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The poor little handicrafts of Laksala

11 January 2018 12:00 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Alias, an Assistant Merchandising Director, tells me that Laksala is changing. Not for the better. If we are to talk in analogies for the benefit of tourists, he is claiming a slide down the scale from a Tiffany’s to a K-Mart. “I went to the Thummulla outlet today. They are going to shift the exclusive Batik collection to a less prominent place and put some t-shirts in the vacant place,” Alias told me in November.

One can sympathize with his outrage. Who shifts an exotic merchandise of a higher style register like Batik to make way for t-shirts? Why would people try to turn around a loss-making enterprise-comprising ordinary items- through bulk sales? People are turning their backs on niche markets due to lack of vision, money and expertise.   

  • All the stratagems have been introduced to enable Laksala to operate in the black and execute this responsibility
  • A sector gets into trouble when its custodians start thinking of it as a dying sector, when they think of maintaining the sector as CSR
  • Teas by various Sri Lankan producers were sold under the Laksala brand
  • Nobody wanted to wear Salusala’s handloom textiles, and it soon closed down

Alias doesn’t know. All he knows is that Laksala is being deviated from its remit and mandate set out in the Laksala Act (The National Crafts Council and the Allied Bodies Act 35 of 1982), to support and encourage Sri Lankan handcrafts by showcasing them for a discerning global market. If the powers that be are phasing out handcrafted exotica and turning Laksala into a mass market department store, they can’t do it. Alias informs me, not without changing the Act first. Nowadays, he remarks with a wince, Laksala merchandise even includes shirts with their brand labels cut off and male underwear.   

“You try to go into any Laksala miss, and try to find a ‘rata pedura’ (a reed mat woven in an ornamental pattern in colour), you won’t find it.” That’s an ominous statement. To use an analogy, again, it’s like claiming that a national crafts outlet in Scotland does not have anything in tartan. Reedware is such a staple of rural Sri Lankan culture that a reed mat is not just a mat. It’s a Sri Lankan folk opera in three acts; harvesting the reeds, the weaving of the mat and life on the woven mat, traditional four-line stanzas specific to each stage serving as the opera’s arias. How does the national handicrafts retailer turn its back on all that and proceed to stock up with non-handicrafts? Isn’t it aiding and abetting in a death, which they are mandated to prevent?   

Alias who counts 37 years at Laksala also remembers a time when quality control procedures were an integral part of Laksala’s purchasing process. From 1960s right up to 1990s officers with expertise in different handicrafts and materials would oversee the purchasing process and make sure Laksala only bought merchandise conforming to the standards

“Handicrafts are a dying sector,” a highly placed official of the Laksala’s Finance Division responded incognito. I had asked him if their strategy of giving shelf space to non-handicraft stock will force Laksala’s main objective - showcasing SL handicrafts – into a backseat. “We are no longer the Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board. We are now in the State gifts and souvenirs category. We aren’t limited to handicrafts, but we haven’t excluded them either. Still more than 80% of Laksala merchandise are handicrafts,” Laksala’s Director Sales, Kelum Jayawardhana said.

Alias begs to differ and gives me a long list (published as a separate box story) of handicraft goods that used to be bestsellers and are now absent at Laksala. Sena Kalehewatte, former director of the National Crafts Council, former active subcommittee member of Laksala and associate bodies, and award-winning craftsman supplier of bamboo handicrafts to Laksala for 42 years, is scathing about Kelum Jayawardhana and his claims: “According to the ‘82’ constitution of the National Crafts Council, there are 35 varieties of handicrafts in the island made from indigenous raw materials. Not even 10 are present in Laksala now. They sell underwear, slippers, oils and cosmetics. Fifty percent of the goods sold at Laksala contravene the National Craft Council Constitution.”   

According to Laksala CEO, Ali Ahlam Nawaz, certain prestigious and evocatively Sri Lankan non-handicraft brands have been admitted into Laksala on a consignment basis in order to keep Laksala alive for the craftsmen. A very lucrative line in corporate souvenirs is also developing, he adds.   

Deserting traditional crafts   

Alias tells me that Laksala owes its suppliers- the craftsmen producers - and they are deserting not only Laksala, but their traditional crafts as well. “The best brass lamps were made by Karunaratne. He is no longer making them. He has gone into making stainless steel handrails for stair cases”   

The incognito high finance official, who feels that handicrafts are a dying sector, remarked that they have a corporate social responsibility to keep Sri Lankan handicrafts alive. All the stratagems have been introduced to enable Laksala to operate in the black and execute this responsibility.   

