our fellow countrymen on the road to independence.
During this campaign, we had personalities from diverse races come together and I had the opportunity to speak to them. When I asked them how comfortable they felt in a Kanjivaram saree (what with our shoot being out in the sun in our sweltering local heat), they all shared how they were in fact very comfortable. It’s common to find people who comment on and lament their Kanjivaram sarees for being ‘very hot and stuffy’ but a genuine Kanjivaram saree is actually easy to wear because it’s mean to be comfortable and light.”
Why did you choose to also include elements of our local frontliners uniforms?
Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic affected us in more ways than we would have expected as a nation, it was also during these tough times that we marched together as a proud nation. Just like the lyrics from the Jalur Gemilang song, “Satu Suara, Satu Semangat”, the Merdeka saree represents us as Malaysians; celebrating our various different cultures, people, strength and independence. And who else to honour following that difficult phase than the people that carried us through it and made it possible to get through it? We took this opportunity to show our heartfelt appreciation and gratitude to the front-liners who stood tall for our country during the tough initial months of the global COVID-19 pandemic with accompanying looks that were inspired by some of our national uniforms. Amongst the uniforms highlighted are those of the Malaysian army, medical and police force.
View this post on Instagram
A Kanjivaram silk saree is hand woven by weavers in India who work with silk for hours perfecting the saree as it speaks a thousand words of beauty, elegance, boldness, confidence, and femininity. The body of the Merdeka saree especially, was inspired by our Malaysian flag which represents the mighty strips of glory embodied with national colours of freedom, independence and the royalty of a unified nation. The distinguishing feature of this Kanjivaram Silk saree is the heavily contrasted border and pallu (decorated end) embellished with gold depicting the bravery and courage of Malaysia’s Bapa Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence) Tunku Abdul Rahman, who fought endlessly to unite our fellow countrymen on the road to independence, above Kuala Lumpur’s signature skyline. To accompany the unquestionably unique Medeka saree, we took this opportunity to show our appreciation and gratitude to the front-liners who stood tall for our country during the tough initial months of the global COVID-19 pandemic with accompanying looks. These looks were inspired by some of our national uniforms – all by using Kanjivaram Silk sarees styled with custom blouses designed by @trihamsa , using different textiles such as songket, brocade and silk. These looks were modelled by fellow trailblazing Malaysian women and we also had a chance to interview some of our Malaysian heroes. 😍 Sharing is truly caring. #TogetherWithZobha #Merdeka2020 Thank you to everyone who believed in this campaign: Saree Designer & Concept : @kancheevaram_weaves_by_zobha Costume Designer: @trihamsa Saree Draping: @yogashyogg Hair and Makeup: @vithyahairandmakeup & @makeupbyumminasir Photography: @carloskhu by @khustudio Videography: @thirtygrid Catering: @knowherebangsar PR Agency: @mtalentasia Personalities: @thanujaananthan @anujaananthan @christyemilylove @careyons @shikingomez @dahlianadirah
At a time where there is much discussion about cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, what role does the Merdeka saree play?
“There is a difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation. There’s no doubt about it, we need to address this as a nation. However, we also cannot forget the fact that cultural appreciation has been instilled in all of us for decades now, what with the melting pot of cultures that we’ve grown up. I remember going to school dressing up in a Baju Melayu or Cheongsam for Merdeka and my friends from other races would do it too, but we did all of that out of respect for one another and that’s what it should mean to be Malaysian – embracing and respecting our various cultures together as one. We all make mistakes and yes, it is easy to focus on how different each culture is what with the separation as a result of the movement control order (MCO) and COVID-19. However, this ZOBHA Merdeka campaign is to remind Malaysians that we stand unified and stronger together. When there are people who are left unaware, it is up to us to also address the issue together so that we can educate (across the board) and grow together as a nation.”