Silken expressions of hope

She turned heads at the recently concluded Colombo Fashion Week with her batik creations that were inspired by a journey back to post-war Mannar. Here Sonali Dharmawardena discusses her many passions in life with Smriti Daniel

It is immediately evident that Sonali Dharmwardena is someone who feels intensely about things. We meet the petite designer on a Friday, in the shop she named after her daughter Acushla. Inside, the batik silk sarees she loves to design and is most famous for are on display.

Sonali inspects one of her beauties at her shop Acushla. Pic by Indika Handuwala

But in the next hour, our conversation refuses to be confined to her work alone as she speaks frankly about the other great passions of her life: her love for her husband and the three children they are raising together, her faith that Sri Lankans will find a lasting peace, her determination to employ as many brave, capable women as she can, her great love for animals that has kept her a vegetarian for most of her life and even the vow she made as an eight-year-old that has helped define her new collection.

Returning to the church near Mannar was something Sonali has wanted to do her entire adult life. She remembers making the journey there with her parents as a young girl. The road was long and bumpy, and it felt like they could just keep driving forever, Sonali recalls. When she got there, she was told she could have three wishes - she used them all to make one deeply personal request. "I can't explain it, but it came true," she says.

Now, determined to go back just to give thanks, she found the roads opening up as the war came to an end. Driving through the shattered landscape, Sonali says she was profoundly moved by the suffering and deprivation she saw around her. "It was still incredibly beautiful," she says but nevertheless the torched skeletons of houses felt like a recrimination. But in that war ravaged landscape, Sonali also saw bright spurts of colour. A young girl dressed in a dashing pink skirt, earrings and bindi, running past her, is an image she'll carry with her always. "It convinced me that I mustn't lose hope for my people," she says.

On her return, she had produced a torrent of poetry but also without quite realizing it, she found her new collection was inspired by that experience. Shades of grey, white and black, were edged in gold, and the occasional burst of colour shines through - the unquenchable hope amid the despair. Her designs were lauded at the Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) and have generated enough buzz to ensure that 2012 will be a red letter year for Sonali. She credits much of her success to CFW team, who also invited her to participate last year. She says she's been greedily absorbing all their feedback on how to improve her presentation, plan her collection and structure her show, as well as their tips on what retailers are really looking for.

Considering that her professional background has been in marketing and event management, Sonali finds it surprisingly hard to market herself. She's also frank about the fact that she's a nervous businesswoman - "I don't see myself as an entrepreneur. I am terrified of rupees and cents." Though she's adamantly independent, it's the arena in which she often asks for her husband Pushpadeva's advice.

Pushpadeva is also the reason Sonali got into batik in the first place. Marrying into the family of legendary batik artist Vipula Dharmawardena, ensured that Sonali had in essence married into the art form itself.

One of five sons, Pushpadeva had grown up immersed in batik and he now conveyed his absorption with it to his wife - hers would in fact outlast his.

She made her first saree in their workshop, using among other things an old broom and brushes that were lying around. She did so before she had even mastered the techniques of batik, but Sonali felt that it was actually an advantage, leaving her creativity untrammelled by tradition. What had begun with her determination to help her husband honour his father's memory soon became something that Sonali found she was not only passionate about but had a real eye for.

She found herself tremendously encouraged by the support of dear friends such as Ramani Fernando, Michael Wijesuriya and Graham Hatch - all of whom hectored her into launching her own business.

She also discovered many fans of her work, among them Kumar and Yehali Sangakkara. Sonali, who somewhat ashamedly confesses she didn't recognize them when they first came to see her, says that they've been one of her most valued supporters. They were the ones who found her the workshop she currently uses (and Kumar is one of the few men whose fashion advice she values). The couple have pointed more of their friends in her direction but always forewarn them that the designer is novel in that she doesn't know anything at all about cricket and probably won't recognize them at all. Sonali is glad that they don't seem to mind.

Sonali has some cause to be grateful to the game though - it's what keeps her husband distracted while she drapes sarees on him. Sonali creates one of a kind pieces, hand drawing a unique pattern on each. The first step of course is in marking the key points - for instance, where the fabric is tucked in at the hip or where it hangs off the shoulder. Mannequins can't compare to real bodies and Pushpadeva can be reluctantly coaxed into standing in for a woman - but only if there is a cricket match on.

It's a slow, time consuming process and the silk she likes to use is expensive. These factors combined with her determination to keep her work exclusive, has meant that Acushla is still a small business, but maintaining it and juggling what appear to be at least a dozen other commitments is exhausting.

It doesn't help that Sonali has been struggling with a long term illness that sometimes leaves her drained and demotivated. She felt it keenly during the latter half of the Colombo Fashion Week where she had to muster the dregs of her energy to keep going. "That's all the more reason I'm enjoying this now - that everyone loved it, because I went through so much to get it done," she says. However, fuelled by faith and pure determination, Sonali remains upbeat. "I have to go one day, but I don't think it's now. I have so much unfinished business, so many things I want to do."

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