The Saree Merchant

loading Ashok Kumar Poduval.

Whether you fancy billowing silks, crisply starched cottons or intricate thread work motifs, a visit to a saree shop is most certainly a sensory treat, as you find yourself surrounded by thousands of yards of hand-loomed artistry.

And while these days it is becoming more and more difficult to find women who wear sarees to work and even to social events, the tide certainly turns come wedding season. The process of shopping for a bridal saree and wedding trousseau involves a gamut of decision makers from both parties, and often the person who maintains the peace and ensures a smooth shopping experience is the saree shop proprietor himself.

“You know, I had no clue about the saree business when I first entered it. It was my father who started this all,” says Ashok Kumar Poduval, who runs Umayal Textiles on Lebuh Penang.

Ashok’s father, K.K.G. Poduval, was born in Kerala, India, and as a 20-something-year-old, came to Malaya in 1950. He made his way to Kulim where an uncle of his had set up a tailoring shop, and proceeded to learn the craft.

But being the enterprising man that he was, he would every now and then travel from the mainland to Lebuh Pasar on the island and visit a store called Umayal Textiles. Here, he would buy bolts of material: chiffon and georgette printed synthetic fabric from Japan and China, which would be cut into six-yard lengths appropriate for sarees. He would then take this material back to the mainland and traverse the rubber estates, selling the sarees to those who were unable to afford the trip to the island themselves.

In 1968 K.K.G. Poduval took over the business at Umayal Textiles, and was soon doing a roaring trade thanks to the twice-monthly visits to Penang Port by ocean liners from Madras (now Chennai). The SS Rajula and later the MV Chidambaram carried passengers back and forth between the two countries, but days before the ships were due to leave Penang, a crowd would descend on Little India to shop for “foreign” items to take home to India.

“Despite India being the home of hand-loomed sarees, what they wanted from my father’s shop was the bright and cheerful synthetic ‘Japanese Silk’ sarees that were available in Malaysia but not in India,” explains Ashok.

Silk and cotton sarees were not widely worn by Malaysian women in the 1960s and 1970s; those who wore them regularly were people who could afford to travel to India to buy them. The local saree merchants did not see the need to provide the more expensive fabrics as they were worried that the Malaysian market would not be welcoming of the noticeably higher-priced goods.

While business was generally good for Umayal Textiles through the 1970s, the next decade would bring untold challenges. When Ashok returned from his tertiary education in Calicut, India in the early 1980s, the shop wasn’t doing too well. “In fact, business was so bad that we barely made RM100 to RM200 a day,” recalls Ashok. To support the family, Ashok joined the financial sector and began work as a banker. But in 1986, in the midst of a bad recession, tragedy struck.

Textiles fill Ashok's shop from ceiling to floor.

“My father passed away suddenly in July and we found ourselves in a bit of trouble. The economy was so bad that there was no chance of us even selling the store; there were business debts to address and the stock that he had within the store wasn’t moving. Deepavali was just months away and I knew that if I wanted to make a profit to manage the finances, I would have to do something quickly. And so, even though I didn’t know too much about the business, I made a trip down to KL to pay a visit to the saree wholesalers in the capital. All sarees that came into the country were through these guys, and I talked to them and explained my situation and fortunately they helped me out with some advanced purchases,” says Ashok.

“At that point, I still had not given up my job at the bank! I couldn’t afford to, really. Somehow, that Deepavali, we made enough money to settle outstanding payments and in January of the following year, I resigned from the bank to focus on the business at Umayal Textiles.”

In 1987 Ashok made his first buying trip to India after conceding that while it was convenient to purchase stock from the wholesalers in KL, he was still getting the same sort of sarees that every other shop in Penang had. He knew that in order to stand out from the crowd, he would have to bring in merchandise that shoppers here had not yet seen. Ashok returned from that first sojourn to Bombay (now Mumbai) and Varanasi laden with Punjabi suits (salwar kameez sets) and Benares silk sarees. His astonished customers wiped his stocks clean in days.

Thirty years later, Ashok still goes on buying trips three to four times every year. “To this day, I still hand pick every single saree that is sold here,” he discloses with a grin. “I also believe in the personal touch and in cultivating relationships with our customers, which is why we get many word of mouth recommendations from our loyal clientele. It’s one thing to know what your customer wants, but it’s quite another to be able to provide them with many different options, educate them on the types and then allow them to make the decision based on their new knowledge. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.”

Umayal Textiles will celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2018, and Ashok is coy about what he has in store to mark the occasion. “It’ll be something nice, of course,” he muses as he looks out over the shop floor, across a technicolour array of silks and cottons. “I just want my customers to be happy. If they’re happy, then I’m very happy,” he concludes with a smile.

Sumitra Selvaraj is a writer and television talk show executive producer. She is also known as @sareesandstories on Instagram, where she writes about her journey through the daily drape.

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