14th May 2000
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Little lantern-maker 

By Laila Nasry
ImageIn a small hut in a Wellawatte slum, the Vesak festivities have already begun. The hut which has barely room for two people to move around comfortably, is filled from floor to roof with skeletons of 'kudus'. Boxes filled with coloured kite paper are strewn around. Finished products hang from a line in the sweltering afternoon heat.

On the floor a small crouched figure is rapt in his own little world. Bent over a 'kuduwa', he dips his already sticky and matted fingers into a 'pol katta' filled with paste. Deep concentration creases his brow as his deft fingers run over the naked lantern, redying it for display by adding the finishing touches.

Thirteen-year-old Aaris is a pro at making lanterns. From his young days he watched with fascination as his elder brother created these fragile but beautiful objects. At 10, he thought he was big enough to try his hand at it. His first 'atapattama' came out just fine and soon Aaris realised he was as good as his brother. Thus began the yearly craft of making lanterns during Vesak. In previous years his whole family helped, but not so this time. His 21-year-old brother has abandoned it as child's play. 

Image"This time I'm making lanterns on my own. I don't feel lonely or bored because I enjoy making them so much," he says his eyes shining. What about school? He looks at me with suspicion as if I'm a dream-snatcher but the small guy's smart and has it all worked out. "I go to afternoon school in Pamankada, so I have enough time to make my lanterns," he says defensively. 

Just in case I haven't understood, he repeats that he makes the lanterns until he goes to school in the afternoon and gets back to them as soon as he returns. At times he makes a few extras to be hung in his classroom much to the delight of his friends and teachers who shower him with praise. 

This year Aaris has teamed up with Kanna Aiyya, a neighbour who helps him sell his lanterns, displaying them opposite the Havelock Park. The 'bata' for lanterns and the coloured paper are provided by Kanna. The patterns for the various lanterns some octagon others 'beling' and the decorations are decided by Aaris. However, the colour schemes are Kanna's. A lantern is sold at around Rs. 75 while the skeleton is Rs. 25. Business is good these days, he smiles.

Aaris is paid for his creativity by Kanna and the money is faithfully given to his father, a casual labourer supporting a family of four. His mother is abroad.

At the end of the day, Aaris has a money-spinning hobby...a happy family and a big smile on his face.


The students of the Chitrasena Vajira Dance School presented 'Hapana',on May 3, as part of a Festival of Ballet.
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