August Vignette : Sheetal Kumar - Law, life and love

Sheetal Kumar, Kanakavalli’s August Vignette, is a lawyer, an amateur photographer, and a traveller who loves adventure. Growing up, Sheetal was deeply influenced by her mother, a skilled seamstress who loved the sari, as well as her siblings, who were her role models. While she chose to study law, Sheetal continued to dabble in the arts, learning charcoal painting and photography. As a lawyer, Sheetal is passionate about the rights of children with learning disabilities, and has been instrumental in landmark cases in this regard. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Journal, Sheetal reminisces about her childhood climbing trees, her early years as a lawyer rebelling against the dress code, and her discovery of the magic of travel. She offers insights into the laws protecting women in India, sharing the belief that true equality will only be possible when we learn to respect every single woman as a human being. For Sheetal, beauty is that which pleases the eye and touches the soul, while tradition is always shifting. She takes the time to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire, curating a selection of saris that celebrates her love for colour and weave. Excerpts of the interview below…

Law, Life and Love

The wonder years

I was born in Bombay, in a close-knit joint family. Growing up, I had a family that encouraged and motivated me, building my confidence and inspiring me to do my best without any expectation of results. My parents never made me feel like I was anything other than equal to my brothers, and I stood shoulder to shoulder with them. We continue to live as a joint family today, finding ways to give each other space without breaking the unit.

My siblings have always been my role models—I grew up watching them make life decisions and pursue their passions in different ways. Thanks to my mother—who tailored all our clothes, enjoyed knitting and had a fine hand with embroidery—I think I was always drawn to the arts, and enjoyed sketching and painting. I was also something of a tomboy, and spent most of my summer holidays climbing the ancient trees near our home. I still love nature and the outdoors, and I’ve swapped trees for hills and mountains which I now climb!

Above (clockwise from top left): Sheetal as a baby in her mother's arms, wearing a dress tailored by her mum; As a child, Sheetal loved the outdoors and spent her days climbing trees; Sheetal with her mother and her sister, both her role models.

As a young girl, I was very influenced by my mother’s handiwork. She was very skilled and would tailor new outfits for us for every occasion. Everything was simple, but styled and put together so beautifully. My sister, who is 12 years my senior and like a mother figure to me, went to a tailoring class as a teenager. I still vividly remember a dress she stitched for me when she was just 14 or 15. She ended up doing a fashion design course at Sophia College, and I grew up watching her sense of style evolve.

I thus grew up in an environment in which art and fashion were very important. The women in my family were always very beautifully dressed. They didn’t have cupboards full of clothes and shoes, but they made the best of their limited wardrobes. After college, my sister started teaching design, and I imbibed so much from the way she dressed. I briefly toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in fashion, but I realised that while I loved dressing up, I didn’t enjoy doing it for others. I enjoyed fashion for fashion’s sake.

While I didn’t end up pursuing a career in art, I have always kept in touch. Some years ago, I did a charcoal course over a summer, and I found it a truly meditative experience. The medium is so beautiful and I loved the process. I also enjoy painting landscapes and scenes from nature, playing with colour and medium.

Above: Landscapes and nature, painted in acrylics by Sheetal, who loves colour

I think when one has an eye for beauty, it seeps into every part of one’s life—the choices you make, the décor you pick for your home, the way you dress. I don’t know if I have that sort of eye for beauty, but I enjoy nature, and I cannot help but appreciate colours. I find it almost impossible to name a favourite colour—I love the entire palette.

Drawn to the law

My older brother is a lawyer and when I was 13 or 14, I would often help him with his research. We had an entire library at home where he would work, and I began to identify acts and statutes while assisting him. My father did a lot of social work, and he would bring vegetable vendors or domestic workers who didn’t have the resources to seek legal advice, to my brother. So, our home turned into a chamber of sorts, where my brother and father helped locals with their problems—and this was a wonderful training ground for me.

Above: Sheetal on holiday in the US with her brother and her sister-in-law. Her brother, she candidly admits, mentored her not only in law, but also in travel!