“Earlier [under the previous management], the [non-handicraft] products we sold, we brought under our brand,” recounts my incognito finance official. He is referring to the practice introduced under the former Laksala Chairman Anil Koswatte, of acquiring custom-made for Laksala merchandise from reputed Sri Lankan brands such as Dankotuwa, Noritake, P.G Martin, to be sold rebranded with the Laksala logo. According to Alias, Assistant Merchandising Director, this really worked – for example a certain porcelain brand used to claim that their gold and silver sets priced at Rs. 50,000 were hard to sell in their own showrooms, but the same sets, priced twice as much and branded as Laksala, would sell- such was its brand equity. Moreover, when teas by various Sri Lankan producers were sold under the Laksala brand, exotic packaging made of woven reed would be used. This helped to promote Sri Lankan handicrafts at the same time.   

According to my incognito source high up in Laksala finances, they got stuck financially due to the ‘Ape-Gama’ situation (Certain buildings and outlets constructed by Laksala using money borrowed from a State bank, and earning revenue for them at ‘Ape-Gama’ were taken over by the Ministry of Education merely with the instruction to Laksala to get their money from the Treasury, which they have so far failed to do). “We didn’t have much money to bring in stock, so what we thought was, why not give the authority of bringing in stocks to some other party, so that they will be answerable to the stock. When the stocks are running out, they will put in new stocks.

Also, we don’t have to pump in money. I thought that would not work at first, but it has worked. From a financial perspective, our working capital is not held up and we are revolving other people’s money and stock. Also, aren’t we getting a rent too?” He is referring to the new practice under the present Government, of renting out the first floor of the premium Laksala outlet at Thummulla to non-handicraft vendors to sell their merchandise under their own brands.   

Rent? Alias asks explosively “You call that a rent, Rs 25 000 for 50 Sq feet at a premium location like the Thummula Laksala? It’s highly suspicious”   

“Is the rent enough?” I asked my incognito finance source. “It’s a pilot project,” he replied by way of rationalizing the low rent. “And if they want to delegate the authority of bringing in stock to other parties, why not choose parties that can bring in handicraft stock?” Alias asks with justifiable indignation.   

It is obviously one of those situations where multiple narratives exist and you feel empathy towards almost all of them. But, the story has a core which everyone seems to miss. The first clue that pointed towards the missing core came from CEO Ali Ahlam Nawaz himself. Was it true, I asked him, that Laksala recently paid for a consignment of handloom sarees and sarongs from Baticaloa that had less than the number of threads per inch demanded by the standard and there were grumblings from the supply department, about buying stocks that would not sell? These women, replied the CEO, weave while doing their domestic chores and Laksala buys from them to encourage and grow the sector.   

Getting into trouble   

A sector however grows through the development of strong brands. A strong brand is made when people are focused on producing high worth merchandise that could be mega earners and new market grabbers. A sector gets into trouble when its custodians start thinking of it as a dying sector, when they think of maintaining the sector as CSR. They would sacrifice brand equity and let in substandard goods in the mistaken belief that it will sustain the sector; only to end up eventually with a poor, little, dead sector that couldn’t pay for its own retail space and has to be propped up with ‘higher’, non-handicraft merchandise.   

Are handicrafts a dying sector? The fact is, it could die or thrive depending on the quality of the entrepreneurial talent the sector attracts. Take textile weaving by handloom. That handicraft subsector can show operatives at both extremes of the success scale. Nobody wanted to wear Salusala’s handloom textiles, and it soon closed down. Fashionmarket.lk - an ecommerce platform where designers and traditional craftspeople collaborate - on the other hand, exports handloom and batik sarees made by traditional weaving villages of Sri Lanka to India. Time was - not that long ago either- when no Sri Lankan sari could compete with Indian sarees even within Sri Lanka, let alone in India.   

I asked Linda Speldewinde who founded Academy of Design and fashionmarket.lk, what makes her model work?   

“Our model works because it’s kind of an end to end solution. It’s like a fully integrated eco system. When you tell craftsmen to make something, and only reimburse the money to them when it’s sold, then you are not taking ownership of the product. But in our case, because they are investing in the product, we make sure that it works so the craftsman doesn’t have any risk.”   According to Linda, ‘making sure that it works’ involves, moving beyond a retailer and becoming a brand developer. In that process they have become much more than an end-product purchaser to the craftsmen.   
“We are giving them the design or whatever, hoping to buy the finished product back. That in itself takes away some risk, they are not making stuff they can’t sell. So the first thing is, everything they make is bought back.”   

