Sonali Dharmawardena, a name synonymous with batik takes us into her world of vivid and vibrant hues. A quintessential artist, who loved to dabble in the unknown is what paved the way for her to revive an art form and transform it into the cynosure of all eyes…
What was art for you and how did it draw you to batik?
Art was always a passion since my childhood and I would explore various mediums including pottery, jewelry making and more. My husband taught me the first strokes to batik, in order to organize a memorial for his father (known as a guru in the craft) … and I haven’t stopped since then!
How long ago did you enter this field which was relatively new for you?
About 12 years ago
Who was Sonali before batik seeped into your veins?
I was a professional involved in the advertising field and also worked as a consultant to a leading garment manufacturing firm.
Who influenced you to follow this path as a profession?
Micheal Wijesuriya and Dian Gomes. They encouraged me to pursue this venture and offered much assistance for me to take the tentative steps towards a hitherto unexplored terrain.
Due to the support I received, I had my own retail store from inception.
How was your initial foray into creating the brand?
Initially, the local market was a bit reticent, which resulted in the brand gradually gaining access into the overseas market, specifically UK and the Middle East through the rapports I had built over the years along with new clients who loved the unique designs.
I have shown my work at varied platforms around the world, which included being invited to speak at the World Batik Conference in 2009. However, it was not until 2010 or 2011 that I was invited to participate in Colombo Fashion Week, which opened doors on a more public level with the local market.
Why don’t you replicate your designs?
I am first and foremost an artist and love to create from scratch. As a free-spirited artist one values the inner spirit that moves you… this is like a river that flows…. The thought of duplicating my designs seems irksome and I abhor the thought of it. I love the connection I feel to my work and that gift of interacting with my inner being … Yes, there are often times customers come with a requirement which they have perceived in their minds and I try best to translate it into an elegant piece of fashion, but I am told by those who work closely with me, that they feel I work best without such boundaries.
What were some of the initial challenges you were faced with how did you overcome any of it?
The fact that I was not conversant in this area earned me a few skeptics initially, but I have a renegade or a pioneering approach to anything I pursued and batik was no exception as I was extremely adventurous and tried the non-conventional methods and changed the look and feel of the product. It was a revolutionary approach which was what made it my own signature style.
How do you cope with the rising demand?
This is my passion and that makes it more interesting and challenging as I single-handedly design every piece but I have a small team of assistants comprising of women from challenged backgrounds who extend their unstinted support to ensure that different aspects of the design are completed before the finished product is delivered to the clients.
There are many people doing batik today. And unless people are innovative – there is a risk of surplus supply.
What are some of the hurdles which restrict the industry per se in our country?
In Sri Lanka, Batik is not considered a handicraft unlike handloom and that poses an uphill climb for many as we are not exempt from taxes and have no special benefits doled out to us. As well, the base fabric is not manufactured in Sri Lanka, which means that it has to be imported at a retail price and I am particular about obtaining the best quality fabrics for my clients.
Sonali, a gifted albeit fearless artist believes in adding value to all her products and breaking the norms with reference to her designs “as an artist I cannot be restrained and require freedom of expression and, thus, is an ideal setting for me”. “For me, my work is like prayer … it’s a relationship that my spirit connects with the canvas (fabric)”.
Her ‘work’ takes her to various countries and enables her to share her ideas and her story with many, while being inspired by varied cultures and people and this fact is reflected in her work.
In conclusion Sonali’ reveals the reasons which keeps her on a path which is no walk in the proverbial park; “Surmise it to say, one has to have a love for it, if not it becomes a tedious task and I am fortunate that it is a joy for me to be immersed in a creative scope with its endless capacity ….. Finally and most importantly, it gives me great pleasure to see the beaming smiles on a client’s face as they find what they have been searching for in terms of a design which was created with love and ultimately becomes their own.”
By Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne
Photography By: Sidath Wanaguru