2021 Oct 15
Sri Lanka is, without a doubt, a cultural gold mine filled with many arts and crafts that are passed down from many generations. Many of these industries prevailing within our little island, especially when it comes to textiles and fabrics, cannot be found in any other part of the world, thus amplifying their cultural significance.
However, countries like Africa and Mexico, which create unique textiles, share their cultural art and crafts with the rest of the world, while our textiles and fabrics often go unnoticed. What’s more heartbreaking is that the rural women whose entire livelihoods are dedicated to preserving our unique textiles and fabrics are barely recognised and empowered. More Sri Lankans are adapting to western cultural practices and art forms due to globalisation, technological advancements and aspirational eurocentric lifestyles that are promoted. Thus, we tend to be oblivious to the beauty of the crafts of our local artisans.
We spoke to fashion designer Ruwanthi Gajadeera, and Kanthi, a Beeralu textile weaver, to explore the world of rural women who pour their heart and soul into these crafts, how they contribute to preserving our rich culture and developing our economy, and the support they require to be recognised and empowered within society.
Types of Textiles Made by Rural Women
Just passing the ‘Daha Ata Wanguwa’ or the ‘18 Bend Road’, in the rocky terrain of Central Province connecting Kandy and Mahiyanganaya, is a small village that consists of women who are Dumbara weavers. This unique craft has been a Sri Lankan marvel for nearly 450 years.
The women in this little village weave motifs that communicate unique stories involving animals like snakes, elephants and peacocks.
“I had a collection that was released that had motifs of two elephants, which was done by these innocent women who are having serious financial difficulties,” said Ruwanthi.
Aside from Dumbara, many other women from different rural villages create traditional handloom textiles and Beeralu handmade lace fabrics. The Beeralu weavers mainly reside in Down South. Handmaking traditional laces in various patterns such as the ‘pichcha mala’ and ‘aththadiya’ has become their livelihood, especially after the tsunami that took place in 2004.
“I have been weaving Beeralu since I was eight years old. It was not taught to me by anyone; it was a natural talent. I don’t weave many clothes as there is no one to buy in bulk or pay a large sum of money for the clothes. So, I mainly weave and sell table cloths, table mats and children’s garments. I also weave Beeralu designs for bridal dresses,” said Kanthi.
These women possess unique weaving skills that require patience, precision and attention to detail; meticulous skills that cannot be acquired by just anyone.
How They Monetise Their Craft
The tourism industry is the main income generator for these women. Many local boutiques and shops are stationed at destinations known to be tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, and sell the crafts these women weave.
However, due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the tourism industry has been at a complete standstill for the past two years, depriving these talented souls of their monthly income.
“A Dumbara piece sold at a boutique will be priced starting from around LKR. 10,000, as these artforms are rare and take a significant amount of time to weave. Hence, the profit margins in place for these pieces are very low; many of the retailers who purchase these items don’t pay them enough,” explained Ruwanthi.
As they reside in rural areas not known to many consumers, they are unable to employ a B2C (Business to Consumer) model. Hence, they have no choice but to sell their work to boutiques at very low prices, leaving them with little income to take home.
“We also weave Beeralu lace patterns for bridal dresses, and that has brought us some income for many years. But now, with weddings getting postponed and cancelled due to the pandemic, we have been struggling to make a living,” Kanthi mentioned.
Cultural and Economic Impact These Women Have on Sri Lanka
It’s a no brainer that a country is remembered for its culture. Like how Bharatnatyam is to South India and the Kimono is to Japan, different aspects of culture act as a symbol representing the native country.
As Sri Lankans, we are blessed with unique cultural attributes that date back centuries. While we promote other cultural attributes, such as our unique udarata and pahatharata dances, the yaka mask, and the Kandyan osariya and Nilame costume, we are quick to forget the lesser-known attributes of our culture, such as the textiles that these women weave.
While tourists from around the world can enjoy our dances and bask in the glorious cultural landmarks in Anuradhapura and Pollonnaruwa, they can only take back memories of what they experienced with them when they leave.
However, by promoting the traditional textiles and fabrics handmade by these women, foreigners will have the opportunity to take a piece of our culture with them, gift it to others and educate their loved ones about our rich culture. Essentially, the women in rural areas spend all their lives preserving our culture and sharing our heritage with the rest of the world. And it is heartbreaking to see them not being appreciated, rewarded and glorified for their talent and hard work.
Further, the more these women are able to develop their craft, the more they will be able to pass it down and teach others around them, providing employment opportunities and strengthening the labour force in the country. If they receive enough support to turn their craft into a lucrative business through exports and better recognition, the economic impact that these women will have in terms of foreign currency and employment is immense.
The Support They Require
“I would really appreciate it if authorities could be lenient with bank loans. It would help us greatly if they could give us lesser interest rates. Making handmade lace is a very time-consuming process; hence, we cannot buy raw materials after an order comes. We have to stock up and be ready to meet deadlines and expedite the weaving process. Many boutiques only pay us half when purchasing the items and then they pay the rest later. So we have to rely on bank loans to stock up for the next order,” explained Kanthi.
Certain financial institutions being reluctant to provide bank loans and having to pay exorbitant interest rates when taking out bank loans are two of the main problems these women face. This are problems that are simply out of our control and cannot fix, as the general public.
However, there are certain things that we can do as citizens to support and uplift these talented individuals:
- Spreading awareness about them, their crafts and how they preserve our cultural heritage.
- Purchasing their crafts from boutiques around Colombo such as Laksala, Lakpahana, Barefoot and Urban Island.
- Modern and upcoming designers can collaborate with these women and create designs that capture the essence of these traditional textiles but cater to the Western market.
- Designers could find ways to credit these women and provide them with better recognition when showcasing their collections internationally.
- Entrepreneurs could provide them with a better marketplace to sell their crafts.
- More bridal designers could reach out to them and collaborate with them.
- Exporters could find ways to export their products to global markets.
These women stand as the backbone of our cultural heritage in garments and textiles; let’s strive to find ways to provide them with the recognition that they deserve as responsible citizens of Sri Lanka.