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.
- 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.