May Vignette : Sunitha Prasad - Family Matters

As we navigate these extraordinarily difficult and uncertain times, many of us find solace and joy in spending time with loved ones or staying connected virtually. In Kanakavalli’s May Vignette, Sunitha Prasad reminds us about the importance of family; of how valuable the bonds we forge with parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins are, even as time passes and the world changes around us. This Mother’s Day, we are delighted to feature Sunitha, whose energy is as infectious as the laugh that she inherited from her mum.

For Sunitha, traditions are the little things she imbibed from her family, things that she will always value—getting together with loved ones on Sundays, never forgetting a birthday, and always remembering that giving is more rewarding than receiving. A Senior Consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, Sunitha draws inspiration from her family and her teams to stay motivated and driven at work. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Sunitha reminisces about the joys of growing up in a large and close-knit family, as well as the lessons in determination and teamwork that she learnt from playing sport. Sunitha shares her most cherished memories of her mother, who will always be remembered for her hospitality, her unconditional affection and her joyful nature.

Taking the time to browse through Kanakavalli’s repertoire, Sunitha curates a selection of saris that are a testament to her love for colour and the handloom weave.

Excerpts of the conversation below…

Family Matters

Looking back on your childhood—especially in the midst of these unprecedented times—how did your early years and your family help shape the person you are today?

I grew up in a big family, and was always surrounded by siblings, cousins, grandparents and parents. We spent a lot of our childhood together, building close bonds, getting together every Sunday and on special occasion with my grandparents. We were twelve cousins in all, and an enthusiastic bunch. I have memories of organising sports days, dramas and exhibitions, and even running a library together. We would very seriously pool together our pocket money to buy props, and costumes, designing and sending out invitations to everyone in the family, as well as to our neighbours!

Above (clockwise from top left): Sunitha as a child celebrating her birthday with her cousins; Performing a skit with her cousins and neighbours; Sunitha with her parents, grandparents and siblings.

Growing up in this close-knit and large family was the best gift I could have ever received as a child. It is at the core of who I am today. Being the youngest of the cousins helped me figure out how to make sure that my voice was heard, even as I looked up to and learnt from those older than me. I understood that I couldn’t always have things my way and needed to be comfortable finding a middle ground in every situation. I was taught that the ‘we’ was more important than the ‘I’. This served me well in school, when I was the sports captain, as well as in college, where I played sports and organised events.

It seems that, inadvertently, I absorbed lessons that would make me a better colleague and a stronger leader at work. I believe that working with a team comes almost naturally to me now, as does clear communication and working towards a common goal. When it comes to my personal life, I am able to manage my time, ensuring I get quality time with my family while also making sure to carve time and space out for myself.

When I was younger, I didn’t always understand the value of family. I sometimes wondered how my parents and grandparents didn’t get bored of meeting one another every single Sunday, come hell or high water. But today, I realise that there could be nothing more valuable than time spent with family—being truly connected and not just virtually. In the context of the pandemic, this has taken on an entirely new meaning, and I am forever grateful that I had these experiences growing up.

What are some of your family’ traditions that continue to keep you grounded or connected to yourself and your roots, even today in this ‘new normal’?

As a family, we made traditions for ourselves, most of which continue to be important to me. Meeting on Sundays after church was non-negotiable for us as children. I didn’t realise it then, but this was a powerful way of bringing us closer as a family and of helping us understand who we were and where we came from. Sundays continue to be a family day for me, and no matter how busy I am at work, I know I will always, always make time for family.

My grandfather used to tell us that the most important things to pass on to our children were faith and education, not property. He said that the first two would take care of everything else, and I truly believe that wiser words were never spoken. I was my grandfather’s pet, and I follow his dictum—investing in faith and knowledge, because there is no substitute for these.

Birthdays have also been important in my family, and everyone makes it a point to take the time to wish whoever is celebrating. I cannot remember a single birthday when my elder relatives have not called to wish me—and not just my immediate family, but even my father’s brothers and their families. Today, these calls have become all the more precious because I get to hear stories of the old days and share priceless memories.

