March Vignette : Dr. Sowmya Dogiparthi - On Beauty

Dr. Sowmya Dogiparthi, Kanakavalli’s March Vignette, is a dermatologist whose love for beauty permeates every aspect of her life and work. Having grown up abroad before returning to India to study, Dr. Sowmya imbibed a modern, global outlook while staying closely connected to her family’s Indian roots and traditions. As a dermatologist and cosmetologist, aesthetics and first impressions are important, but her priority is to be a compassionate doctor who helps patients reclaim their sense of confidence and feel comfortable in their own skin. Dr. Sowmya’s appreciation for all things beautiful is reflected in her love for unique and handcrafted objects, from original paintings and handmade wooden idols to saris and jewellery—each artistically created by skilled artisans and with a story of its own. In this conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Journal, she contemplates the ideas of beauty that inspire her career, hobbies and creativity. Pausing to browse through Kanakavalli, Dr. Sowmya curates a selection of gorgeous saris from the repertoire that epitomise the coming together of the traditional and the contemporary.

On Beauty

Tell us about what it was like growing up in Europe and the US before returning to India to settle down. What were the ways in which you and your family remained connected to your roots and traditions?

Growing up in Europe and America helped shaped me into the woman I am today. I think the experience taught me to be independent and broad-minded, exposing me to a range of ideas from around the world. I learned how to adapt to the environment I found myself in, to accept different ways of living and to absorb as much as I could from every experience.

One of the things I loved most about living abroad was the opportunity to see the four seasons in all their splendour. Having the good fortune of living in places that were clean and unpolluted, I was struck by the beauty of nature taking on different forms as one season transitioned into another. Fall was always my favourite—I loved the changing colours and landscape, and it seemed to me as though nature had been saving up all year for its grand finale.

Above (left to right): Dr. Sowmya at age six with friends from school in Basel, Switzerland, all dressed up in Indian wear to celebrate Diwali; With her mother as a child in Denmark

My sister and I grew up in diverse communities, with exposure to people from varied cultural backgrounds. Yet, my mother made sure that we spoke only in our mother tongue at home, took part in cultural and religious events, and visited temples every few months. In this way, our family stayed closely tied to our roots and traditions even in a land far from home.

As a result of my global upbringing grounded in an Indian way of life, I now find myself very easily straddling both worlds. I am able to be at once very traditional and very modern. When I’m with family on special occasions, I wear saris or kurtas, speak in Tamil, and take part in the festivities and traditions. But with my friends, I like to dress up, go out and have new experiences.

Above (left to right): Dr. Sowmya with her parents and sister; With her group of close women friends in Chennai.

How did you decide to study medicine and become a dermatologist and cosmetologist?

As a part of my Grade 12 curriculum at Naperville North High School in 2003, I had to do a clerkship at Edwards Hospital, Chicago. Even in the short span of a year, I was fascinated by the protocol adhered to by physicians there in order to offer exceptional treatment and care to every patient. I would watch as a priceless smile appeared on the faces of patients, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of the medical fraternity, and to play a role in helping people heal.

I decided to come back to India for medical school in 2004, and did both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Ramachandra Medical College. I chose to become a dermatologist and cosmetologist as I felt it was one of the specialties that allows for a healthy work-life balance.

I currently run my own clinic, Dermipure Dermaclinic, while also working as an associate professor at Shri Satya Sai Medical College and a consultant dermatologist at Apollo Hospitals. As part of my ongoing work in the field, I have authored a chapter in a dermatology textbook, and I contribute articles to various magazines.

Above (left to right): Hard at work - Dr. Sowmya strives to be a compassionate doctor who listens to her patients and helps them feel comfortable in their own skin; After winning an award for the best dermatologist in January 2021.

One of the most profound ways in which my time abroad influenced me is in the way I engage with my patients. I noticed early on how much time doctors in the US spend with each patient, and their friendly manner. Unfortunately, in many places in India, doctors give you just a few minutes and then send you home with a long prescription for medications. I have realised that what all of us are looking for in a doctor is someone who is compassionate, listening to and understanding us as people first, rather than just as patients. In my field, especially, people are often embarrassed or nervous to talk about problems they face with their skin. This is why my priority is to make every patient feel comfortable and confident when they sit in the chair opposite me, and I take a personal interest in their stories. Just the other day, a patient told me she didn’t need any medicine because she felt so much better after her chat with me! Seeing a patient happy brings me great joy.

As a cosmetologist, what are your thoughts on aesthetics and first impressions?

When we first interact with someone, we all form initial judgements that are based on appearance and attire, whether we do it consciously or not. Even before we have started a conversation with someone, or begun to understand and appreciate their character, we have formed an impression of them. Of course, non-verbal communication, including posture, eye contact and tone of voice can also influence this, but—whether we like it or not—appearance and how we present ourselves to the world play a big role.

