Darshi Keerthisena, Sri Lanka’s Batik savant 8 1207

A JOURNEY FROM TRADITIONAL WEAR TO WEARABLE ART: By David Ebert

Every country has its share of unique local artisans that churn out products that capture the minds of the many foreign visitors looking to take home a memento of their experience in a far off exotic land. Sri Lanka like any tourist hotspot boasts an overabundance of exceptional locally designed and produced handicrafts. These products have not only helped Sri Lanka build on its already colorful identity but more importantly, have paved the way for thousands of rural families to participate in their own economic uplifting. The tourist industry, being the country’s largest foreign revenue earner, has long given such artisans the push to innovate, create, and develop not only their craft but themselves and the lives of their families too.Today, Sri Lanka is not only known for its sunny beaches, misty mountains, wild jungle treks, vibrant cuisine, and the one million watt smiles of its inhabitants, but also for a handicraft culture spawned by the thousands of rural Sri Lankans that churn out their creations targeting the millions of tourists thronging its shores every year.

However, among these, few have made as large an impact on the country’s identity as the Batik industry. In Sri Lankan culture, its colorful hand-printed fabrics have adorned almost every traditional festivity, and have become an essential part of the Sri Lankan look. Quite an achievement for an art form that doesn’t traditionally have its roots in early Sri Lankan art.

Introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch, who brought the stylish fabrics from their Indonesian colony, it was embraced by the local elite who themselves became quite proficient in the art form. Since then, Sri Lankan batiks artists have through the centuries, infused their very own artistic interpretation and have today helped make batik a part of the country’s unique cultural landscape. Sri Lankan Batiks today are in a class of their own, with a clear differentiation visible between them and any other.

FOCUSING ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT:

In his policy document Vistas of Prosperity & Splendour, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has identified the country’s local textile industry as a sector that requires much-needed attention. The government says that it is committed to creating a new ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ apparel industry. This resulted, after the recent local government elections, in the appointment of a State Ministerial portfolio for Batik, Handloom, Fabric, and Local Apparel Products, that will focus solely on promoting local production of textiles. Further, with the imposition of restrictions on textile imports, including Batiks and other handlooms, the government is now expecting to save almost Rs.1 billion annually by replacing imports with locally manufactured alternatives.

The government’s path is clear and, in all intents and purposes, the right way to go. Right now no one knows what the ‘new normal’ will be. With so much uncertainty surrounding the global landscape in the midst of a pandemic that looks to make permanent changes in how people and businesses operate, being self-reliant and reducing import dependency is beneficial in more ways than one. Developing Sri Lanka’s local manufacturing capability can not only save the country much needed foreign exchange but also open up new opportunities while reducing its trade deficit as well.

State Ministerial portfolio for Batik, Handloom, Fabric & Local Apparel Products, Dayasiri Jayasekara, recently tabled a proposal that will encourage state sector employees to embrace Sri Lanka’s Batik and local textile culture with a mandatory Batik day at least once a week. For local Batik producers, this move could compensate in some way for the dearth of tourist dollars they’ve faced in the past year.

PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS:

However, the issues faced by local Batik producers are many. Their chief gripe remains in the lack of standardization in the raw materials required for the process. These include the dye, fabric, and wax for which quality varies, and information remains vague. The lack of clear product information is a huge deal when it comes to sustainable manufacturers like Buddhi Batiks, where clarity on the source and its environmental impact plays a huge role in adding value to their creations.

So far the government seems to be clued in and willing to get onboard in reducing the factors that stifle the industry. Pledges have been made that standardization will be pushed through, and environmental impacts will be reduced. However, when it comes to an industry such as Batik, where the main by-products are the dyes it uses, the need of the moment is safe water treatment and disposal. The environmental impact of the haphazard dumping of chemical dyes into the country’s rivers by large industries cannot be underscored enough. Hence, the road ahead for the government is long and winding, and what remains to be seen is whether the Batik industry will see the change that it expects.

GIVING CREDIT WHERE DUE:

Much of the credit for popularising the Batik culture in the country has to be attributed to local artists such as Buddhi Batiks, spearheaded by its iconic Managing Director, and former National Craft Council Chairman, Buddhi Keerthisena.Having made a name for itself as far back as the 70s with its range of traditional Batik clothing targeting the tourist market, the brand has witnessed a renaissance of sorts in the past 15 years. The beginning of which came about with the changing of the guard at the helm of its operations.