Above (left to right): Sunitha with the cousins she grew up with, celebrating the year their grandparents would have turned 100; The same gang of cousins, back in the day

Another lesson I imbibed from my grandfather and father was that giving is more rewarding than receiving, something I try to practice in my own life now. Both were extraordinarily generous with what they had, often sharing food with and buying thoughtful gifts for the security guards, auto drivers and others less fortunate in our neighbourhood. I was popularly known as ‘thathavoda paythi’ or grandfather’s granddaughter, and everyone would keep a protective eye out for me.

These are little things, but they continue to be important ways for me to stay rooted.

What are the ways in which your mother influenced you—your personality and your values?

My mother left us close to 12 years ago, but even today, at every family gathering, someone mentions her. She did not hold a high post in an office or earn much in terms of money, but she left an indelible mark on anyone she met—whether it is where we lived, where she worked, or even within our family. Everyone remembers her for her generosity, her hospitality, and her unbridled joy. Most people who have met my mother remember her hearty laugh, and I like to think that I have inherited this from her… and that maybe I laugh even louder!

Above (clockwise from bottom left): Sunitha sits in her mother's lap on a trip to Cubbon Park in the summer of 1979; As a baby with her mother, sister and brother; Sunitha's beautiful mother who had an infectious laugh; With her mother at a celebration; Sunitha posing with her mother and her maternal grandfather

I remember my mother, among many other things, as an incredible host. She was unconditional in how she opened her home to everyone and made everyone feel welcome and loved. While I know I will never be able to fill her shoes, I try to emulate her as much as I can—always keeping my door open to friends and family, planning get-togethers with loved ones, and making sure I make time for the people who matter.

Each time my father returned from Dubai, where he worked when I was a child, he would bring bags full of fancy toys, clothes and accessories for my sister and me. But my mother would only keep a few things that she thought we needed, and made sure that all the cousins got a little something too. We couldn’t argue with her—she believed in sharing everything we received and spreading love. While she was an amazing mother, she was an equally wonderful aunt, sister-in-law, wife and friend. She was the epitome of unconditional love, and she taught me to share my affection in the same way.

My mother never let success go to my head, reminding me that behind every achievement, there was a greater power at work. When I was younger I would get frustrated because I wanted all the credit, but I now understand the need to stay grounded and value more than individual achievement.

I carry the lessons from my mother everywhere I go, and cherish every memory of her.

Tell us about the role that sport has played in your life.

Sport has always been a vital part of my life, helping me through tough times and, in many ways, moulding me into the person I am today. I was a champion athlete and the captain of the sports team in school, while I represented my college in tennis and volleyball. I continued to play tennis until quite recently, and I make sure to include some fitness in my routine.

Above (left to right): The first sports prize Sunitha, on the extreme right, ever won; Sunitha, in the middle, standing proud on the podium to receive a sports medal; Receiving a gold medal in tennis while at college

I’m not very tall, and I remember that both in school and college, the volleyball teams did not see much use for me. I was determined to play, though, and to overcome my height and thin frame I began to eat raw eggs, which was my family’s magic potion to fix anything! In addition, I began to practice serving, and I kept at it, over and over again, until my frail looking arms began to serve with power, and earned me a place on the team. There was no turning back after that.

Practice, practice, practice—as an athlete and sportsperson, I learnt that there is really no substitute for this. The commitment to practice has helped me prepare and get better at every single thing I do, at work and beyond. Sports also taught me that it isn’t over until it’s over. One of the greatest sporting highlights of my life was a ball badminton game at school in which we were on the brink of loss, but managed to come back and win, taking it one point at a time. This focus and determination has helped me break down tough situations and solve hard problems.

I am fortunate to have gained invaluable lessons about teamwork on the field—the importance of celebrating the small things and not just the big victories. I witnessed first-hand how even the smallest contribution can make a big difference in the larger scheme of things. I cherish these memories and lessons even as I continue to work with fantastic teams and leaders.

Above: At the Coorg run with her friend Viv; Sunitha after completing the Mumbai half marathon.

I recently started running and have really enjoyed the experience. I’m not an avid long-distance runner, but I try to go to new places for fun runs with friends, combining my love for sport and travel.

Through sport, I have met and made fantastic friends, while playing it or even talking about it. It is an incredible icebreaker and equaliser at work. In fact, it was sport that first brought my husband, Arjun, and me together. While at college we were both ardent sportspeople and we met on the field. Little did we know then that years later, sports would spark something more!