I believe that beautiful skin can improve confidence, and this in turn can positively affect every aspect of one’s life, from relationships to work. We all want to stand out in some way and make an impression—sometimes through our work and sometimes through the way we look. Healthy hair, skin and nails are a reflection of physical and emotional well-being and can boost confidence, which is truly beautiful.

While beauty is so much more than one’s appearance, there exists a lot of stigma in society thanks to stereotypical ideas of beauty. When people look in the mirror and think that they are ‘lacking’ in some way, their confidence and self-esteem can be destroyed. For me, what is most important is to feel comfortable in your own skin, and through my work, I hope to help people achieve this.

Tell us a little bit about your love for beauty and handicrafts, and how this is reflected in your life and work?

I have always appreciated beauty—at work, in the natural world, in people around me, and in the objects I surround myself with.

As a dermatologist, beauty is important to me and I find it in self-confidence. As a woman, I find beauty in the empowerment of other women.

Over the years, I have collected beautiful handicrafts that I continue to cherish. From original paintings to my collection of handmade wooden idols called Kondapali dolls, each tells a story and has found a place in my home and heart. Every piece has been created with passion, and the perfection of the outcome is a result of the artist’s extraordinary skill and meticulous attention to detail. I also truly believe that buying handmade products boosts the economy by supporting small businesses and communities of artisans. I love that every single handmade product is unique in its own way, symbolising the rich creativity and talent of the craftspeople.

Above: The delicate Kondapalli wooden dolls and idols that Dr. Sowmya collects as she fills her home with beautiful handmade objects and crafts.

I remember watching a show about antiques in the US as a child, and I was fascinated by the incredible worth of beautiful old pieces of furniture and décor. I would ask my mother if we had anything worth as much in our home and she would laugh at me! However, I was struck by the idea of owning unique things whose beauty would last. This is why I love Ahalya jewellery—each piece stands out and my friends always notice. I know that even ten or twenty years down the line, when I look at the jewellery and clothes I’ve collected over the years, I will want to wear them.

My love for creativity inspired me to start a small business called Poppin Thougt by Mya, making innovative pop sockets, or holders for phones and tablets, each one reflecting the owner’s unique identity.

What do service and charity mean to you? Tell us about some of the causes that are close to your heart?

I have always believed that if we are blessed with good fortune, we must share it with those less fortunate. We come into the world alone, and we leave it alone, but while we’re on this planet, we might as well try to make a difference—even if it is only to bring a smile to the face of a stranger. My volunteer work with orphanages and homes for the elderly has helped me see that the word ‘happy’ has very different meanings to different people. Many of us get caught up in the worries and troubles of our privileged daily lives, but sometimes all it takes to find and share happiness is to spend an hour with someone less fortunate than us. Contributing to the community is a way of finding happiness and understanding life’s true value.

Above: Dr. Sowmya believes in sharing her blessings, and enjoys spending time with children in various orphanages and distributing gifts to them.

How do you define tradition and beauty?

Beauty to me is the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. Tradition is the acceptance of one’s origins, and the following of family customs and beliefs to set an example for future generations.

What role does the sari play in your life?

A sari is one of the most beautiful garments, and it truly makes a woman look elegant. While there is a great deal of variation in beliefs, languages and customs across the country, there is an underlying link that binds all of India together—and that is the sari. Every region has its own crafts and its own ways of draping the sari, but this gorgeous garment connects every part.

I believe that the clothes one wears should be filled with memories, just as heirloom saris are. Another way in which I achieve this is by turning old silk saris once worn by my mother and grandmother into Indo-Western outfits.

Above: Believing that the clothes one wears should be filled with stories and memories, Dr. Sowmya has transformed her grandmother's old silk saris into dresses and Indo-Western outfits.

What is the story behind the Kanakavalli Mandanila soft silk you chose for the Vignettes shoot?

I love Kanakavalli’s unique saris, and I think they have the finest curation of the kanjivaram weave. The designs are beautifully balanced between the traditional and the contemporary, and they never grow old. The story behind my Kanakavalli sari actually begins with the blouse. I had a purple blouse piece offered to me by the priest of Sri Kanchipuram Kamakshi temple, and I wanted to find a sari to match. Fortunately, I was able to find the perfect sari to complement the blouse at Kanakavalli.

Dr. Sowmya is wearing a sage green soft silk sari from our Mandanila collective, shot with black and embellished with self stripes. The blue borders shot with black have twill, peacock, paisley and geometric motifs and patterns in orange and hot pink, with a selvedge in green.

- Dr. Sowmya Dogiparthi, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.

View Sowmya
's accompanying guest curation here.