A woman with long links to the handloom industry | Sunday Observer

A woman with long links to the handloom industry

Among the recipients of awards recognised for their contributions to design and creativity, at the recently concluded week long celebration of Product Design, Fashion and Lifestyle Design by the Department of Integrated Design of the University of Moratuwa, one of the awardees stood out from the rest- that is Chandramani Thenuwara.

A woman with long links to the handloom industry and an unwavering determination to give the skills and expertise of the women behind the loom their due place in industry, the Business Observer walked Chandramani down memory lane to recount those special moments in her life.


Q. As a person who has had close links to the Department of Integrated Design of the University of Moratuwa, trace for us the Department’s involvement in fashion and its contribution each year since its inception?

A. The main contribution has been that in addition to keeping in touch with the trends and requirements of today’s market place, the guidance ensures close contact with our craft-people via combined design-assignments, the creative results of which are showcased at each Annual Exhibition and Fashion-show as a special segment, where participating craft-people are felicitated each year.

This is a guiding principle established by the Founder of this course, Emeritus Prof. Nimal de Silva who requested that Design inspiration should in the first place be through Heritage and Nature.

Q. In what sense did this year’s fashion show which concluded the event, provide a platform to display new designs by the students?

A. Graduation Fashion Show is standard practice in this discipline. This year the new expressions from the Culture code segment was presented as a separate first segment, thus highlighting its essential, imperative value in continuing to maintain our unique identity in the face of the international rubber stamp that is sweeping the design world.

Q. The ‘Creative Thinker’ workshops partnered with Atlas Axillia Co. (Pvt) Ltd. were an interesting aspect of the exhibition as participants were children, from selected Western Province schools and the focus was on nurturing young design minds on how to think out of the box. In what sense did these workshops guide young participants on creative thinking and help them to generate novel ideas?

A. I did not attend this as I felt that I would be disturbed by it as I am a firm believer in Education through Art via free Expression, especially since I owe my own joyful Design and Teaching career to my having been sensitively nurtured within this concept by my teachers - the late Cora Abrahams and Richard Gabriel. Children and young people think in their own unique way when there is NO ADULT INTRUSION. University professional education is another story.

Q. The ‘Design Research Conference 2018’, one of the main highlights of the week, held at the Sports Ministry Auditorium, featured an international peer-reviewed conference focused on design research. It also examined the importance of design knowledge, whilst understanding the connections between design, theory and pedagogy. How useful was this conference to you and the other participants?

A. I would rather not comment. I believe that intellectualising the design-process destroys spontaneity and more importantly, creativity.

Q. This year’s ‘Sri Lanka Design Week 2018’, concluded with an extravagant fashion show curated by Ajay vir Singh on August 12, at the Arcade Independence Square. Tell us more about this fashion show.

A. Introducing each individual Collection by making the audience aware of the concept explored by the Designer was a much valued factor. The flowing lines of our traditional clothes being incorporated into Western styles was good to see as well as the sophisticated, subtle colour palettes of several Collections. However, the Presentation I valued most was the Fusion Collection - Jaffna and the Dumbara Valley.

The Level-two Culture Code project was exceptional in its concept. The students who worked in several different provinces in small teams attempted to capture the total ambience of their respective province in a woven fabric, hand-woven in the same province. Thus establishing close contact with the province on one hand, and on the other hand with the weaving centre in the province.

Q. Which provinces were represented?

A. They were the Northern, Southern and Central Provinces.

Q. At the conclusion of the fashion show, you were given a life time felicitation award as an individual who has made a substantial contribution to the growth of design in our country. What were your feelings when you won this award?

A. In my working life I consistently followed my Father’s advice, given so long ago, “always chose a job that you love to do”. This I did, and my rich, joyful journey through Education and Design is a result of that, even though, when, as a Chartered Textile Technologist I chose to work in the Government Hand-weaving sector, because they were doing creative work, and the Power-loom sector was not doing so in my area of specialty-Fabric Structure (woven fabric)

This decision cost me a huge financial loss! But I have absolutely no regrets.

My immediate response on being informed about this Award by Architect S. Ratnamalala was, “I did what I did because I enjoyed doing so. Therefore why should I be felicitated?” His response was “Maybe.

But we appreciate your contribution to textile design and education and have decided to express this”. She hastens to add, “Of course to be appreciated is a warm, great feeling. To me it is the crowning-bonus.”

Q. Briefly retrace your journey spanning over three decades as a pioneer in handlooms.

A. This is three-quarters of my life-story!. However I wish to clarify certain things. I am not a pioneer in the handloom industry. It was very much in existence, when, on my return home after an eventful ten years in England, I had the great good fortune to walk into this amazing world of craft skills that I hardly knew existed. I am being felicitated today because, my very privileged Art and Textile Technology education enabled me to guide the creativity of my students and to use the skill and expertise of the crafts-women of the Hand-weaving industry of Sri Lanka.

Q. Tell us how the private sector can get more involved in promoting the handloom industry in Sri Lanka . Will modern designs, technology, bring new life and help this age old craft to move up with the times?

A. Sadly, to survive commercially it is essential to “move up with the times”...whether Design-wise this is a question of “moving up” is the million dollar question! If in the process we lose the identity of our splendid heritage is it worth it? Could we cater to one for the sake of our bread and butter and retain the other with innovation within the other? This is what The Department of Integrated Design University of Moratuwa is valiantly trying to achieve.

Q. As a Chartered Textile Technologist you chose to work in the government handloom sector for much less pay than if you had worked in the power loom sector. Do you have any regrets?

A. As I said before no regrets, none whatsoever, not even the fact that this meant facing Sri Lanka’s public transport system all my working life, always dressed in a saree - to have survived that is also a great achievement.

At the Department of Small Industries Design Centre in Kadawatha, the working conditions were ideal for a Designer.

I had total freedom to design whatever I wished, all the materials I needed, I could get eventually - all it needed was persistence and patience. I was never told some colour of dye was too expensive.

There was no pressure from marketing officials - I monitored the customer response to my designs for my own satisfaction.

All this, plus, amazingly skilful weavers paid on a daily wage basis were happy to experiment with me (I designed on the loom) however long it took to produce the perfect sample.

There was appreciation from both the Directors of my time who provided this working environment - the late Bandula S. de Silva and P.G. Ratnayake.

I dedicated my last solo exhibition to the Handweavers of Sri Lanka. The personal collection of my designs I donated to our National Museum, Colombo so that students can study them. Hopefully, this will become a nucleus for a Textile Study Centre at the Museum.