I always loved stationery and would observe the way my brother kept his briefs and files. Nobody knows this, but I used to keep mock files of my own—I loved the paperwork! Through it all, however, I still had an inclination towards the arts. When I started college, I made it clear to my parents that I would choose a career path after graduation. I was keen to do a five-year commercial art diploma course, but I took my time and eventually decided to study law.

In the early days of studying and working in the field of law, I struggled with the restrictions of the profession—most importantly, the dress code. In college, I had enjoyed dressing exactly as I pleased and often sported a crazy, punk look. It was only after my first year of work that I started to enjoy law. I worked with small family firms, so I was given a lot of responsibility in fairly important cases.

It was while working in a firm as an advocate’s assistant, that I discovered the wonderful area of arbitration. This involves conducting cases not before a court bench, but a panel of Arbitrators selected by the parties to a dispute who then adjudicates in the dispute. At this time, I also realised that I didn’t want to spend all day at a desk, and decided to become a Counsel who would argue cases in court. In 1997, I joined my brother’s chambers, and I now work on my own.

A woman at the workplace

When I joined the profession in 1993, there was only a handful of women lawyers, and life was not easy for us. I would watch clients’ faces fall when they discovered that a woman was taking on their case; they just didn’t have the same confidence in women as they did in men.

Early on I was told that I had to underplay my appearance—cover myself up, hide my curves, and not even show my ankles! I suppose people expected me to wear salwars or saris, but I started wearing trousers. In those days, no women wore trousers so I was seen as a total radical. I even tried palazzo pants which were unheard of then! Finally, after a senior at work sat me down and explained the importance of the dress code, my mother came to the rescue by tailoring lovely long skirts for me that were deemed acceptable.

Above (left to right): A photograph of the Bombay Hight Court taken by Sheetal; Sheetal at a lecture series on Arbitration.

It is so heartening to see more and more women in the courts today—it truly is a happy sight. However, there is still a bias in favour of male lawyers, especially when it comes to arguing in court. People believe you have to raise your voice and be overbearing, but the truth is it’s more about making a coherent and impactful presentation. Women lawyers are just as capable as men, but there are still hurdles to be overcome.

For the rights of children

I have spent a lot of time and effort working for children’s educational rights—work that has been immensely gratifying for me. One of the landmark decisions I fought for concerned the rights of children with learning disabilities. At that time, both the courts and the educators lacked awareness, so it was an uphill task. We saw that while the state had provided concessions for children with learning disabilities such as counselling and remedial treatments, those concessions were not being implemented in the schools.

In schools, teachers didn’t know how to handle children who faced learning disabilities, while the administration did not invest the time, money or effort to implement the state recommendations. Young, impressionable children were being called terrible names—it was traumatising for them and their parents.

The case was challenging because we had to frame petitions as though we were teaching children. When we took the case to the High Court, we faced a lot of opposition from some of the most prestigious institutions. As a result of that case and a few that followed, however, concessions are being implemented for children and young adults with learning disabilities all the way to the university level, and even for technical courses. This has been a huge victory for the cause.

Empowering women

I believe that when it comes to the law, there is a lot of effort being made to empower women. It wasn’t always this way, and thanks to education and awareness the movement has gained momentum.

We’ve had a lot of enactments that help women bridge the gap, right from the early laws prohibiting dowry and child marriage. Until very recently, for example, in the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF), only sons were accepted as Coparceners who were entitled to a share in the HUF. However, recently, thanks to an amendment, daughters are now on an equal footing—a truly landmark decision.

The sexual harassment laws have also come a long way too, becoming powerful tools for the protection of women in India. It is very difficult to define and prove harassment, especially at the workplace, and it has been an uphill battle to get to where we are today. Another recent law protects women from domestic violence. The law allows a woman to file a complaint at a police station, after which the police will pick up the accused without a question asked.

I truly believe, however, that you can bridge the gap as much as possible through the law, but the rest has to be achieved through evolution, education and emancipation. It won’t matter how much the law protects women, if men—in the villages and in the cities—cannot learn to respect women as equal human beings.

Travel and beyond

Growing up, the only time our family travelled was to visit cousins in Delhi in the summer—long, joyful vacations that I’ll never forget. It was while I was in college, where I grew wings and discovered my freedom, that I began to dream of travelling. Meeting students from the Northeast and studying the culture and society of Ladakh, I was absolutely fascinated. I promised myself that someday I would travel to these regions.

