Saturday, 24 August 2013 00:00
By D.C. Ranatunga
As I walk into the Shilpa 2013, the annual show by the National Crafts Council, I am greeted by an ornamental elephant made of wood. A painstaking job indeed. Behind is another huge tusker with the mahout on top made of a nadun tree.
I walk in and there are plenty of jumbos of numerous sizes – some turned out in brass, some in wood, some in clay. The elephant does not seem to have lost its popularity – at least where crafts are concerned. I looked round to see whether any of them had won a top prize but couldn’t find one.
While overall, there was a monotonous look about the exhibition, where year in, year out the same type of stuff is exhibited, there were at least a handful of items with which the craftsmen had tried to do something different.
In this context, the stall of the Department of Integrated Design from the Faculty of Architecture from the University of Moratuwa stood out. They had just a few items which were elegantly done. Giving the message that their course offers a totally new approach, the samples showed what can be done. Trendsetting is possible, they demonstrated. (Media and communication design, life style design and product design are the established fields of study in the course.)
Shilpa had a separate section titled ‘Visithru’ (I thought it should have read ‘Visituru’) devoted to efforts by craftsmen handpicked by the Crafts Council for training by experts in the field of design. While some of them showed promise, there was a tendency to stick to the same old products. The exhibits did show an improvement in quality but there wasn’t a distinct change where the products could compete with traditional handicrafts of other Asian countries like India and Indonesia. Innovation was missing.
While the selected craftsmen had tried their hand at producing something new, the others had continued with the routine stuff. Glancing through the catalogue of provincial award winners, the number exceeded 1,500. They had competed in a wide range of categories.
The Crafts Council claims they assist crafts in 19 sectors. The list is pretty impressive: Clay (sub-sectors – red clay and glazed pottery or ceramics), leaves and grass (mats and fibre), Dumbara designs, cane and bamboo, metal (metal casting and carvings in metal, silver and gold), jewellery –related crafts, masks and puppets, carved masks, musical instruments (traditional and non-traditional), textiles (hand and machine embroidery, painted textiles, patchwork and handloom), batik, lace (bobbin or ‘beeralu’, tatting and hand lace), lacquer work and sesath, wood-based crafts (carvings and sculpture), leather, stone based crafts, traditional paintings and sculptures, coconut/kitul/talipot/palmyrah related crafts and miscellaneous crafts. In the last category are hand-made paper, pulp products, sawdust related products, seashell related products and miscellaneous raw material based products.
With such an array of handicraft sectors and people turning out products in all these sectors, there is so much potential to develop these as export oriented projects. The Crafts Council operates in all provinces with offices in all main towns – Colombo, Galle, Kurunegala, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Kegalle, Badulla, Jaffna and Trincomalee.
Proper guidance in expanding the product range and designing seems to be lacking. Are training workshops held outstation? Or are they limited to the Jana Kala Kendra at Battaramulla? If so, can the craftsmen take time off to come from distant places to attend a workshop? If these are decentralised, much more can be achieved.The products can certainly be priced high judging from the items that had the ‘sold’ tag. When the stall assistant quoted Rs. 6,000 for a ‘pedura’ I was taken aback. Then she said there was one of Rs. 13,000! She couldn’t locate it to show me. The high price was because of the texture of the material and the intricate design.
There were a few attempts at creativity. A set of household items in cane included a settee, coffee table, chairs, stool, a wardrobe and a baby’s cot. Shilpa 2013 demonstrated that there is a lot of activity going on in the sphere of Sri Lankan handicrafts. But much more creativity is needed.
Pix by Kithsiri de Mel