The renaissance queen of batik - Darshi Keerthisena
Darshi Keerthisena is widely celebrated for her efforts to bring Sri Lanka’s batik industry into contemporary limelight.
As the creative director of Buddhi Batiks, a passion project first started by her parents, she has transformed this modest cottage-industry into a byword for innovative, high-end couture that has established a global niche; her designs even having been showcased at the Buckingham Palace. According to Darshi, the keystone of her success was in creating unorthodox pieces that reflect adventurous and vibrant personalities like her own, with the essential flavour of Sri Lankan art and history intricately infused into the batik material. In this candid interview, Darshi sheds valuable insight into the rewards and challenges of perpetuating a traditional art form in a way that is both relevant and sustainable.
Buddhi Batiks is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic brands. How did it come about?
Buddhi Batiks was started by my parents in the early 1970s; they were newlyweds at the time. It was quite a cute story, my mother wanted to get a batik shirt done for my father’s birthday but found herself let down. Then she and my father, who is an artist among many things, started their own batik workshop in our very backyard! I was born into this legacy in the village of Koswadiya and the workshop was my playground. Always intrigued by the manufacture of fabrics; I grew up wanting to gain more insight into the deeper nuances of the industry. I studied technical design in Singapore and obtained a Degree in fashion and textile design in England, after which I received significant exposure to the industry during my 5-year tenure at Brandix. All this equipped me to revitalize the dwindling family business with a fresh perspective in 2006.
What has changed since you took over the business 15 years ago?
At the initial stages of the business, before my parents moved on to other ventures, they used to constantly innovate and even came up with two-piece batik swimsuits in the 70s which they exported to Seychelles! They were pretty cool even then, but I made the brand more high-end; modernizing the designs to suit today’s context. I think my technical knowledge helped in that front, as I wanted to experiment with colours and dyes and use lesser known fabrics in Sri Lanka. To sum it up, I wanted to create the kind of pieces that I knew I would enjoy wearing.
You have been credited with the renaissance of Batik in Sri Lanka. How does this make you feel?
Every time someone makes such a statement, I feel extremely grateful to my parents and to those who have supported me along the way. It makes me feel like turning a cartwheel in excitement every time I hear something like that! I also get really hyped when I see somebody who is wearing a piece from Buddhi Batiks. I end up conversing with them and often receive the best hugs as a result!
How does the manufacturing process of Batik relate to sustainable and ethical business practices?
Many years ago, one of my colleagues engaged me in a conversation about sustainability and how we should reuse water; use natural light, sustainable dyes and environmentally friendly chemicals in our manufacturing processes. This got me researching into the best types of dyes and rooting out some of the dyes I was using at the time that did not measure up to the safety standards. We eventually found a reliable source for bio-degradable dyes which I have shared with many other batik artisans. Frankly, I’ll be happy to share it with anyone who asks. I believe that since awareness has struck, the overall industry is moving towards a sustainable mentality.
Are you involved in any sort of activity that supports local artisans and small-scale enterprises?
We collaborate with various craft artisans and groups of talented women because empowering the sisterhood is important. We are also passionate about supporting groups of underprivileged people; from teaching visually-disabled people in stitching to training people in the craft of Batik and absorbing them into our workshop in Koswadiya. Our prime focus is on teaching younger women because I want to see them empowered in all sorts of fields in tandem with their passions, be it photography or technical skills so that they can break the cycle of drudgery at the hands of drunken men who sit idle. This has been the case for women in my village, who have worked in our factory from the time I was little. It’s all about giving them a choice on how to live their lives.
Has the tradition of manufacturing batik changed? If so, do the new processes take away the essence of this traditional art form, and can it still be called Batik?
The process is largely the same though there is so much more scope for designing. I’ve learned a lot while working with Linea Aqua (Pvt) Ltd about digitally printed batiks, where you take the Batik art and do a photographic print of it. This enables us to utilize our designs in a versatile manner on different fabrics such as polyester nylon. While this cannot be called batik, it is a batik-inspired trend, and it helps to upscale production in a sustainable manner. Having said that; our exclusive range of traditional, handmade batiks is a labour of love which adds value for our clients and is still very relevant today.
How do you maintain the essence of traditionalism in your pieces?
I’ve always believed that design inspiration should start close to home where you have the true edge. We have an amazing history of over 2500 years in Sri Lanka, so we don’t really have to look anywhere else. The reason why I joined this industry, other than it being the world in which I grew up in, is my love of Sri Lankan-based craft. For instance, we are collaborating with a cane couture artisan – a young girl who makes the cane bags for which we supply the fabric. However, I do think it’s important to be progressive and learn new techniques and technologies which the West has to offer. It is this combination that creates something out of the ordinary.
What were some of the difficulties that you had to face when your first took over Buddhi Batiks? Did any of them affect you on a personal level due to the male-female gender imbalance?
Batik is very much a cottage-industry and by the time I took over, they were going downhill because of the civil war and the drop in tourism. Finding labour was one of my key issues which I overcame by creating more high-end and unique pieces that would be like wearing a work of art. Winning the Young Entrepreneur Award in 2008 also really helped because people got insight into our brand. I was never made to feel inferior or less respected regarding the work I did. I think it all rests on how focused and determined you are and this correlates with how seriously people take you. While I am not the most serious person by nature, I am very serious about my work and I mean business.
What’s next for Buddhi Batiks?
Right now, we’re concentrating on the women empowerment project that we have initiated in my village. That is my passion project, and the next big thing on my agenda is to expand within the bridal arena. We are keen on organic growth and taking steady steps in achieving our mission to bring Buddhi Batiks to the rest of the world.