The trip that helped me discover my love for travel was an iconic road trip to Rajasthan with my brother and his family. We spent two weeks on the road, stopping at a different location each night until we reached Rajasthan. We camped in the desert on New Year’s Eve, and it was unforgettable—the biting winds and the gorgeous sand dunes. We went on to explore Rajasthan’s beautiful cities, and I was mesmerised by the gorgeous havelis and the rich colours—the golden city of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur’s blue cityscapes…

Above: left - Sheetal on a trek to Kareri Lake, 4000 feet above sea level in the Dhauladhar range; right - from a trip to Scotland.

Since then, there has been no looking back and I have travelled to some of the most wonderful parts of the world.

When I turned 40, I decided it was time to make my trip to Ladakh. It was 2008, and the region was still not very well explored by travellers. One afternoon, in the listings section of the newspaper I came across a group called Girls on the Go organising an all-women’s trip to Ladakh. A few months later I found myself travelling to Ladakh with 25 other women travellers. I’ll never forget the 4am flight from Delhi to Leh, as the sun rose over the mountains that looked like ice cream cones spattered with chocolate. From that moment on, every day of that trip was more mind-blowing than the last.

Above: Sheetal at the picturesque and high altitude Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh.

I continued to travel with Girls on the Go—we’d fly into a country, hop into a car and discover some of the most beautiful parts of the world. We travelled to Bhutan, Nagaland, the fjords of Norway, the Northern Lights and Greece—each trip was unique and memorable.

Travel triggered my urge to learn photography. I realised that wherever I went, I wanted to come back with memories. I used to carry a little digital camera with me, but found that I couldn’t do much about the quality of the images or colours. The midday listings came to my rescue again, when I found a summer photography course. The course taught me the basics of photography and some simple theory. I soon graduated to a better camera, and did another workshop—this time on wildlife photography in the Tadoba sanctuary in Nagpur. This was a blissful few days of living in the forest, heading out on safari twice a day, and learning the nuances of how to photograph birds and animals in their habitat.

Above (clockwise from top left): A black shoulder kite atop a branch, A deer gazes into the camera; Two majestic tigers at a watering hole - all images captured by Sheetal at the Tadoba National Park.

On beauty and tradition

Everyone has their own concept of beauty. On a physical plane, beauty is what pleases your eye. On a deeper level, beauty is what touches your soul. Standards of beauty simply cannot be the same for everyone. I find beauty in colours and nature. The way a leaf glistens in the sun or the play of light in the sky—this is the kind of beauty that sweeps me off my feet.

Tradition is about culture. It takes you back to your roots and beyond. While tradition is rooted, it is not fixed—one can keep adding to it and growing with it. It is important not to get tied down by tradition, but also not to lose track of it altogether.

For the love of the sari

The sari has a very important place in my life. My mother loved saris, and wore them every day. I remember how beautifully she wore the most simple but elegant weaves. We would go sari shopping together, and were both drawn to Mysore crepes and georgettes. My mother never owned a kanjivaram, but was enamoured by the weave. She often spoke of owning a temple sari, but in those days, we didn’t know where to find genuine kanjivarams in Bombay. Buying my first kanjivaram was, in a sense, fulfilling that wish for her.

I wear saris for occasions, and I love to dress them up. I’m always looking for opportunities to wear my favourites.

When I heard about the Kanakavalli exhibition in Bombay, I dragged my sister and sister-in-law to visit. I had just turned 50, and wanted to buy a gold kanjivaram to mark the golden year of my life. However, I ended up choosing one that was far prettier than anything I could have imagined. It is woven in shades of blue and sea green, with hints of gold. I love that I cannot define the colour of the kanjivaram—it lights up in different ways in different lights and is just so beautiful.

(Sheetal is wearing a gorgeous Kanakavalli kanjivaram in blue shot with beige. Beige floral jacquard patterns adorn the body, while the borders feature diamond patterns in gold zari.)

- Sheetal Kumar, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant. 

View Sheetal's accompanying guest curation here.