Pavithra Varathan from ZOBHA On Her Merdeka Sarees

This Malaysian designer took a patriotic icon and turned it into a fashion statement. 
Saturday 26 September 2020
Shikin Gomez stands proudly in an outfit designed to represent the Malaysian Armed Forces. Photo: ZOBHA

The delicate art of creating sarees is an age-old craft that ZOBHA, as it means in Sanskrit, is doing with elegance. Originally an interior designer, founder Pavithra Varathan has now made a name for herself in the Malaysian saree market as well. 

When she began her business around five years ago, her main ambition was to sell genuine handloom Kanjivaram sarees made from Mulberry silk and weaved in Kanchipuram, India. Over time, customer feedback and support from around the world pushed her to expand and look further beyond Malaysian borders. 


Varathan has a vision for Malaysia that is pure and simple, understanding and unity. Photo: ZOBHA


During this growth, Pavithra also realised the woes of imitations from competitors claiming ZOBHA’s designs to pull customers. Now she works more closely with her customers to educate them on the differences between handpicked and designer wear sarees, to create awareness among the public. 

She says, “I wanted people to know when it’s ZOBHA, it’s all about authentic, genuine and quality handloom premium Kanjivaram silk sarees. Because a handloom Kanjivaram means royalty and is highly regarded in the Indian society, as long as the quality and designs that we create are on point, they define the best.”


Made from the finest handwoven Mulberry silk, the Kanjivaram Sarees are for special occasions. Photo: ZOBHA


These traditional mulberry silks from Kanchipuram in India are opulent and resplendent, the height of saree fabric used for weddings and special events. They are made to make one feel like a queen in all elegance. 

Pavithra has worked tirelessly this year to create a vision of unity and compassion, all weaved into the very fabric of a new campaign. In honour of Merdeka and National Day, the designer had the weavers in India put the very essence of Malaysia into the material of her Merdeka saree with nods to Tunku Abdul Rahman, our signature buildings and a very obvious Jalur Gemilang pattern. 

Find out more about the designer and her vision of a unified Malaysia below. 


Sisters Thanuja Ananthan and Anuja Ananthan model the statement which is the centrepiece of the campaign. Photo: ZOBHA


Q: How and when did the idea of a Merdeka saree come to you? 

Pavithra: I wanted to do something special for Merdeka. I was deeply disturbed by the current situation in Malaysia, not only with the unfortunate outbreak, but also our social issues which involve injustice and racial barricades. 

I took this opportunity to show how I felt about Malaysia. My inspirations were weaved in the saree to remind our nation about the significance of Merdeka, where unity and strength lie within us as Malaysians. Just like the lyrics from Jalur Gemilang; ‘satu suara, satu semangat’ we march forward together, to make the country a better place for everyone. 


Q: Did you ever imagine you would get the chance to design clothes with such significance?

Pavithra: If not for the pandemic, I don’t think I would have thought of such a memorable campaign. I was inspired when I went to do my groceries or switched on the TV during the Movement Control Order (MCO), and I saw all of our Malaysian forces striving to save us. That was what I wanted them to remember who we truly are as Malaysians. 



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Q: What was the process of creating your Merdeka design like? 

Pavithra: I designed this saree here in Malaysia with as many details as possible so that my weavers in India can understand and not make mistakes when weaving as these saree elements are delicate. If it goes wrong anywhere, it will throw the whole thing off. It took us almost 16-17 days to complete this Merdeka saree. 


Q: The Merdeka Sarees are obvious in their meaning but would you be able to elaborate on the other designs in the campaign dedicated to front-liners?  

Pavithra: The other four characters were the police, army, firefighter and doctor. These are the first four front-liners that came to my mind for this campaign for their efforts and contribution towards the country and the people. I wanted to capture their hardships during the pandemic as well as show them our appreciation for all they have done. 



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Q: When did the creative bug bite you and how long did it take for the saree to take form?

Pavithra: For this particular project, it was in seconds! I was discussing with my team on what we could do for Merdeka and it took me two days to come up with the overall design… It was sleepless nights until the saree arrived from India but it was all worth it. 


Q: How do you personally feel about Merdeka and Malaysia Day? 

Pavithra: To me, Merdeka and Malaysia day is always special. It’s the time of the year where we are grateful for the independence we achieved, the unity we embraced and the bravery instilled in us to move forward progressively as a nation after 1957. 

There is nowhere like Malaysia, where home is and the people are home to me. Even during the project, we had diverse, creative and talented people who believed in this message, it was empowering to work together with these people as we all want the same thing for Malaysia – to move forward supporting each other as a nation and progress for a better future. 


Christy Ng models the outfit representing our Malaysian Medical Force. Photo: ZOBHA


Q: What does being a Malaysian mean to you? 

Pavithra: There are so many things – the delicious food, the warm people, our history, our diverse cultures but most importantly, it would be how proud I’m to be part of this progressive nation. Yes, we have our difficulties like other countries, but we surpass them, slowly but surely, especially when we truly take the time to understand the situation.

I’m proud that our country has strived and achieved, working together regardless of our diverse cultures. Years of living through and being exposed to these different beautiful experiences, have made me who I am here now. 


Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for Malaysia moving forward?

Pavithra: I hope for a more progressive paradigm where Malaysians are at ease with their diversity. Moving forward, we as Malaysians, now and as before, need to embrace democracy, progressive politics and diversity. 


Find more information on ZOBHA sarees here.