Sri Lanka

For Sri Lanka’s Women Batik Makers, ‘a Tearful Story’ of Economics

The country’s financial crisis hit the textile industry hard as the price of raw materials skyrocketed, forcing artisans out of business. Some fear the loss of the centuries-old art.

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For Sri Lanka’s Women Batik Makers, ‘a Tearful Story’ of Economics

Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Chithra Selladorai makes batik at her home in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.

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VAVUNIYA, SRI LANKA — Chithra Selladorai believes in the magic of wearing fabric adorned with her crafted patterns. It’s part of what fascinates her about batik-making, a process of creating intricate designs on fabric using wax and dye.

“This is my favorite job. I always like drawing,” she says.

Selladorai learned how to make batik in 2014, when the Ministry of Industries offered training courses for batik-making in Vavuniya district in the Northern province of Sri Lanka. For the last seven years, she has been making batik with her family and runs a small textile shop in Samayapuram, Vavuniya district, where she also lives.

Despite her love for this centuries-old art, in 2022, she was dealt a heavy blow. A culmination of factors including a massive debt burden, the depletion of foreign exchange, the aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic, and the war between Russia and Ukraine plunged Sri Lanka into the worst economic crisis it has faced in decades.

The economic crisis not only increased the cost of living but also wreaked havoc on the manufacturing sector. Industries that depend entirely on imported raw materials were heavily affected due to the volatility and the high cost of imports, says Ravinthirakumaran Navaratnam, a senior lecturer of economics at the University of Vavuniya. As a result, the cost of production escalated, and production declined.

In fact, Sri Lanka’s industrial production fell by 23.9% in November 2022 compared with November 2021, according to data from the Department of Census and Statistics. The blow hit the textile industry hard. Between November 2021 and November 2022, production in this sector decreased by 56.2%.

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Sanmugasundrari Selladorai, left, and Chithra Selladorai dye fabric at their home in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.

Selladorai ties this decline to the high cost of raw materials. To keep making batik, she had to shell out more. In May 2022, a kilogram of wax cost Selladorai 800 Sri Lankan rupees (about 3 United States dollars). Now it goes for almost double that amount. The cost of 1 meter of yarn, which was 250 rupees (about 80 cents) has also doubled.

As a result, Selladorai and other batik makers have had to cut production and increase the price they charge for their products, which has hurt sales as fewer people are buying, in the process reducing their income. Before the economic crisis, Selladorai made 50,000 rupees (163 dollars) a month. Now, she makes only a quarter of that. It’s barely enough to support her son.

Batik was introduced to Sri Lanka by Dutch colonial officers in the 19th century. It was originally a hobby common among the elite, but it eventually spread to the artisan classes, who used it to make tapestry, regional flags and traditional clothes.

It was mostly a small-scale industry until the late 1970s, when growing tourism culture in Sri Lanka gave an upswing to local handicrafts, including batik. The government’s support through various agencies encouraged a generation of batik artists to create and experiment with new forms and techniques. Today, batik has become part of Sri Lanka’s local heritage, and its fashion designs are recognized not only locally but also in the global market. Although about 327 batik makers are registered with the government, the Export Development Board of Sri Lanka estimates that the numbers are higher, given unregistered makers. The sector employs about 200,000, mostly women.

But the industry has had its share of challenges. Nearly three decades of civil war (1983 to 2009) crippled the industry, according to a book by Priti Samyukta, an Indian artist and author.

The government has made some efforts to revive the industry. In April 2021, it enacted a ban on batik imports to boost local production and attract new producers to the industry. The promotion of locally produced garments was expected to reduce the amount of foreign exchange going out of the country. In 2021, the State Ministry of Batik, Handloom and Local Apparel Products trained nearly 1,200 batik manufacturers.

In addition, in the 2022 budget, the government allocated 1 billion rupees (3.3 million dollars) for the growth of textile industries, including handwoven and batik.

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

For Malarvili Sanmugam, making batik is more than a business. “It gives me mental happiness and satisfaction,” she says.

While these efforts brought some reprieve, they coincided with the economic crisis and made little to no difference, says Selladorai.

Some worry that the industry — which is so significant that it is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and has a ministry dedicated to it — might not recover from the current crisis. Already, artisans are abandoning it because they are unable to afford the cost of raw materials or eke out a living from it. For example, of the 60 women who received batik training in Vavuniya district from 2021 to 2022, only 15 are engaged in production, according to the National Craft Council in Vavuniya district.

Jeyalaxmi Ramasami is one of the batik makers who have abandoned the art. At 43 and a widow, she is the only breadwinner in her family. She says the cost of raw materials became too unbearable. To take care of her two children, she now works as a farm laborer.

“It is a worrying thing to work for wages after heading your own business. If the prices reduce, I will continue my business,” says Ramasami.

Kirisnan Satthiyammal has been making batik for the last 10 years and worries about this ancient art fading into obscurity. The 60-year-old, who also teaches batik-making in Vavuniya town, says that about a year ago, women were still interested in learning from her. But with such high prices for raw materials, this is changing. If the situation continues, only those who are already practicing batik-making now will possess this knowledge.

It takes hours to make a piece of batik fabric that is both beautiful to look at and comfortable to wear, says Malarvili Sanmugam, a batik maker. Despite the economic hardships, she is one of the few who are finding ways to adapt and continue making batik. Now, Sanmugam makes batik only on demand for customers who place orders.

“There is no profit in this business like before. I continue to do this job as it gives me mental happiness and satisfaction,” says Sanmugam, 53. “It’s a tearful story.”

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Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka

Chithra Selladorai worries that if nothing changes, batik makers will get tired and abandon the sector altogether.

But there is more to why she loves making batik. As a mother, Sanmugam likes it for the convenience.

“You can do housework and raise children and earn money while staying at home,” she says. “No need to go out.”

A government intervention could help alleviate poverty among women, whose economic participation is 35.4%, according to government data from the first quarter of 2022. In the manufacturing sector, they make up only 24.8%.

“For a country to progress economically, domestic production must increase,” says Navaratnam, adding that the government and nongovernmental organizations should help women, who are more engaged in small-scale production of batik and have faced losses.

The Ministry of Industries, in charge of batik and handloom, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Amid all, Selladorai still holds hope. “I would be happy if my country goes back to the way it used to be,” she says.

If it does, she wants to expand her small batik shop and employ two or three widowed women. If nothing changes, she worries that other batik makers like her will get tired.

“The sector is headed for decline,” she says.

Thayalini Indrakularasa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.


Lohith Kumar, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.

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