Above: Sunitha with her husband Arjun, who she first met on the sports field in college

What keeps you motivated and inspired at work?

I went to school in Chennai, college in Coimbatore, and worked in Mumbai for a few years before returning to Chennai. After spending six years in the world of banking, I made the shift to IT, and I have been at TCS for the last 16 years! I have worked across the whole spectrum of testing, project delivery, BPO, and account management, among others, and am currently in the digital workplace unit with the products team. I have always been determined and focused when it comes to work, and I think I have my family to thank for giving me wonderful role models.

Everyone in my family is inspiring in their own way—pursuing their passions and careers with a great deal of drive and excitement. I see my aunts and uncles, most in their late seventies, still working and living with the same earnest will and spirit that they did many years ago. They strive to stay relevant, while also making time to check on me and my cousins. I think I have imbibed this ethos from my family, so working hard and doing my best is just in my DNA.

I have also been very fortunate to work with great teams, and that keeps me going as well.

Above (clockwise from top left): Celebrating at work; Sunitha on a panel for women and safety at work; Making a presentation in a sari; Sunitha receiving the MMA award for outstanding woman manager in 2013.

Even at work, it is not always all work and no play for me. I enjoy playing table tennis, shuttle and even cricket with my teams. I was fortunate to have won the MMA award for outstanding woman manager in 2013—I’m certain that my mother was beaming down at me that day. I also must mention that my presentation of my strategy took the form of a game plan—what coaches use to draw winning strategies for their teams. My very talented illustrator niece helped me bring this idea to life, while my editor cousin helped ensure that the document was on point. Even in that victory, both family and sports played a part, as always.

Tell us about your relationship with the sari, and how it has changed over the years.

In college, I was what people considered a ‘tomboy’ and I hadn’t a clue how to wear a sari. There were one or two girls who did know how to drape them, and for every occasion we would queue up outside their rooms and wait for our turns to be dressed up. Fast forward to today, and not only can I drape a sari myself, but also wear it all day, and it feels like a breeze!

I have always loved the sari, but I never knew very much about it. I remember admiring the simple but striking saris that women would wear to our church, and I always thought my mum was most beautiful in a sari, no matter how minimal her sense of style was.

Above (left to right): Sunitha with her dear friend Anaka who helped her discover a love for handloom weaves; Sunitha in the first sari she ever bought at Kanakavalli.

It was only when I started working and needed to dress up for events that I turned to the sari. It helped that I had some great fashion influences while working in Mumbai. I noticed how people styled the sari so differently and carried it off so well, inspiring me to experiment with it too. As soon as I started earning, I began to buy my mother really beautiful saris from stores and boutiques that I came to love. At around this time, I also began to learn so much more about handloom and natural fabrics from my dear friend Anaka, founder of the clothing brand Brass Tacks. With this knowledge came a love for beautiful weaves, and I began to seek more curated shopping experiences.

Since my first real engagement with the sari, there has been no looking back. I truly believe it is the most versatile and lovely garment, regardless of the occasion. For the last eight years, I have worn a sari to work every single Wednesday, as a way of celebrating it—and it still comes as a surprise to my old college friends to see me so comfortable in the drape!

How do you define beauty and tradition?

For me, beauty is a reflection of authentic happiness; a sense of confidence that comes from the inside, and cannot be kept from the outside world.

I think tradition is something that you want to continue to celebrate and keep alive as a way of paying it forward, for all the good that it has done for you.

What is the story behind the Kanakavalli sari you chose to wear for the Vignettes shoot?

I am a sucker for traditional saris, and Kanakavalli makes shopping so easy! The sari I’m wearing is a classic bright combination of colours, but I absolutely love the subtle checks on the broad borders that beautifully complement the motifs. The contrast is unusual and so gorgeous.

Sunitha is wearing a beautiful Kanakavalli kanjivaram in orange shot with vermillion embellished with peacock and chakaram motifs in gold zari. The borders have bands and checks in gold zari, while peacocks, geometric motifs and leaf patterns in gold adorn the pallu.

- Sunitha Prasad, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant.

View Sunitha's accompanying guest curation here.