Craft Heaven-An Artistic Feast
By Raisa Wickrematunge - Pictures by Gazala Anver
The Janakala Kendra Complex in Battaramulla is a treasure trove to those who love handicrafts. Located close to Parliament, right next to a Laksala outlet is a well-laid out complex of thatch huts. Here, local craftsmen from across the country ply their wares. It is a colourful and varied sight.
Tissa Dharmakeerthi specialises in jewellery. He has won several National Craft Competition awards for his designs. Among those he showed me; a hairpin which was also a miniature sesath (ceremonial fan) complete with coloured stones, a ring to commemorate the war heroes (depicting all four branches of the forces) and a burnished antique-looking bracelet which cleverly used a bird to act as a lock. One of his unique pieces usually costs around Rs. 3000, though the prices can vary depending on the level of detail. For instance, another award winning creation showed the earth set with different coloured stones showing the slow process of global warming, from deep blue to red. As we watch, one of his helpers moulds a clay base and pours in molten silver to create a base, which will later become the replica of a shrine, Dharmakeerthi says. It’s clear Dharmakeerthi puts a lot of thought into his designs. Yet though he does get orders, making a steady living can be difficult, he says.
Not far away, Nimal Premasiri is also hard at work, delicately setting coloured stones into silver chains and bracelets. He comes from Medawachchiya but lives in Homagama now, and has a ready smile as he goes about his work. Premasiri learned his craft from his family; the skill was passed down from generation to generation.
The focus isn’t just on jewellery, though. You’ll also find an army veteran nearby, who creates beautiful hand-loom rugs. These are pricier, at around Rs. 8000 a rug, with the price even going up to Rs. 16,000 depending on the level of difficulty. Then there are the potters, some of whom took classes at the Janakala Kendra complex itself. The potters we spoke to had been practising the art since they were 14 years old. One of them skilfully moulded a wet piece of clay into a vase as we watched. While the simpler designs cost around Rs. 300, there are also more elaborate creations, like a clay buffet dish with intricate hand-painted detailing, which cost much more.
Neal Kotelawala creates tiny sculptures using sea-shells and other assorted knick-knacks. One featuring painted wooden flowers and seashells cost just Rs. 125. There’s even a series of Kandyan dancers, with their features painstakingly drawn on, which earned Neal a national award. He also creates abstract sculpture using oddly-shaped pieces of wood, with minimal carving and shaping. One, on closer inspection, turns out to be a stick figure climbing a coconut tree. Neal plans to have an exhibition of his figures, which he says he has been making since he was a young boy.
Nirmal from Nuwara Eliya is a wood sculptor and carver. Nirmal now lives in Negombo, and commutes daily to work at the centre. He can take anything from two days for a simple figure to two weeks or even a month for larger, more detailed creations. Pointing at the wares on display, Nirmal explained that foreigners preferred an antique look, while Sri Lankans liked clean, sharper finish. His skill, too has been handed down from generation to generation.
There are also stalls selling batik, (there are batik-making classes on the premises) cloth children’s toys, elaborate carved devil masks, jewellery made from coconut husks, crochet and lacework, and brass and silverware. The prices vary, and it’s clear that some stalls get more orders than others. But what really makes this place special is that it gives a space to local craftsmen and to folk art. So the next time you’re in Battaramulla, make sure to drop in. It’s definitely worth a visit, even if only to watch the craftsmen at work.