Chiffon and silk sarees are now a fire hazard, according to Walkabout Asia, an online travel channel that claims to share entertaining stories from Asia.

“Temples have oil lamps everywhere, and chiffon and silk sarees will just burn within seconds,” says Joseph Rakesh, the self proclaimed ‘Malaysia Sari Man’ in this 4 and a half minute video posted on the travel channel’s Facebook page.

A saree draper to explain sarees?

Joseph is an established saree draper in the Klang Valley, but his knowledge on the garment leaves much to be desired. The video seems to be more of Joseph selling his saree draping abilities, rather than about sarees itself, because most of his saree facts are mere fiction.

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He goes to speak about sarees, referring to it as a costume that can be draped “Very homely or very sexily,” before launching into a tiring tirade of his own rules on wearing a saree. He also says, “If you are fat, we can cover your tummy on the left side, and if you are thin, we can open up a bit,” and “If you are wearing a saree, certain flesh must show, because if you cover everything, you will look very straight,”

Apart from mansplaining his way on how women need to don the saree, Joseph uttered numerous erroneous facts on the topic, including this dense statement, “Kanchipuram sarees come from the South Indian state of Kanchipuram,” and “The ‘satin munde’ is the main costume of Kerala,” as well as “Only a bride can wear a kanjivaram saree, nobody else,”

This video has caused a furore on Instagram with many saree enthusiasts calling out Walkabout Asia for their poorly researched piece, demanding it be taken down.

Two parallel problems

The Varnam team speaks to Sumitra Selvaraj, who first featured this video on her Instagram handle. “There are two parallel problem with this video,” she tells us. “The first being Joseph’s factual errors about sarees. Nobody is denying that he is one of the best saree drapers in Malaysia, but the things he was saying is downright wrong,”

Sumitra Selvaraj in a kanjivaram saree. (No, Joseph, she isn’t getting married.) Image credit: Instagram @sareesandstories

“The errors began in the first statement he made, about why cotton sarees are encouraged to temple. Obviously, all materials are flammable. Him saying that silk sarees cannot be near an oil lamp makes no sense, why then does a bride wear a silk saree as she circles the wedding pyre?”

“There is also that patriarchal skew of comments by Joseph,” Sumitra says. We couldn’t agree more. Telling women that we need to show a certain amount of skin (or in his words, flesh) to be deemed attractive is revolting, and something that shouldn’t even see the light of day. It boggles the mind how this daft statement made it past the editors of the video.

Walkabout Asia’s mess

The second problem, Sumitra says, is with Walkabout Asia, “It goes back to the production company not having done their research, nor have the ability to look through their content and vet it before publishing the video,” she says. “I am a content producer, and if a guest comes on my show and spews rubbish, it is my job to sift through it and disseminate factual content. The onus is on the content creator to make sure what reaches the audience is true,”

he onus is on the content creator to make sure what reaches the audience is true

“Both Walkabout Asia and Joseph are refusing to accept responsibility for the video,” she says. A friend of Sumitra managed to speak to Walkabout Asia, but they have refused to take the offensive video down. They have not responded to any of the messages calling them out on both social media platforms. This is more offensive that what the Malaysia Saree Man has said in the video.

“How can we expect to grow our knowledge if the content providers and so-called subject experts are pulling wool over the public eyes and ears?” Sumitra questions.

Blind support

One cannot read through the comments on Walkabout Asia’s Facebook page without noticing the amount of support that the ‘Malaysia Saree Man’ received, in spite of the multiple inaccuracies spewed. Accusations that people are trying to drag him down have been hurled as well.

“How can you say that someone is dragging him down, when there is a gross misrepresentation of sarees coming across?” she asks. “Just because someone is good at one thing, like draping sarees, doesn’t mean they are good at everything saree related,” Sumitra also feels like there is an additional problem here. “The many people who fall for these inaccuracies hook, line and sinker simply cannot separate fact from emotion,”

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“Any person who is on camera, and is deemed an influencer suddenly gets elevated to being credible. This boils back to the age old conundrum of influencers being placed on a pedestal, and worshiped because of the sheer number of likes they garner on social media,” she says. “The people who consider all those on social media to be credible are the same who keep forwarding WhatsApp messages like ‘lemon water cures cancer’, they are only perpetuating the problem,”

Any person who is on camera, and is deemed an influencer suddenly gets elevated to being credible

“Which is why I bring it back to the responsibility of the content creator. What you put out there is far deeper than the number of likes you want to garner,”

“This is precisely why people get cheated when they walk into saree stores,” she explains. “They claim that a saree is kanjivaram, when it is actually art silk or polyester,” Numerous brides have fallen prey to these unscrupulous vendors. “When I point it out to the vendors, there’s anger, instead of a will to do better for their customers,”

The problem is, she says, nobody wants to look at how to fix this. “Everyone just wants to take sides. This is how the narrative gets lost. The video is laden with factual errors. As a content creator how can you deflect all of that?”

Do better, please

All Sumitra and the saree enthusiasts on Instagram want is for Walkabout Asia to do better. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Walkabout Asia turns around and says we hear you, we apologise and we want to do better?”

Even the best saree draper in the world needs to defer to the person wearing the saree to decide how much skin to show or the length of the saree itself. Nobody, not even the draper, can decide that for the saree wearer, no matter what body type they are draping for.

Walkabout Asia, you guys need to delve deep into a subject before whipping out the camera to shoot someone you assume is an expert in the field.

Walkabout Asia, you guys need to delve deep into a subject before whipping out the camera to shoot someone you assume is an expert in the field. Please reevaluate your subject matter experts. A saree draper is hardly the right person to talk about the different kinds of sarees. A weaver or a fashion merchandiser might fit the bill.

Also, in this day and age, to ignore messages calling you out for serious mistakes makes you no different from an ostrich burying its head in the sand. You need to do better, Walkabout Asia.

Watch the video here

For factual information on sarees and weaves, check out these Instagram accounts @sareesandstories, @vijayalaxmichhabra and @handloomenthusiast.

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