With the business having hit a stagnant patch during the 30-year civil war and the resultant low tourist numbers, Darshi Keerthisena, the company’s heiress apparent knew that the road to recovery lay in fresh ideas and injecting a new outlook. A restructuring of its core design ethics was vital, not simply for the long term survival of the company, but for the many rural craftswomen that had spearheaded its production efforts since its establishment.

Taking over in 2006, Darshi’s journey has taken Buddhi Batiks from Sri Lanka’s best known Batik house to a fashion powerhouse, that has taken it to places no one ever expected the art form to reach. These days Buddhi Batiks designs can be seen on everything from saris worn by top Bollywood cinematic sirens to high fashion clothing worn on international catwalks.

What used to be restricted to traditional wear has now become Sri Lanka’s contribution to international fashion, with its new collections being the most highly anticipated and looked forward to at exclusive events such as the country’s haute couture centerpiece, the Colombo Fashion Week.With Sri Lanka currently experiencing its second wave of COVID-19 infections and a mega cluster putting the curbs on what was expected to be a post-pandemic recovery process, we spoke to batik savant, visionary entrepreneur, and vocal advocate of female empowerment in industry, Darshi Keerthisena, on the impact on her business, and her hopes and expectations in these uncertain times.

What were the early days of Buddhi Batiks like?

I grew up in the back yard of Buddhi Batiks, taking my home-cooked lunch and swapping it with the home-cooked lunch of the artisans. We used to play carrom and ‘elle’ after eating together. There I would make clothes for my dogs and my dolls, and try my hand at creating batiks. I learned from the best local artisans, as well as Central St. Martins fashion graduates. Buddhi Batiks was a booming business back then.

What was it like bringing change to a traditional business as it was back then?

When I took over the business in 2006 it was not the booming business we had back in the 80s. With the civil war and the decline in the tourist industry, the batik industry had become a very monotonous handicraft still stuck in the 80s with no one creating anything contemporary. I wanted to create fashion and textiles that I would want to wear. Thinking different to the norm was something I learned from my parents. I too started looking at the Batik business differently, in how I could update it and create a contemporary product.

How difficult was it to reposition your business into one that focuses on empowering individuals; especially women?

I didn’t have to reposition it. It was always the guiding light of Buddhi Batiks. We always had women from our village working with us and over the years they grow in the team or they eventually become entrepreneurs themselves.

What more does the country need to do to increase women’s participation in the country’s development drive?

  • The lack of safety in the workplace is the biggest issue for the lack of women in the workforce.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace and also during travel to work is one of the main reasons women are reluctant to enter the workforce.
  • Support from the family is also essential. Especially if you are a married woman with kids, the husband’s support is essential in managing the work at home and kids.
  • Just because the husband says, it’s ok you can go to work too isn’t enough. He needs to actually engage in support and sharing the responsibilities of the kids and managing the household.
  • Apart from that not having anyone responsible to leave the young kids with is also a reason why women stay at home after having kids. Encouraging workplaces to have a daycare center for the young kids will be helpful to solve this issue.
  • Flexible working hours will also be helpful.

Where does Sri Lanka’s Batik industry stand now?

          “With the civil war and the decline in the tourism industry, the batik industry had become a very monotonous handicraft still stuck in the 80s with no one creating anything contemporary.”

Since the collapse of the Batik industry in the late 80s, things have changed for the better lately. Buddhi Batiks introduced a new look to the Batik industry with the new collection reveal in 2007 at the Colombo Fashion Week. With this collection, silk satin, silk chiffon, and silk georgette were introduced to Sri Lankan Batik. We also showcased men’s Batik T-shirts, satin silk sarongs, and Batik denim as well. The bold floral designs with bright colors and pastel shades on the saris brought back the sari to the younger generation. Today the Batik industry is so popular, the government had recognized the importance of this craft and seen its potential in becoming a revenue generator in the international market too. In fact, there is a Batik and Textile State Minister for this industry.

How did the industry fare through the lock-down?

It was hard. Most factories were closed, it wasn’t possible to get raw materials, and retail outlets were closed. Since Buddhi Batiks does a lot of custom products like bridals, we continued communicating with clients and designing from home, so we had designs ready to go into production as soon as the lockdown lifted.

Being a sustainable business, are there unique challenges you face in the virus era?

As a brand that has taken the path of sustainability, we face many challenges in the batik industry. First, the lack of standardization of raw materials, may it be fabric, dyes, or chemicals. This is a common problem for any area not just during the current period. Second, sustainable raw materials like organic fabrics are expensive, as is water treatment, so during a time where there are added financial stresses caused by the virus it becomes harder to run sustainably. But it is something we have committed to and we persevere on this path.

