Coir products, reed and cane craft, lacquer work, cloth-weaving and many other traditional Sri Lankan crafts are disappearing from the country, but they have the potential to earn immensely from foreign and local markets as well.
The open economy compelled people to buy imported goods and those were valued over local products, and this led to the neglect of local crafts. There was once a golden period in Sri Lankan history, when traditional craftsmanship flourished. The former Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) chairperson Daya Jayaratne managed to exhibit our Beeralu lace at the ninth annual Asia House fair held in March in England. She says she was surprised by the interest exhibited by European women for our hand-made beeralu lace. The beeralu on display was from award winning lace maker M.B. Priyani of Galle.
“The government is not helping artisans or sponsoring them. The government must make a market for them and solve their professional problems,” Daya Jayaratne said.
Ms Jayaratne emphasized the importance to uplift traditional craftsmanship: “They don’t have a place to display their articles and the places like Laksala have displayed a few beeralu creations at very exorbitant prizes.”
“The government’s efforts to help the artisans is poor. There are many ministries in the government, but the heritage of our country has been neglected and therefore the crafts are dying. Other Asian countries like Pakistan, India and Malaysia have had many stalls and we were the only stall representing Sri Lanka, without any support or sponsorship from the government. In other Asian countries, artisans have the governments’ support for their traditional craftsmanship. Many European people were interested in Sri Lankan crafts and most of them told us they have been to Sri Lanka. But they never came across those artefacts anywhere before. We have a good market in Europe, as many Sri Lankans live there.” she described the international platform.
“If the government can train village women to make quality products with their traditional expertise, even the local market will be good enough. Village women create a lot of coir-based products like brooms, but people prefer to buy plastic ones instead, because those products are not of the expected quality. That is one of the causes for importing more plastics into the country. If the government can train these women to produce quality goods, it will benefit them, traditional crafts and the country also,” M/s Jayaratne saiad.
Beeralu weaving was popularized in Sri Lanka after Portuguese invasion in the 16th century. Later the Dutch also contributed in developing the Industry. Even though the Portuguese and Dutch periods were the golden age of Beerlu industry in Sri Lanka, it is considered that the Malays who arrived here from Indonesian islands and the Malay region, were the first to introduce the craft to the island. Ancient kings and their queens appreciated Beeralu lace profusely. The book titled “Beeralu lace in Ancient Ceylon” says the history of Sri Lankan Beeralu industry dates over 600 years. In the past, weaving beeralu was a way of showing skill, a hobby and an extra earning for village womenfolk.
The southern coastal area in Sri Lanka was famous for its beautifully crafted beeralu lace. Many housewives were engaging in the traditional craft inherited from their ancestors. When the Tsunami struck the island in 2004, many artisans lost their families, homes and their hard earned properties, including beeralu making equipment. Some of them were rehabilitated in Tsunami villages. Winning the battle of life was never easy for them, and to earn a living, they turned to their familiar livelihood again. Most of the village women are weaving beeralu. They are supplied materials, trained but not given a proper and profitable market for their toil. Therefore, they have to sell products themselves or sell to shop owners at a lower price. There are a number of problems faced by the remaining beeralu weavers in the country.
We travelled to Magalla, a village ten minutes away off the Galle highway exit. Beautean, a famous beeralu weaver and winner of many beeralu competitions showed us her skill in weaving beeralu lace. Her mother, brother and sister-in-law and even the children of the family are helping with lace making. They weave beautiful designs, jackets, table mats and many other items with beeralu lace. Weaving lace is not an easy task. It requires trained expertise, concentration and patience. They price their creations at higher prices, as they earn a living out of it.
Being an experienced instructor in a beeralu lace making class organized by the National Craft Council, Beautean said; “those of the young generation don’t attend our classes. If more youngsters participate, we will be able to pass our knowledge on to the future.”
Many Beeralu weavers we met were housewives in their late 50’s & 60’s and it seemed that weaving beeralu brought an extra income to them and it was a daily routine. These traditional crafts lack the enthusiastic labour necessary for its existence as the younger generation keeps rejecting their heritage; artisans complain often. Their children would consider this traditional employment an embarrassment, due to the unacceptability of modern society. Only the urban upper class is making money with these surviving traditional crafts, due to their marketing and thinking skills as well as the high demand from the urban market, especially from the fashion industry.
The beeralu lace industry is facing a disappointing future with lagging demand and will likely become an ancient practice that can be seen only in museums if these beeralu weavers are not supported by
Beeralu lace made by Beautean
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