By Naveed Rozais
Batik is one of Sri Lanka’s most loved and versatile heritage crafts. This form of resist dyeing has been given elevated status, being included under its own State Ministry, the State Ministry of Batik, Handloom Fabrics, and Local Apparel Products.
Recently, State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara spoke on his vision of developing the batik industry and bringing it up to the same level as Thailand’s and Indonesia’s batik industries (batik is, in fact, an Indonesian textile printing technique that Sri Lanka has embraced and made our own). Jayasekara also spoke about encouraging government sector workers to wear batik and other local textiles at least once a week as well as reducing the prices of batik and handloom apparel to make it more affordable for such employees.
With the batik industry due for a facelift, The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to prolific batik designer and Buddhi Batiks Creative Director Darshi Keerthisena De Livera for some insight on Sri Lanka’s batik industry, how the impending government policy can affect change, and how the industry can hope to evolve for the future.
Tell us about Buddhi Batiks and how you came to take it over.
Buddhi Batiks was founded by my parents. As newlyweds, my mother wanted to give my father a gift, and she commissioned a batik maker form the nearby village to make a batik shirt. Something went wrong though, and she never got the shirt, which prompted my father to propose that they make a shirt together. It just went from there; they received lots of compliments and began making more things.
On a personal note, growing up, I hated clothes, but I was still interested in making things that I wanted to wear. I used to make batik shirts for my brother, and he used to love them. I just knew that I wanted to be a textile designer. After completing my degrees abroad, I started working at Brandix, where I received a lot of exposure. I visited fabric shows in Europe and the US and frequently met with top clients.
At this point, batik was in a slump. It had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was no innovation in the marketplace. The war had impacted tourism which had impacted income and demand, and people had stopped experimenting. No experimenting meant no demand, and it had become a cycle. Buddhi Batiks, though very innovative in the 1970s and 1980s, exporting to markets like Seychelles, had also scaled down greatly.
I’d studied textile technology, so I understood that different kinds of natural fabrics could be enriched with batik and I decided to introduce silk chiffons, silk satins, and silk georgettes into the market when I took over Buddhi Batiks in the mid-2000s and showed this range of new batik designs at Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) in 2007. It was extremely well received, and since then, batik has had a big resurgence, as have sarees, which at the time were not regarded cool.
What are the biggest challenges the batik industry faces today?
I think the main challenges today would be labour and a lack of standardisation of raw materials. Labour is hard to find because batik is a very difficult and time-intensive craft. The number of people practising it has reduced because batik was not popular for a very long time, and the people who were doing batik were not having much success and mainly focused on souvenirs and things like wall hangings. When Buddhi Batiks started, we had over 350 team members; now, we only have 60. We’re still scratching the surface, but with batik becoming cool again, it’s likely to improve.
With raw materials, a lack of standardisation means that our suppliers are usually random, and the products we use – be it dye, fabric, or even wax – can vary in quality, and we also don’t have clear information on how it has been sourced and what impact it has had on communities and the environment.
For us to be able to truly claim that we are sustainable, we need to have a good, transparent supply chain. Standardising materials will also automatically standardise quality, as well as pricing for our manufacturers because you will always know what your prices are going to be like for the next few months.
How do you see the new potential policies by the Government affecting the batik industry?
The Government said they will be looking into standardisation, which is something that we as an industry have asked for. They’re also looking at effective waste management and have already included, in their budgeting for next year, plans to build water purifying plants, where water can be purified and dyes won’t be released to the environment.
The batik industry has different market levels. Batik is essentially a print technique – you have different batik designers selling at different market levels, from wholesalers to the niche market. Buddhi Batiks is a niche brand, and with Buddhi Batiks, we have our own diffusion lines “Buddhi” and “BB” that sell to different customer segments.
I met the Minister last week when he visited Marawila, and he shared that he was expecting to see good design across all market levels in the industry. One potential way he hopes to do this is through collaboration with local design universities where students and young designers collaborate with batik designers and entrepreneurs at all levels of the market for design input and R&D (research and development).
Collaboration is a very important way forward; no brand is strong in everything. Within Buddi Batiks, we frequently collaborate with other brands and designers; one of our most recent collaborations being with local craft brand Kanatala, which works with hana weaving.
I prefer to concentrate on my immediate area of expertise, as do most people. This is why collaborations are win-win and can result in new and innovative products.
How do you see things unfolding for the batik industry in the future?
I’m very hopeful that standardising raw materials and introducing water disposal management systems will be a huge achievement and create big, positive change for the industry. These changes will make us better able to compete in the international market, which will increase competition across the board and make everybody become better and create better designs and products. However, it is important that we as an industry work with the Government and participate in their efforts to create new systems and processes.
Batik is approaching a new heyday, as Covid-19 and the temporary closing of the economy have given local artists and entrepreneurs the chance to grow their businesses locally. Many batik producers don’t have their own shops because they don’t have easy access to the market in a way that is viable for them in terms of business. They also don’t have the time to devote to R&D. Raw materials standardisation, design collaboration, and boosting the industry offer a solution to this.
It is our responsibility now as batik producers, entrepreneurs, and creative people to be original and think out of the box. R&D is the biggest part of the industry. Change is consistent, and if we don’t change and innovate as we go, what happened in the ‘90s will happen again.