How has your road to recovery been to you and your stakeholders?

We recovered quickly. There were a lot of pent up orders that allowed us to hit the road running. The team really came together, multi-tasking and taking on roles that they wouldn’t normally have to do. In hindsight, it made us more efficient because we also had to quickly find ways to reduce costs to survive. Now that we are facing another lockdown, we have a better idea of what we have to do to keep going.

Has governmental support been forthcoming towards businesses such as yours?

Yes. Finally, there is appreciation through having a dedicated minister for the locally produced Batik and textiles industry. The restriction on imports has helped the industry.

What would your budget wish-list be for sustainable SME businesses?

“Payment gateways to receive foreign payments are expensive and complex, requiring lengthy documentation and compliance paperwork.”

Primarily, standardization on pricing for raw materials for the batik and local textile industry. Need a cheap payment gateway that allows small entrepreneurs to get paid by credit card from foreign buyers. Indians, especially like our products, and courier charges to India are cheap. Existing payment gateways to receive foreign payments are expensive and complex (Webxpay and PayHere) requiring lengthy documentation and compliance paperwork. Also generating a payment link is complicated. Perhaps the Central Bank can develop a payment gateway where a supplier only needs to plug in a bank account and can then start doing business with the outside world. Rather than one million dollar order in one go, you can have thousands of small orders ($500-$1000 amounts) which will add up to millions.

BUDGET WISHLIST

  • PRICING STANDARDISATION FOR RAW MATERIALS
  • PAYMENT GATEWAY TO ENABLE FOREIGN CARD PAYMENTS TO SMES

Many businesses have identified new and unique opportunities in the current virus hit economy. What are yours, if any, and what has your approach been in identifying them?

We are always on the lookout for new products that we could create and introduce to the market. We spend a lot of time and resources in our research and development. You will see our new reveal in December.

What changes has this brought to your business model?

We are always ready for change, and having a team mindset for constant improvement has been very useful during this time.

 

 

Is the future bright for small industries in Sri Lanka?

With the restriction on imports and during the lock-down, we all learned to appreciate local and locally made products. The same applies to the craft and apparel industry too. This opens up a huge opportunity for the local small industries too.

Sri Lankan Batiks are now being recognized as uniquely Sri Lankan the world over. Where can it fit in when it comes to country branding and promotion?

Sri Lankan batik emphasizes hand drawing with inspiration derived from our own rich heritage in terms of motif and design. At the same time, being an island that has been always open to outside ideas, we tend to incorporate our traditional craft with worldwide contemporary trends. This is very much the case in batik apparel. It’s not just batik saris and sarongs now, we use batik on dresses, swimwear coverups, accessories, and increasingly in interior design.

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‘’Work harder than you think you did yesterday’’ 0 1163

Athula Seneviarathne
Athula Senevirathne Chairman, SDK United Agri Ventures (Pvt) Ltd.

By T.V.Perera

Appalled by the rise of undernourishment during the past one and a half decades reaching an alarming estimated 821 million people by mid last year, the World Congress on Food and Nutrition met in December in Dubai, and focused on ‘Discovering new advances on food and nutrition for global citizens’. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, SDK United Agri Ventures (Pvt) Ltd with its registered office at Pagoda in Nugegoda and plantations in Anuradhapura and Monaragala, has introduced high nutritional value food in Soya, and a vegetable oil under the name ‘Omega’ to the consumer market at a very affordable price, fulfilling the nourishment needs of Sri Lankans. BiZnomics recently spent time with the Chairman of United Agri Ventures (Pvt) Ltd Athula Senevirathne, listening to his success story. Commencing by revealing that on completing his academic career, his aim was to be a KDU military officer but that circumstances led him in 1986 to join Unilevers where he quickly rose in position as overall in-charge of the company’s 200 acre prawn farm in Chilaw.

SDK United AgriDuring tha period Senavirathne started his own gherkin cultivation employing 28 and subsequently, procured the prawn farm when Unilevers closed it down which became a turning point in his life.
He ran the prawn farm quite successfully catering to many a tourist hotel and customers such as
Japanese Airlines until he reached the top with exports to Australia. Explaining how he ventured into agriculture,

he states: ‘’During one of my trips to Anuradhapura to buy fish feed, a leading politician apprised me of maize and soya bean cultivated, and told me that cultivators were hard hit for lack of buyers for their produce. I then thought that I could do something for them’’. With banks assuring him financial assistance, Senevirathne moved forward, having in mind government decision to halt maize imports.