This is possible owing to the fact that these weavers and craftspeople have taken part in making a Fashionmarket brand. Everything from the design to the finish and the size of the consignment has been directed by fashionmarket.lk, based on their market assessments and projections.   

“The second thing is,” continues Linda, “even when our designers go to the villages and work, one of the things I tell them is that the whole livelihood of these people depends on it. So, you can’t be playing around with a sample here and a sample there. It needs to work properly, you need to think that particular design is going to generate an x number of sales to sustain the artisans.   

“One other reason it is working is, we are thinking of the craftsman as a person and we have a very good rapport with them. Our designers go to the villages and sit with the weavers, hence they know who we are and we know who they are. They are not just suppliers. You are sitting with them, you are looking at their income this month, what are they going to make next month, you are sort of mapping out their whole livelihoods for them, to make sure they can sustain themselves with this work. It’s not like you work one month and sit idle the next month. There is commitment.”   

As Linda explains, moving away from the basic and uncertain method of paying craftsmen if their consignment sells, as it sells was a natural consequence of their business model. If Fashionmarket, depending on their knowledge of market preferences, decide on a product-line to be developed and then go to the village and direct artisans to make that product-line, naturally they need to take ownership of that product-line and assume the responsibility of selling it.   

Workshops   

Alias recalls the last time that kind of involvement in the making of crafts was seen at Laksala, “I remember, in 2001, when we had a Chairman called Srimanie Wickremesinghe, we used to go out to, Habarana, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee, to our centres there and stay for two or three nights. A designer- Seneka de Silva went with us and we held workshops for the crafts people. We’d suggest new colours and patterns for their, masks, pottery animals and for the rata peduru and tell them to make about four pieces of the new designs and bring to the next session. We had a lady who wove reed mats. We’d see if the new suggestions would work and if they didn’t we’d make something else. This continued even after the Government changed in 2001 and the comrades Lal Kantha and Sunil Handunnetti took over- they were for this process. But when Soma Kumari Thennakoon came under S. B Nawinna, it was abruptly discontinued with.”   

Also according to Alias, Laksala is no longer interested in establishing if a supplier is a traditional craftsman or not. “Earlier, a Laksala officer would visit the village of the potential supplier to see if he was an active, traditional craftsman. Now for all we know, the suppliers could be getting their wares made in China.”   

Alias who counts 37 years at Laksala also remembers a time when quality control procedures were an integral part of Laksala’s purchasing process. From 1960s right up to 1990s officers with expertise in different handicrafts and materials would oversee the purchasing process and make sure Laksala only bought merchandise conforming to the standards. Officers with expertise in brass would for instance check the brassware to check if the component metals were present in the accepted percentages, if the brass utensils and lamps had the proper standing balance, whether the Buddha statues had the correct volume and facial proportions. When these officers with expertise retired, a new batch was not hired and the quality control just fell into abeyance.   

According to Alias, Anil Koswatte tried to shake Laksala into revenue making mode by introducing extensive reforms. He nurtured Laksala’s own brand by accommodating multiple non-handicraft merchandise under the umbrella of the Laksala brand. However, Sene Kalehewatte, recalls a telling difference in the way the two types of merchandise, handicraft and non-handicraft were treated.   

“Only merchandise supplied by craftsmen producers can be sold in Laksala anyway, according to the agenda. Anil Koswatte would buy large consignments of goods such as porcelain from largescale manufactures to be sold on 10 to 20 % commission. Three to four, at times even 10 to 15 hundred thousand rupees worth of non-handicraft goods would be bought in one go, on immediate payment. Meanwhile they would buy Rs 25 000 worth of goods from craftsmen and pay them in five installments. Many craftsmen left Laksala.”   

These developments highlight the power gap between the handicraft and non-handicraft merchandise. If, into your prime retail space located in the heart of tourist commercial activity - space that is supposed to be reserved exclusively for handicrafts – you invite ‘higher’ merchandise, to bolster up the poor little handicrafts, naturally the ‘higher’ merchandise would get VIP treatment.   

However, the ‘poor little handicrafts’ can be developed into highly coveted, mega buck earning, collectors’ merchandise. For that you need vision, quality control systems, design expertise and entrepreneurial talent, missing ingredients from Laksala at the moment.   


