In December's Vignette, Glory Kanikella gives us a glimpse into her a life as a working mother in Hong Kong. The Executive Director of a garments manufacturing firm with operations across four time zones, Glory is always connected to work. As a mother of a three-year-old, she finds joy in experiencing life afresh with her daughter Ariana.
In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of the Kanakavalli Journal, Glory opens up about the challenges of this balancing act, while sharing with us the joys of belonging to a close-knit family, and the ways in which she tries to stay in touch with her Indian roots through festivals, food and traditional clothes. In every handwoven sari, Glory sees India’s rich craft heritage, and the extraordinary skill of the weaver who keeps traditions alive. She buys saris for her mother, her sister and herself, knowing that these can be passed on to their daughters, and their granddaughters, becoming family heirlooms.
Glory believes that beauty is what you make of it; that your thoughts and actions are what make you beautiful, more than the colour of your skin. Taking a moment out of her busy schedule, Glory contemplates the Kanakavalli repertoire, curating a selection of kanjivarams that epitomises her joyful personality, with her daughter, Ariana chiming in too! Excerpts of the conversation below…
A JOURNEY TO REMEMBER
Tell us a little about how you came to be an executive director of a garment manufacturing company in Hong Kong.
My father was in the Indian Air Force and my mother was a nurse. Both of them wanted me to become a doctor, to make a better life for myself. I had no interest in or inclination for medicine, but at the time young people had very little say in their careers, and usually did what was expected of them. Microbiology was a new subject then, and while I was a distinction student, I was very clear after graduation that I did not want to pursue a career in the field. I was and still am very outgoing, and I love a challenge. I wanted a career that engaged my leadership and administrative abilities. I did a diploma in secretarial studies and business administration, and worked in several jobs, including in marketing for a big garments company, before I moved to Hong Kong. I suppose it was destiny that brought me here fifteen years ago. I started as an executive assistant at the garment manufacturing company where I still work, and moved slowly up the ranks. It wasn’t easy – I was very young and very naïve then. I was unmarried, and my parents were so worried when I left, first for a three-month orientation in Bangladesh and then to Hong Kong; both places I knew nothing about. But I have learnt so much along the way. I have been fortunate to have wonderful bosses and mentors. I think I always had a sort of spark – a fire in my belly – and people around me recognised that and gave me opportunities because of it. This taught me that you don’t have to be from a Harvard or Yale to achieve something; you need to have the drive and desire to make something of your life. I am now an Executive Director and a member of the Executive Committee of senior management. When I started out, I wanted to carve a niche for myself, and I think that’s what I’ve been able to do.
As a woman in the world of business, what are the challenges you face and what brings you the most satisfaction?
When I first came to Hong Kong, I faced several challenges. I did not speak the language, I didn’t really have a support system, and I was also seen as an outsider at the office. As a woman in any business, though, you have to figure it out on your own, and learn how to belong. The other challenge is, of course, trying to maintain a work life balance. This is not a 9 to 5 job and there are days I work late into the night. We work across four different time zones so I need to be connected at all times. After having my daughter Ariana, this has become even more of a challenge. Working full time and being a parent is exhausting. I struggle to manage my role at work and my role as a mother. I sometimes have to take work calls on weekends or in the middle of a meal, and on the other hand I’m helping my daughter with crafts projects on weekdays. It really is a balancing act. I don’t always find time for myself, and things like exercising, watching movies and even sleeping have become rare luxuries. Every spare moment I have, I want to spend with my daughter. However, the things that challenge me the most also bring me the greatest joy – watching my daughter grow up, and doing my best at my job. I know Ari looks up to me, and I strive to be the best version of myself for her. At work, receiving recognition for something I’ve worked really hard on is what keeps me going.
What do you love about being a mother?
I think that being a mother is a gift. The incredible, unconditional love that children give leaves me breathless with wonder. I love Ari’s cuddles and smiles; every moment is a memory, a delightful adventure. It feels as though I am looking at the world through brand new eyes again. I know my mother cherishes the memories she has of my childhood, and it thrills me to think that I’m reliving those memories with my own daughter. Children never judge, and that is something that amazes me. No matter how exhausted and unkempt I look, Ari thinks the world of me. I drop Ari to school every day, and she says and does the most amazing things. Sometimes it’s just the silly things she does that bring me so much joy. At other times, she inspires me to be a better person because I know she looks up to me.
"I am my mother's daughter," says Glory. She hopes to pass on the values she learnt from her mother to her own daughter, Ariana.
Living so far away from home and your family, how do you stay connected? Is there a way you try to keep your Indian roots alive in your life in Hong Kong?