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Jetwing Hotels – What Makes Them So Different? 0 3125

A warm and friendly nature reflected in tireless smiling faces, and willingness to help those unaware with phases of local life. From the beautiful beaches of the South-Western coast to the toe tapping and exuberant Kandyan dances, along with the majestic and ancient architecturally and archeologically distinguished cities. Bright, sunny warm days are in abundance and are common even during the height of the monsoon. The humble desire to share this experience of heartfelt warmth and the true hospitality of the people living in the small miracle in the Indian Ocean called Sri Lanka, a homely villa was built named Blue Oceanic, which is now the Jetwing Blue, with just six rooms in the early 1970s facing the sandy beaches in the Negombo City.

Hiran-CoorayA simple dream of sharing the uniqueness of this beautiful island, one of the largest, most respected, and recognized tourism organizations were born. Herbert Cooray – a visionary, a pioneer of tourism in Sri Lanka and the founding father of Jetwing, the largest family of hotels and villas across Sri Lanka, opened its doors to the world welcoming them to a family of hotels like no other.

Inspired by Herbert Cooray, his son Hiran joined Jetwing as soon as he completed his education graduating from the University of North Carolina, USA, prior to which he studied at St. Joseph’s in Colombo. Following family tradition seems to be established. Just like Hiran his sister Shiromal took up their father’s legacy. At 29 years of age, Herbert Cooray left his job to join the family business N. J. Cooray Builders – a building construction company which was founded by Herbert’s father, Jeremias.

The founding principles his father inculcated in Hiran and the family have today become the very pillars that Jetwing group operates on: “…Passion, Honesty, Integrity and Tenacity – these were the values my father instilled in us throughout our lives and they continue to be the Jetwing family philosophy. It is the secret of our success. I have the incredible honor and the responsibility now to do justice to his legacy.

The essence of simplicity and modest allure, Hiran is a son who continues to do his father proud.

BiZnomics had the pleasure of speaking to the veteran hotelier HIRAN COORAY of his journey and experience gained throughout.

Q: What was the foundation for Jetwing?

A: It all started with my dad in 1973. He started off with the Blue Oceanic Hotel in Negombo with just six rooms and later moved on to further rooms. It was just a simple beginning eventually created the Jetwing family. It was a time that no one really thought of tourism, and for some reasons it progressed quite well for the next 10 years. Then he moved onto building Royal Oceanic. Blue Oceanic now goes as Jetwing Blue and the Royal Oceanic is Jetwing Beach. During those 10 years my dad probably would have owned about five hotels. Although towards the ‘80s the troubles broke out, it didn’t really stop him from expanding. In fact, that was the time he started Jet Travels, which eventually became Jetwing Travels at the end of the 1980s.

Q: How did young Hiran get involved in the whole thing?

A: Being a Josephian, my only interest was in cricket at that time. I was the Vice-Captain of the school team and represented the Sri Lanka Schools as well. However, I realized there would be no future in cricket so that I concentrated on my studies. I went to North Carolina, Greensboro University and came back in 1987. It was also my father’s decision that made me come back. 1987- 1989 probably would have been the worst two years of history, having riots breaking out all over the country on top of the ongoing civil war but my father wanted me to come back and that’s just what I did. A degree doesn’t really tell you anything when it comes to practical knowledge. Within a year he made me the Managing Director, my father’s words were “if Castro could control a country at the age of 25, why is it difficult for you to run a company at the same age?”

Q: What are the set of goals for Jetwing?

A: What we want is to be the ‘Best service provider in the country’. In whichever way we expand we want to be the best at it. As my father used to say, provide a legendary service. In order to provide it, we have to look after our staff as much as we look after our guests. That is one of the main goals and we work on that continuously. We have been pioneering in to different new areas of tourism. We were the first to build hotels in Galle in 1995. Other than New Oriental (now Amangalla) there was nothing else. My father built there when everyone said it was going to be a failure. We started Lighthouse which is an iconic hotel in Galle. Then we went to Wellawaya when people questioned why? Again we educated people in Sri Lanka why one should visit Wellawaya. We then built in Potuvil. It is a Muslim village in the deep South East corner of Sri Lanka. People always have that question as to why? We built in Jaffna. We were the first company from the South to go to Jaffna. There were hotels there of course, but we were the first to go from this end. We have the pioneering spirit, creating opportunities and taking the lead.

