give you an idea of the rarity: when rumours had it that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might gift former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama with 100 Benarasi saris during her visit in 2015, bloggers in the subcontinent fretted, “Where will she find a good blouse tailor?”
Which is why singer Shobha Janardanan was elated when she stumbled upon Thamilselvi Adaikan – or Mrs Rajah, as she is better known. In her blog, she gushes how the tailor effectively rescued her wedding from certain disaster when she successfully “undid the horrendous work of a so-called celebrity tailor” she engaged previously, and reconstructed her blouse “by using the original blouse piece material, with absolutely no visible flaws.”
Currently operating from the upper floor of a commercial building in Little India, Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur, Mrs Rajah has a formidable portfolio of traditional Indian costumes. From elaborate 20-panel lehngas for dancers at the Temple of Fine Arts, to graceful anarkali suits for a Russian couple, there’s little she hasn’t seen in her nine-year career.
Mrs Rajah’s lifelong love affair with saris began as a child: “Every morning when I woke up, I saw my mother draping a sari and counted the days till I could wear one.” After years of unsatisfactory experiences with tailors, she decided to take things into her own hands and took a course in tailoring Indian traditional costumes. Though a late bloomer, she was a quick learner and decided to set up shop the year she turned 50.
When a customer walks through her door, Mrs Rajah sits with her to determine her design. Factors like personality, body size, colour preference and even what kind of bra she will be wearing with the blouse, are taken into account. Though a self-professed traditionalist who prefers classical designs, Mrs Rajah is adept at all kinds of modern twists on the sari blouse: backless, mandarin collar, one-shoulder, décolletage, halterneck, you name it.
She advises, “The blouse can make or break your sari, so spend some time thinking about the cut and pattern. The most important factor is balance for a perfect look. A sequined blouse, hand embroidery or right colour combination can uplift the look of a plain sari.”
“Because of its visibility, it must be an example of precise, clean tailoring,” she says. No fewer than 10 measurements are taken from the shoulder to the midriff; everything from depth of the neck to the size of the back at the top, middle and bottom will be taken into account. It’s said a good sari blouse tailor knows her customer’s proportions better than the customer’s husband.
For something that looks deceptively simple, sari blouses – essentially the sum of several panels of cloth – can be riddled with a litany of problems. Ill-fitting armholes are a common complaint for sleeveless sari blouses. Another is the cups of a blouse; some tailors add so many darts that they end up looking like a pair of pyramids.
But the most common – and hardest to tackle – is how to rescue a badly made blouse. Many a desperate bride has come to Mrs Rajah’s humble shop-lot in tears with a botched job on the eve of her big day. “Usually wedding outfits are made of fragile and expensive material, so it is incredibly difficult to dismantle and reconstruct.”
Done well, a sari blouse should be flattering enough to accentuate a woman’s curves, yet be so comfortable that she could dance fluidly in it. “Its cut, colour and the way it is worn tells you if the woman is carefree, bold or traditional,” Mrs Rajah says.
Perhaps this is why saris are gaining popularity beyond their traditional Indian wearers. Mrs Rajah enthuses about getting an order for an entire Malay family recently; she even attended the wedding so she could see how the apparel turned out. “The way you walk, talk and carry yourself changes when you wear a sari,” she says firmly. “There’s nothing quite as transformative as a sari.”
Depending on the intricacy of the design and embroidery, the standard lead time for making sari blouses is 7-10 working days. Mrs Rajah also makes Punjabi suits, lehngas and other traditional Indian costumes.
Navira’s Tailoring & Collection is located at 255-3 Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Little India, Brickfields Kuala Lumpur