The work related to any occupation, when you think of it, is full of metaphors that reference life. Life lessons. Take lace work. Nimble fingers moving the beeralu from side to side, thread over thread, thread under thread, in practiced perfection to produce intricate pattern finally set on a table cloth, handkerchief, wall-hanging or garment; you have to get it right, one miss and you compromise geometry and order, rob theme song of magic.
In the case of women in Mirissa, it was not carelessness that wrecked life, life work and lifestyle. There was no subtlety in the movement of sea, of seaquake and wave; it was not about error in shuttle among fingers. There was poetry, though and everyone knows it, tremendous and tragic poetry. They had to begin from scratch; a different weaving was necessary, a different coming together, a different patterning, so to speak.
SAPSRI (South Asia Partnership – Sri Lanka), an organization that has a 25 year history of engagement with populations in need of development assistance, teamed up with HSBC, ‘the world’s local bank’ which was looking for a different kind of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) project, and discovered that the tsunami had not taken away the potential for recovery and the ability to create beauty.
In the post-tsunami scenario, it would have been sufficient to provide the lace-makers with the tools that had lost and that alone would have helped them start believing in a different tomorrow. SAPSRI found, however, that beeralu was a commercially unprofitable venture and consequently that this traditional art form was dying a natural death.
And so it became a project. The first step was to organize the lace-makers. Six societies were formed in Mirissa, each consisting of 25-30 traditional lace-makers.
The challenge was to up the quality to match the demands of a more sophisticated market. The challenge was to obtain an export quality product and also to lay the groundwork to link product with market, local and international.
With respect to the former, the lace-makers were persuaded to move from strictly white to the use of coloured yarn. According to Prithiva Perera, Business Development Manager of SAPSRI, there had been some hesitancy at the beginning, but the idea had caught on pretty fast. Keeping in mind the demands of the market, the design-range was also broadened, as elaboration of traditional patterns as well as totally new ones, introduced through graph quality stencils. Another important difference was the effort to produce woven corners as opposed to sewed ones.
The first two innovations were embraced partly because they fetched double the usual price with additional incentives for the use of colour. Weaving corners is yet to be perfected, Prithiva said, but pointed out that a 30% success rate is an encouraging sign.
HSBC, which has pledged a total of 6 million rupees for the project, helped by providing the material, equipment and paying for their training. The 3 batches of lace-makers were given 4-months of training. In addition, a training manual which included designs, was also produced to improve the overall quality of the work.
It is not just the lace, of course. Lace lines, decorates and therefore is essentially an embellishment of some other product. Here the challenge was to create products that looked different, products that combined the best of linen and cotton, instead of the regular raw cotton and sheeting in white.
The next step, naturally, was to identify entrepreneurs who produced complementing items with which lace could be combined. Shoes, garments, batiks and bags of different sizes and shapes and for different purposes were considered as SAPSRI went about creating a network of demand for lace.
SAPSRI helped link the Mirissa lace-workers with 2 sewing societies in Galle, ensuring demand remains at least constant. At this point a representative from Danish Church Aid seeing their work, helped them find a retail market in Denmark, giving the project a much needed boost.
Today the beeralu artists earn almost four times what they earned before the tsunami, thanks to all these measures. D.H. Gnanawathi, 56, who has been making lace since the age of 7, as had her mother and grandmother before her, is full of praise for the project, pointing out that a dying traditional handicraft has now a very real future. Her two daughters, T.H. Disna Nilanjani and R.H. NImali Dilrukshi, have also enthusiastically embraced lace-making as a full time vocation. The project has directly benefited approximately 160 women in Mirissa. A few of them have actually started sewing, enhancing thereby their earning capacities.
All this is not enough, obviously. A regular and growing market needs to be created to ensure long term sustainability of the venture and indeed the sustainability of livelihoods based on beeralu. This is why SAPSRI and HSBC have organized an exhibition of the work of these women.
‘Paramparaven’ is an exhibition and sale promoting the virtues of hand-made lace in Sri Lanka, showcasing an uplifted beeralu trade as well as silver jewellery made in the coastal region hit by the tsunami. The exhibits are all creations by village entrepreneurs mentored and assisted by SAPSRI and HSBC. SAPSRI hopes that this event will make it possible for the beneficiaries to become independent, after which SAPSRI will revert to a more supervisory role in the venture.
There has been shutting in this project, the movement of many forces prompted by a need to revive a dying traditional industry as well as uplifting the lives of a community that has suffered much on account of the tsunami. The work stands on its own merit. It tells of talent, heritage and potential. You will not be doing these women a favour by checking out their work and making one or two or more purchases. There is value for money here. It is as simple as that.