Almost all our hotels were in the high-end category, but now we are working on the budget brand. We were the first to introduce that as well in 2013 called Hotel J in Negombo. Now there are three budget hotels, Hotel J Ambalangoda, Negombo and Unawatuna.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is quite similar to a low cost carrier. You will have to buy everything apart from the seat provided in the aircraft. Similarly our brand provided at hotel J is a clean room, clean bathroom, air conditioning, WiFi, and safety. If you are a single female traveler, you must feel safe in a room. That is the five brand promises we give at hotel J. Everything else including carrying your own bag is your responsibility. And you will have to purchase everything including the bottle of water in to the room.

Hiran-CoorayQ: How do you maintain the standards of the company and its employees?

A: Continuous training. We have to be at it every day.

Q: Do you have a gender balance in your organization?

A: We are the only organization that has five female General Managers. We are very proud of that they do an amazing job. The fact that we have females in this position motivated others to improve themselves to achieve their goals. We started these 20 years ago and it is not a new concept for us. All our staff has the opportunity to grow in the company. A good example is the Manager at Jetwing Sea, who started as a security guard. We allow people to develop and it also should be in them to develop themselves by taking the opportunities.

Q: If a female employee is sexually harassed, how would it be handled?

A: We have very strict rules on those. We educate our staff on what can be said and what cannot be said, how important it is to behave in certain ways in the company. Even a simple touch is not allowed. It is a serious offence in the company and we take disciplinary action against such behavior.

Q: How does the political uncertainty affect foreign investments in our country?

A: Government policies are essential to attract foreign investors. Whenever a government changes policies change and can discourage that investors in tourism and other fields. We are sons of the soil so we have left with no choice. When foreign investors know that our policies change every time a government changes, they will not think of a long term or a safe investment environment in this country.

Q: How likely is it that a customer recommends your hotel to another?

A: We make sure the service we provide is of no comparison. The relationship we maintain with the local community, what we do to preserve the environment, all those factors are important to place your high up in the industry. People are very much aware of the environmental impact and community involvement. If you genuinely do that, look after the local community, employ and create opportunities for the local community and also look after the environment, and you showcase it, the customer who studies and buys a product will always choose the right one over others. That’s one of the very obvious difference between Jetwing and others.

We have a programme called JYDP ‘Jetwing Youth Development Programme’ which we started in the year 2006 and up to now we proudly say we have trained nearly one thousand youngsters in the hospitality industry and the English language.

Q: A little bit more on the political side. What do you think is the future status of this country?

A: My wish is that the private sector will not be dependent on politicians. The private sector has a very important role to play, irrespective of who is in leadership. The private sector must continue to play the role. The private sector should not get involved in lobbying and directing politicians. A politician should look at the country in the long term aspect, viability, sustainability of the country, and I will support anyone who thinks long term, not only till they serve the number of years. Sadly they think short term.

Q: What are your thoughts on taxation?

A: We live out of this land; hence we have to pay something for that. As long as it is bearable it is fine. I mean the Government provides certain facilities free like medical and education. That is a huge cost to the government. Somebody has to pay for it. We can’t really be borrowing to pay for those essential requirements.

I am very much against giving free higher education. Maybe the government should provide a loan facility at a very low interest rate to pay off in a certain number of years, as students have no value over what they get free. When you are given free education, they expect the government to find them a job as well. What can they actually do for themselves in that case? As a youth you should not be a burden to the country. Appreciate what you get and learn to stand on your own feet. The Government educates them free, give degrees free, and then as it is, a job should follow. How unreasonable can they be?

Value what you get free; at the same time be a responsible citizen, not a burden to the country. That’s something I very strongly believe. Appreciate what the country is doing for you. It is all our taxed money that the Government is utilizing on their education. They should at least appreciate that fact.

Q: What is the biggest people problem you are facing right now?

A: Leaving the country. After training them so hard when they leave, it hurts the company.

In a nutshell

Q: One word that describes you best?
A: Down-to-earth

Q: What are your three biggest accomplishments?
A: Number one: I am blessed with three great sons.Number two: Carrying on what my father started and adding value to the tourism industry in this country.
Number three: Being chosen as the Chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association the only Sri Lankan to be chosen from a small island to chair that organization for two years.

Q: What animal do you like most?
A: I am a bird watcher. It is fascinating to see their colors. I get much inspiration through that.

Q: What do you do outside work?
A: Watching cricket matches and I like walking.

Q: On a scale of 1-10 how lucky are you?
A: 10 definitely.

Q: What kind of books do you read?
A: I love reading management books, religious books, biographies and sports.

Q: If I am to take over your position, what advice would you give me?
A: Be humble, willing to learn and an honest leader.

Q: When it is all over, how do you want to be remembered?
A: A simple man who tried to make a difference (laughingly).

By: Chantal D.
Photography by: Nuwan Ranaweera