We are no longer the Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board. We are now in the State gifts and souvenirs category. We aren’t limited to handicrafts, but we haven’t excluded them either. Still more than 80% of Laksala merchandise are handicrafts

-Kelum Jayawardhana


Our model works because it’s kind of an end to end solution. It’s like a fully integrated eco system. When you tell craftsmen to make something, and only reimburse the money to them when it’s sold, then you are not taking ownership of the product. But in our case, because they are investing in the product, we make sure that it works so the craftsman doesn’t have any risk

- Linda Speldewinde


Only merchandise supplied by craftsmen producers can be sold in Laksala anyway, according to the agenda. Anil Koswatte would buy large consignments of goods such as porcelain from largescale manufactures to be sold on 10 to 20 % commission.

-Sene Kalehewatte


Missing at Laksala as of 7 December 2017

  • Rata Peduru (Reed mats woven with coloured reed in traditional patterns)   
  • Reed packing for teas (only one variety of tea has a reed packing now. The rest use tin and cardboard)   
  • Reed bags (A Buddhist monk came to Thummulla on 7 December, to purchase a reed bag. He was shown various baskets, but he specifically asked for a reed bag (pan malla). He did not find it. Coloured reed bags used to be hot-sellers.)   
  • Dumbara Peduru made of hemp and woven with a handloom with traditional patterns   
  • Sesath (traditional shades) of 3, 4, 5, 7 rings varieties   
  • Provincial flags made of batik (Used to be a bestseller)   
  • Handloom curtains   
  • Brass lamps of heights 4, 3, 2 feet   
  • ‘Gedi’ pahan (Used to be available in several sizes)   
  • Wearing Masks   
  • Kolam masks   
  • ‘Dala gara’ mask that is supposed to guard against ‘katawaha (evil mouth)’   
  • Mask chains (A set of masks consisting of gara, gurula, naga, gini jala and mayura masks all together)   
  • Silver plated tea-sets (Used to be available in a selection of sizes and designs. One or two tea sets might still be lurking in the odd outlet. The wide selection is missing)   
  • Cane table lamps and lamp shades   
  • Cane sweetmeat boxes (kevili petti)   
  • Bamboo handicrafts such as boats, table ornaments and vases   
  • n ‘Iratu’ crafts   
  • n Brass framed mirrors with liyawela carvings. (Earlier, a whole panel of such mirrors in different sizes and designs was available in the Fort Laksala. Small brass framed mirrors might still be found here and there. But no panel, no selection)   
  • Silver bangles- greatly reduced selection   
  • Traditional Agasti mala   
  • Batik Wall hangings depicting processions, sceneries, etc (Only a few available now, of questionable quality)   
  • Batik Lungies and sarees (Only a few available, in some outlets only. On 6 December, a team from NSB had visited the Katubedda outlet looking for seven or eight made up sarees. They didn’t find any)   
  • Table linen sets with all the pieces; runner, place mats, small mats and napkins in one colour. (A lady from Bangalore came on 7 December to Thummulla and asked for a set in one colour, she didn’t get it.)   
  • Batik cushion covers   
  • Elephant bridges (Consisting of many elephants progressively getting smaller arranged in a bridge like formation, with a wave beneath, each elephant made of different timbers, jak, mahogany nedun and coloured.)   
  • Wall decorations made of wood. (Used to be available in a prolific range of designs including the ‘Dalada’ scene depicting Hemamala and Danta. Now only a few designs are available)   
  • Flutes   
  • Eastern band sets (Thurya wadana kattala)   
  • Crafts made using coconut husk i.e. rabbits, monkeys, elephants. (A few husk crafts still available, but of low quality. Specimens should be well cut and polished with the monkeys’ beards well combed with olinda seeds for eyes)   
  • Pillows stuffed with 
  • Sri Lankan cotton   
  • Small drums for children,   
  • Udekki and Raban   
  • Flowers made of cloth (Manel flowers made of coloured cloth, used to be a bestseller at Laksala)   
  • Handmade, model Vintage cars that used to be bestsellers   
  • Coir brushes, brooms, ekel brooms   
  • Clay pottery, especially animal figures   
  • Buddha statues in plaster of Paris 3,4, 2 feet   
  • Small, handmade wooden bats for junior years   
  • Traditional Kitchen instruments such as kulla and kiri gotta 
  • Had crafted book ends leather hats   

 

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  • Sonali Thursday, 11 January 2018 03:12 PM

    The beginning of the end of Laksala? Or is there a conspiracy to close it down so that those who have vested interest in this building can take it over for private ventures.


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