I’m very close to my family – my older sister and my parents. Growing up, my mother and father worked very hard to ensure that we had everything we wanted. Only when I was in college did I recognise how much they struggled, how unconditionally they loved us. I try and spend as much time with my parents as possible in Bangalore. And, until recently, they also visited us in Hong Kong quite often. We speak on the phone twice a day, and thanks to technology, they get to video chat with Ariana. My mother and I exchange recipes, and news about our lives and friends. I was raised a Christian, and I try to share the values I was taught with Ariana. We sing songs that I grew up listening to, and she has learnt to say Grace. We also try to instil in our daughter a love for everything Indian. She loves to listen to Bollywood music and to dress up in traditional Indian clothes. We teach her about festivals like Holi and Diwali, and celebrate these with other families here. We are so far from home, so we want Ariana to have an awareness of her Indian roots. We eat a lot of Indian food, and Ariana is quite a foodie! She loves poha, dosa, Maggi noodles (of course), and laddoos.
What are your favourite things about living in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is now home to me, even though I sometimes long to go back to India because I miss my family, friends and all the festivities. But when I’m away for too long I feel homesick for Hong Kong. I enjoy the freedom and safety we have here. There is a huge expatriate community, and we have access to so much over here. I admire the Chinese way of doing things – with such attention to detail, punctuality, and respect for rules. Everyone takes their jobs so seriously, and there’s no need to have connections or money to get something done. The culture here is extraordinarily diverse – from food to style. It is a vibrant place, with bright city lights and stunning views. The people are lovely and friendly – even at work there is healthy competition and camaraderie. I never have to worry about getting home late at night, or about what I’m wearing when I step out of the house. People let you live the way you choose to, as long as you respect every other way of life.
Glory with her best friends and her daughter. "I have the craziest times and the best adventures with my friends for life," she says.
Having worked in the garment industry for fifteen years, how do you view the sari and other textile traditions of India?
I have always been amazed by the rich craft heritage of India and its amazing diversity. I also have a deep respect and admiration for the amount of hard work and skill that goes into the making of a single sari. As simple as a piece of fabric might look, knowing the trouble that a weaver has gone through to create it makes it all the more valuable. And so, I want to support craftspeople who are keeping alive ancient traditions, passing down their skill from one generation to the next. Living abroad, Indian textiles connect me to my roots. I love the maximalist nature of a lot of our traditional textiles - what I call ‘elegant excess’. And I think that as fashionable as Indian women around the world want to be, almost all of us look for a touch of tradition that keeps us rooted. I also believe that a sari is forever. It is an heirloom that can be handed from mother to daughter over the years. I have two nieces who I helped raise, so between them and Ari, I know that every sari I own will be worn for years to come.
What does beauty mean to you? What are the traditions you would like to pass on to your daughter?
When I was growing up, people would say I was too dark skinned to be beautiful. The conventional idea of beauty has almost always been associated with fairness, irrespective of elegance or the way you carry yourself. I would spend hours in front of the mirror, wishing my skin was different. But my father always said that I was unique and special, and that what mattered more than appearance was how I shaped my personality and life. Now, I believe that beauty is what you make of it. Whatever anyone might think, I am the most beautiful person in the eyes of my daughter. And more important still is inner beauty. I believe that your thoughts and actions are what make you beautiful. I learnt this from my mother and father, and I hope that Ariana learns these same lessons.
Tell us about the role of the sari, and the kanjivaram in particular, in your life.
As children, my sister and I got new clothes every birthday and Christmas, but my parents almost never bought themselves nice things. In fact, my mother owned just one kanjivaram that she wore on most special occasions. When she told me that she had lost her wedding sari, I told myself that I would buy her as many saris as I could once I started working. Fortunately, I have been able to keep my promise. Whenever I go into a sari shop, or browse online, I’m always looking for something that my mother or sister will love. I think Indian women look like goddesses when they wear saris. I love the kanjivaram for its richness, its tradition and its beauty. I’ve always loved the traditional flowers and ornaments that women wear with a kanjivaram. I used to wear a lot of saris when I worked in India, and still wear them occasionally here in Hong Kong. Of late, I have seen so much ‘fusion’ and ‘designer’ wear. But I like to keep it simple. I think a kanjivaram has so much of its own beauty that it needs very little to accent it – a simple blouse, and a few pieces of elegant jewellery.
Please tell us the story behind the kanjivaram you have chosen to wear for the Vignettes photographs.
I chose two of my favourite Kanakavalli kanjivarams for the Vignettes images. Blue is one of my favourite colours and this sari always reminds me of the one kanjivaram my mother owned when I was a child. I also love green – for me the colour symbolises prosperity and growth. I’m wearing Ahalya jewellery in these images – I love how elegant and unique the designs are, perfect for a modern Indian woman. My daughter loves her Kanakavalli silk paavadais, and also loves to wear Ahalya jhumkis in her ears – she says she likes earrings that move when she moves!
Glory and Ariana both in Kanakavalli, accessorised with Ahalya Bespoke jewellery.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Elsa (from the film Frozen).
Do you like to dress up and what do you like to wear? Yes. I like to wear Elsa's dress in blue. I like to wear earrings, a necklace, rings, a bracelet and a crown and a bag. I stuff it all into a suitcase. I like make up.
Do you think Mummy looks beautiful in a sari? I like Mummy in a red sari because that's her favourite colour. She looks nice and beautiful and thin.
What do you love most about Mummy? I love mummy because she's nice and beautiful.
- Glory and Ariana Kanikella, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera
View Glory's curation here