Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Junior Chamber International Sri Lanka has named Darshi Keerthisena one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Sri Lanka for her contribution to art and culture.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Darshi Keerthisena, 38, is revolutionizing the traditional batik industry in Sri Lanka.

Batik is an age-old textile design process that uses wax to restrict the application of dyes. A design is drawn on a piece of fabric, then wax is applied to the parts that are not to be dyed. After the fabric is dyed, the wax is removed with boiling water. The process can be repeated to dye other areas of the fabric.

Batik wear is considered traditional attire in Sri Lanka. Because batik was such a common sight in Keerthisena’s youth, it did not appeal to her, she says.

“Initially, I never liked to wear batik clothes,” says Keerthisena, now the managing director and creative designer at Buddhi Batiks, a company her parents founded in 1970. “It was so boring.”

As she grew up, though, she started spending more time at the company’s factory in Marawila, a small fishing village about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. Upon realizing the potential of the batik industry, she studied fashion and textile design in the United Kingdom. She joined Buddhi Batiks in 2004.

Her challenge was to update the art that she had learned in her family’s factory, she says.

“I needed to give newness to batik and preserve this age-old craft,” she says.

Other young people were not interested in working in the batik trade, Keerthisena says. Only older people with a passion for batik continued the craft, putting it in danger of dying out.

But Keerthisena believed batik had a future and wanted to preserve it through innovation. She gave batik a new identity by fusing contemporary designs and colors with traditional styles.

“I wanted to preserve an aesthetic sense,” she says.

She broke ground by using linen and silk as base materials in addition to the traditional cotton fabric. She also departed from the strong colors that characterize traditional batik.

“I used subtle colors and natural dyes such as tea and turmeric,” she says. “And batik became a cool trendsetter.”

Today, she draws all the batik designs by hand in her studio in Colombo and chooses the fabrics and dyes. She also oversees the production process at the factory through a team of supervisors who report to her.

Under Keerthisena’s direction, the company produces exclusive contemporary batik fashions, including swimwear, dresses, shirts, saris and even traditional bridal wear. Using the smallest scraps of leftover batik fabric, she also has created shoes and sandals, laptop and iPad covers, and a range of novelty items.

Other designers and manufacturers are slowly starting to follow suit as Keerthisena’s work draws attention.

She has showcased her work at fashions shows in Sri Lanka and abroad. Two years ago, Junior Chamber International Sri Lanka named Keerthisena one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Sri Lanka for her contribution to art and culture. The British Council awarded her the International Young Fashion Entrepreneur Award in 2008 for her innovative designs.

The batik technique, which originated on the Indonesian island of Java, was introduced to Sri Lanka in the late 1950s, says Colvin Settinayake, a batik designer and coordinator at the National Crafts Council of the Ministry of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development, in a phone interview. But the art of coloring fabrics with natural dyes had evolved for many centuries in Sri Lanka. Batik in Sri Lanka combined the tradition of fabric dyeing with the new technique of outlining a design in wax.

What began as a small, home-based textile craft became a major industry with the development of tourism, Settinayake says. Batik became a popular handicraft and souvenir. Starting around 1960, it was a major income earner for more than two decades.

Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, which ended in 2009, hurt tourism and, as a result, the batik industry, Settinayake says. But today, it is again a growing industry.

“Batik has been revived along with tourism in Sri Lanka after the end of the 30-year war,” he says.

The industry exports batik garments to many countries and employs more than 3,000 people, most of them women, Settinayake says.

Keerthisena’s innovative use of batik in exclusive designer wear is preserving and developing the industry, leaders in the fashion world say.

“Darshi used her background, skill and education to bring batik into the mainstream of fashion,” says Ajai Vir Singh, president and founder of Colombo Fashion Week, an annual event that showcases the work of Sri Lankan and international designers.

Keerthisena has participated in the event seven times. “Colombo Fashion Week showcased her doing something different in batik, which traditionally was regarded as a souvenir and not as a fashion accessory,” Singh says.

Linda Spledewinde, founder of the Sri Lanka Design Festival, which promotes the local creative and design industries, agrees.

“Darshi revived the batik industry into the contemporary state it is in today,” Spledewinde says. “She has grown up with the technical knowledge in batik, a designer educated by international standards, and with her apparel industry experience, [she] has a winning formula, which she puts into good use.”

Deepa Edirisinghe, a customer of Keerthisena’s, recently helped a cousin choose a batik bridal sari from the designer’s line.

“The batik bridal sari was truly Sri Lankan,” she says. “I was proud of such a novel idea to have a bridal in batik, which would never have been possible earlier.”

Because Keerthisena designs are unique, wearing one of her creations makes a woman the center of attention, Edirisinghe says.

“Darshi transforms the traditional sari into a creative piece with an exceptional design, highlighting sections that may drape well on the body,” she says. “The silk used is of the best quality. Batik was at one time only done in cotton, but Darshi has worked her designs out on soft chiffons, satins and silks.”

These changes have helped batik to make a comeback, Edirisinghe says.

Keerthisena is one of Sri Lanka’s design treasures and is a good brand ambassador for Sri Lankan fashion, Spledewinde says.

“At the moment, there are many followers making batik into high fashion, but Darshi will always remain the pioneer in reviving traditional style,” Spledewinde says.

The batik revival has not come without difficulty, Keerthisena says. One challenge is that young people are no longer interested in manufacturing batik.

“The manufacture of batik is a long process, and youth are only interested in designing and do not get involved with the process itself,” Keerthisena says.

The Buddhi Batiks factory, for example, maintains a series of production phases. Small teams trace Keerthisena’s designs onto fabric, wax the fabric, dye it, boil it, wash and dry it, then cut and sew it into garments and other items.

In response to declining interest in production and to empower women, Keerthisena has introduced an innovative working style in the traditional industry. The Buddhi Batiks factory’s 60 employees are mostly local women and can tailor their schedules to their domestic demands.

“Women work hard and sustain the family always,” Keerthisena says. “I wanted to encourage them to be close to their families with flexible working hours and not be uprooted from the village.”

With the support of an apparel company where Keerthisena used to work as a design consultant, she also started a new project with poor women living close to her factory. She provides them leftover fabrics, and they recycle them into crafts and souvenirs for tourists to generate income.

In 2009, Equal Grounds, a nongovernmental organization in Sri Lanka, awarded Keerthisena the Equal Grounds Award for her work to empower women.

Keerthisena is making plans to continue this work by opening another batik factory with her family in Gampaha, a town 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Colombo.

“In the future, we hope to set up another factory in Gampaha to enable women to be empowered in their own locality, trained in a craft while preserving the family unit, which is a social need for a healthy society,” she says.

GPJ translated one interview from Sinhala.