Sarees and secrets, can you keep them to yourself? For the trio who dreamed it up, perhaps not.
Sumitra Selvaraj, Abhi Arumbakkam, and Dhinesha Karthigesu have joined forces to present a one-night-only theatre performance entitled, Sarees And Secrets.
The three talented creatives are inviting us to join them in their exploration of creative expressions using the Saree as a prompt.
Despite having never met in person, with Abhi being from the United Kingdom and Sumitra and Dhinesha curtailed by pandemic movement restrictions in Malaysia, their exchanges over social media sparked an idea that compelled a showcase.
Slowly, the threads of a show began coming together, as they tried to answer the question: why are we compelled to keep secrets and whose secrets do we carry? We recently spoke to Sumitra who shared with her how the online theatre event came about.
I am always intrigued by how one particular Saree can be styled in many different ways, depending on the wearer.
The Saree is essentially an unstitched length of cloth, usually between 6 to 9 yards long. It can be worn in a number of ways; there are hundreds of regional drapes from various parts of the Indian sub-continent but also because it is a length of cloth, can be draped around the body in ANY way the wearer chooses. This makes the Saree shareable; any body shape can wear a Saree and that same saree can be passed through generations or different hands, and still be a functional piece of clothing.
I grew up watching my mother wear Sarees to work every single day, this was definitely the starting point of my attraction to them.
But when I really fell in love with them was when I was 17; it was my high school prom and I couldn’t find a dress to fit me. Even in the women’s section, the clothing was for petite frames and the saleswomen kept sniggering ‘saiz besar takde’ (No large size). So my mum suggested a Saree and a friend’s mum gave me one of her older black chiffon Sarees from her younger days!
I danced the night away in a Saree and have rarely worn anything to a formal event since.
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I don’t really have one favourite type, I don’t think I believe in favourites. I like Sarees that don’t fight me; over the years I have realised that there are some fabrics that are not ideal… too slippery, too sweaty, too clingy, whatever.
I’ve gotten rid of those Sarees and kept the ones that are a joy to drape… those are my favourites.
The objectification of Sarees, especially here in Malaysia IS a problem. It’s seen as sexy, or ‘Bollywood’ or not corporate enough.
I’ve worn Sarees to work for over 25 years now and it’s just another outfit. Sarees and Secrets is work for me too, I am a writer and now a performer. I am wearing a Saree not because it’s a statement, but because it’s just what I wear to work. And I hope that comes across.
It was Abhi who reached out to me via Instagram; we were strangers but she had been following my handle and was familiar with my writings and rantings. She is an independent writer-theatremaker and had spotted an opportunity to collaborate through the British Council’s Connections Through Culture programme. It is an arts grant with the aim of supporting cultural exchanges between the UK and East Asian.
The moment she reached out and asked if I knew someone in Malaysia who would be interested in collaborating with her, I volunteered Dhinesha Karthigesu’s name because I love the work that he does in storytelling across mediums. Abhi insisted that I too should be part of the collaboration and the three of us worked on the application that ultimately got selected.
Abhi is our Creative Producer, she generates energy and ideas and is really the bedrock of the project. There would be no Sarees and Secrets without Abhi, really. Dhinesha is our Director, he takes ideas and crafts them into theatre pieces and also keeps me motivated when I am overcome by imposter syndrome. This then means that I am the writer and performer, who really hasn’t got a clue whether she can be a writer and performer!
So we started with a common thread; the love of Sarees. All three of us are intrigued and interested in the Saree not quite as a cultural symbol but one of agency.
What does it mean when a person chooses to wear a Saree? But the more we had conversations about the Saree, the more we realised that it is also a garment of secrets. And it took us about three months to draw out what those secrets are; whether they are my secrets or the secrets that have been shared with me by strangers. It wasn’t so much as a selection process as a honing… we have whittled it down to what we want to say.
When we began, I thought our greatest challenge would be distance. Abhi is in the UK, Dhinesha and I are in Malaysia but restricted in movement; all of our meetings over five months have been virtual.
But as it turns out, that distance did not even register. We fell into conversations like we’ve known each other all our lives and this sense of trust and care is what helped us through the worst of our challenges which were bouts of illness and bereavement when we lost loved ones over the last few months.
I almost wasn’t even a part of this project because I had told Abhi that I wasn’t ‘creative’ enough to do theatre. I had told her that all I do is ‘mess about on Instagram’ and that there are far more qualified theatremakers she should be collaborating with.
Abhi told me in her gentle-boss manner ‘ok that’s fine to think that way but I would like you to try anyway’. And so I did. I have always, always doubted the worth of my writing, but as Dhinesha tells me often ‘but it’s YOURS’. And they are both responsible for pushing me out of my comfort zone to just try something new while providing a giant safety net of empathy and kindness.
I hope to be able to do the same for someone else one day because it has changed the way I value my work.
Yes, there is a Q&A section. This isn’t traditional theatre in a 3 act sense. It’s me sharing thoughts and then getting audience feedback as part of the experience.
As part of the run-up to the show, we have an Instagram page going; it’s where anyone can share a secret anonymously and safely. No personal information is collected so there is no way to trace the originator. And we have done this because we became aware that so many people carry secrets that they wish they would set free, even if it doesn’t amount to anything that letting it go in a virtual space.
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That’s something Abhi, Dhinesha and I have already talked about but I think we need to get this out of the way first!
It’s an online performance so audience members will be virtual and their cameras will be turned off. And no, there is no elevated treatment because a Saree doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal just for showing up.
It is a timeless, everyday garment, and normalising its wear is all the treatment I could hope for. But PLEASE feel free to wear a Saree… perhaps take a photo of yourself watching the performance and we could think about what to do with that for our next project!