Saturday, 3 May 2014 00:10
By David Ebert
Vesak is just around the corner, and soon there will be the usual multitude of colourful lanterns lining the streets, strung up at people’s homes all over Sri Lanka, to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha. For me this is definitely one of my most favourite times of the year; a time when just walking around the streets is inspiration in itself.
I have always been fascinated with lighting; the way the character of a room or an entire house can be changed simply with the use of creative mood lighting placed in the right spots and dimmed according to your personal preferences or mood.
Lamps, unlike the Vesak lanterns, are not restricted to just traditional designs. The freedom to innovate and reinvent the mould is prevalent in a larger way.
I happened to chance by someone who believes in doing just that, and who also like me, finds inspiration in Vesak for his venture – ‘Badu Lamps’. Handmade, hand-dyed, made from special paper and exported to more than a dozen countries around the world, Ranjan Rajaratnam first came up with the idea during Vesak in Colombo.
“I started this in 1998 with a friend of mine. The whole inspiration came after Vesak. Looking at all the lanterns we thought we should be able to make lampshades because you get all sorts of models and designs. So we started making it out of the normal ‘sarungal’ paper and out of that paper we used to make stars, moons, round lanterns and simple shapes for children and we saw that every time we manufactured, somebody buys it and takes it home and we had nothing in stock. Then we thought we should take it one step ahead.”
The next step that Ranjan needed to take was to get a foot in the right door.
“There was a company in London called SKK Lighting, a very famous company making lamps, owned by Shui Kay Kan. He had very interesting designs. So I sent a friend in London some lampshades and asked him to get in touch with Shiu Kay Kan and show him what we have. When my friend approached him, he said ‘Oh Sri Lanka is rubbish’ and claimed that we had bad quality.”
Ranjan persisted though until by chance Kan happened to stop by Sri Lanka on his way to New Zealand.
“He stopped by in Colombo for two days and he called me and said he’d wanted to meet. So I met him and brought him to my workshop and showed him what we were doing. He then realised that we were serious about what we were doing and he said, ‘I will give you some designs and I want you to make some’.
Getting the right paper
Kan, however, had his reservations about the type of paper Ranjan was using and advised him to source a better, more specialised paper if he wanted to break into the international market.
“If you look at the international lampshade market there is a special paper called ‘takari’ paper, manufactured in Japan by a man called Naguchi that is used widely. He is the father of paper lampshades which he started making during the Second World War. He makes only that paper and today lampshades made with that paper are sold for $ 800-$ 900 each. They are out of this world!
Ranjan decided that he still wanted to make his lamps different from the ordinary.
“But we didn’t want to use takari paper since we thought our lamps would just be a copy. So we looked around and finally at a paper exhibition in Frankfurt I found a Taiwanese company that manufactured a special paper called ‘cotton-based paper’ which is made from the bark of the cotton tree. This is machine-made paper which you can stitch and dye as well, and it is very strong with one side gloss and one side matt. This paper is used by Chinese artists for their traditional art. So we brought that paper back to Sri Lanka and then we started designing some basic shapes, rounds, square, etc.”
The cotton-based paper however was only being produced in white, so he found an individual in Ragama who dyed yarn and took the paper to him and asked him to dye it in special vibrant colours that Ranjan chose.
“What we wanted is for the lamps to be a piece of art in the daytime and in the night it must give you the right ambience. That was the whole idea. So with this thinking we decided that those colours will give you mood lighting and also it can be a piece of art but that said white is still the number one lighting colour because if you do an interior, you can’t have a red lamp hanging in a corner because it won’t match unlike white which would just mellow the whole scene.”
Export and custom designs
Soon there were people from Spain, South America and the Scandinavian countries who seemed to like Badu lamps in these same bright colours and Ranjan needed to make them unique not only in the individual designs but make them attractive enough for them to be retailed.
“We started thinking about how to export, because in order to ship the lampshades they needed to be collapsible. If they aren’t collapsible and don’t come in really nice packaging, you can’t ship because then you would only be exporting volume which is useless for the buyer. For him to get an attractive price and for him to be able to resell they needed to be flat packed and unique. We sell our lamps locally as well at Barefoot which we do brand it especially for them under the Barefoot brand.”
Badu lamps also started expanding their portfolio into different designs as well such as table top models, floor mounted models and custom designs for architects.
“We did one recently for a famous Bawa contemporary architect Ulrich Pilsner which was a reproduction of a bamboo lampshade that he did but this time nine feet tall. We did it in metal and fabric for a house which had a double story height and open space. It was the perfect piece of art for that house. And that’s how the story went.”
The story of the brand name ‘Badu’ is equally interesting according to Ranjan. “We initially wanted to brand the lamps as ‘Hora Badu’ but the registrar of companies didn’t let us. So we stuck with just ‘Badu’.”
Pix by Sameera Wijesinghe