The waning weave

Just 10-15 families left! As the Dumbara craftsmen fight for survival, with little or no state support coming their way, the challenge for them is to adapt their designs to suit contemporary requirements.
Hiranthi Fernando reports.

In the little village of Kalasirigama, (formerly Henavala) in Menikhinna, in the Dumbara Valley of the Kandy district, a small group of families are engaged in their traditional craft of weaving Dumbara mats and tapestries. This age-old craft has been practised by people from the Kinnara community since the days of the Sri Lankan kings, when they enjoyed royal patronage and the craft flourished.

Today, only about 10 – 15 families are still employed in this craft in Menikhinna. Though the craft has come down from generation to generation the younger generations are moving away to other employment as they feel the income from it is insufficient.

H.G. Lapaya: Engaged in the craft since he was 13

In an effort to encourage these families to continue in their craft and find markets for their products, Deshamanya Siva Obeysekere, a former President of the Craft Council Sri Lanka and the World Craft Council, is presenting an exhibition of handwoven Dumbara weaving from Menikhinna in Colombo. Titled ‘A Craft Revival’, the exhibition will be declared open by Uma Krishna, current President of the World Craft Council on October 18 at Lakpahana and will continue until November 20.

To prepare for the exhibition, Lakpahana organized a workshop on colour, texture and design for the weavers of Menikhinna, under the guidance of well-known designer Senaka De Silva who has introduced new designs and motifs to enhance their work. The aim of the workshop was to help these traditional craftsmen apply their skills in turning out crafts for the contemporary interior design markets both in Sri Lanka and abroad.

An impressive range of items woven by the weavers of Menikhinna was displayed at the Deshamanya Siva Obeysekere Crafts Gallery in Lakpahana. In addition to many beautiful mats and wall hangings, there were cushion covers, tablemats, handbags, and purses to match the colour of the saree, multi-purpose bags, notebooks and albums with woven covers and many more contemporary items. Also present were some of the traditional Dumbara weavers.

There was H.G. Lapaya, whom we had seen back in Menikhinna, many years ago, when the Sunday Times visited the village. Now 72 years old, Lapaya says he has been engaged in Dumbara weaving since the age of 13 as the craft was passed down from father to son for many generations. Lapaya has five children who are continuing the craft. In the early days, the weavers of the Kinnara community used the fibre from the niyanda leaf, which is softer than the fibre from the hana (hemp). However, as supplies of niyanda are no longer available in the quantities required, they had turned to hana.

This too is not easily available. Lapaya says they have to go 40 – 50 miles into remote areas in Hewaheta and Hanguranketa to fetch the leaves. Marketing their products also poses a problem for them, he added.

Another 72-year-old craftsman, Pansalwattege Menika has been engaged in the craft since the age of 16. His children have not taken to weaving as they say the income is not enough. Another craftsman H.G. Dharamadasa has 40 years experience and has one child following in his footsteps.

Explaining the process, the craftsmen said the extraction of fibre from the leaf is done manually. After cutting off the thorny point and edges of the leaf, it is placed on a log and rubbed hard with a sharp-edged wooden instrument. The green fleshy part of the leaf blade is removed, exposing the white fibres. It is a tedious process, usually handled by women. It takes half a day for a worker to clean 50 leaves. The fibre is then washed and dried in the sun. The dried fibres are combed and bundled into skeins. The weft fibres are not spun.

Senaka De Silva

The warp threads are spun on a spindle (nul idda). Both men and women engage in spinning while sitting, standing, walking or talking. The fibre is boiled in a pot of boiling water into which the dye is added. Sometimes salt is also added. The traditional black, red and yellow dyes are obtained from natural materials. However, today imported dyes are used as the natural dyes fade after some time. The craftsman squats on a mat and weaves the mats on a somewhat primitive horizontal loom.

Confronted with the difficulties of obtaining the raw material and of marketing, the Dumbara craftsmen are fighting for survival trying to adapt their styles and designs to suit contemporary requirements. Over the years, Mrs. Obeysekere has encouraged the craftsmen to continue their traditional craft, and helped them to find markets through the craft boutique Lakpahana. Others like American expert, James Somereski, Lankan architect/designer, Tilak Samarawickrama and more recently, Senaka De Silva, have assisted them to infuse new designs and colours, giving a contemporary look to the products.

The exhibition to be opened tomorrow will have on display a range of beautiful traditional designs as well as contemporary items.

One woman’s crusade to save our heritage

“A good part of my life has been devoted to helping craftspeople,” says Deshamanya Siva Obeysekere, former President of the National Craft Council of Sri Lanka as well as the World Craft Council. “We are fortunate in having many villages specializing in various crafts, the Dumbara mats at Menikhinna, lacquer work at Pallekapuvida, drums at Kuragala and so on. Our crafts are so beautiful. All that is needed is a little guidance in designs and colours from educated people.”
Senaka De Silva has done wonders, she says, helping them to turn out practical items such as book covers, bags, mobile phone covers, tablemats, cushion covers and handbags.

Mrs. Deshamanya Siva Obeysekere

Mrs. Obeysekere has had a long association with promoting local crafts. She has served on many committees and organized many craft exhibitions. “I am only trying to preserve our heritage,” she says, recalling how she had walked to villages for a period of three years before she started Laksala in 1964.

“I met the craftspeople and assured them of a fair price for their products and immediate payment. We helped them to cost their articles correctly. Unless we make them feel it is worthwhile, the crafts will die. We have to help them by giving contemporary ideas of usage.

“We have such beautiful things, our people should patronize them and help the craftsmen to make a living. If we can assure them of a reasonable price for their work, their children will continue in it. It is necessary that the government too helps the local crafts people to preserve and continue in their traditional crafts.”

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