Laleen Jayamanne, in The Island, 28 December 2022, reviewing Ayesha Wickramasinghe’s ‘The Dress of Women in Sri Lanka’
Dr. Ayesha Wickramasinghe, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Textile and Apparel Engineering, at the University of Moratuwa, has recently published her doctoral research on sartorial styles, The Dress of Women in Sri Lanka (2021), in a handsomely designed hardcover book. The historical information, which spans the colonial and the postcolonial periods, with glances at the ancient past, is presented as a cultural survey, in an engaging manner, with a large number of photographs embedded, in the text, as illustrations. It has been published by The National Science Foundation and has recently received a national award as well.
Dr. Ayesha Wickramasinghe, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Textile and Apparel Engineering, at the University of Moratuwa, has recently published her doctoral research on sartorial styles, The Dress of Women in Sri Lanka (2021), in a handsomely designed hardcover book. The historical information, which spans the colonial and the postcolonial periods, with glances at the ancient past, is presented as a cultural survey, in an engaging manner, with a large number of photographs embedded, in the text, as illustrations. It has been published by The National Science Foundation and has recently received a national award as well. Wickramasinghe approaches the study of Lankan history and ideas of dress and ornament, having done highly specialised technical training in Fashion Design and Technology at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London, from which she has a Master’s Degree. Her technical training in modern industrial design and manufacturing of textiles, with an ecological focus, makes this book unusual as a historical overview or survey of styles, across a complex historical period of major political change in the country. She teaches in the Fashion Design and Product Development Degree Course. She has wide research interests which include, ‘Conceptual Design, Craftsmanship in Design, Fashion Practice Led Research and Creative Pattern Manipulation.’ She supervises postgraduate students and has also contributed to the development of the national Handloom sector, working as a consultant to the Dept. of Textile Industry, Ministry of Industry and Commerce. She has received scholarships to both China and Japan. Her PhD is from the University of Visual and Performing Arts (2016), where her thesis was supervised by Professor Sarath Chandrajeeva. In the foreword, he says of her PhD thesis that it belonged to the STEAM educational stream (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics), while her book covers the design and social evolution of dress in modern Sri Lanka.
The historical and theoretical study of clothing (a relatively recent academic discipline within the humanities in the 1990s), recognises three broad functions it has performed in human culture and civilization. It is said that clothing provides protection, modesty, and ornamentation to the human body. While Wickramasinghe uses the words ‘clothing’ and ‘dress’ interchangeably, some scholars make a distinction between the two. In English ‘to dress’ implies an activity, a process and in theatre one can say ‘to dress the set,’ for example, implying getting the stage with sets ready for action. Whereas the word clothing implies a garment, exclusively. She also implies that ‘fashion’ existed in pre-modern times, indicating changing courtly styles. Within a capitalist economy of industrial production, ‘fashion’ usually functions as new styles, sold as commodities. Within this logic of production, there is a rapid change of styles within large consumer markets or niche markets, as distinct from the slower changes in pre-modern feudal eras.
Ananda K Coomaraswamy and Lankan Craft Traditions
I wish to frame my brief, non-specialist observations on Wickramasinghe’s book within a deep historical framework on Lankan arts and crafts practice, by touching on the indispensable, unique and magisterial book on the subject, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, by Ananda K Coomaraswamy (Campden: Gloucestershire, 1908). The unusually long subtitle of the book, printed on the cover, elaborates its ample scope and holistic ambition: “Being a Monograph on Mediaeval Sinhalese Arts and Crafts, Mainly as Surviving in the 18th Century with an Account of the Structure of Society and the Status of the Craftsman.”
Here, it’s worth remembering that it took nearly 60 years for this unique book to be translated into Sinhala. This fact alone is an index of many things but, most pointedly, the weakness in Lankan education policy on the arts and crafts and aesthetic theory more generally, even after political independence, in 1948. It is moving to read Coomaraswamy’s stated aim in writing this book (which is a collaboration with his English wife, Ethel Mary Partridge, who took over 1000 photographs for it and is dedicated to her; ‘To E.M.C. my comrade in this undertaking’).
“This book is not primarily intended as a work of scholarship, but is written first of all for the Sinhalese people, as a memorial of a period which at present they are not willing to understand. The ‘educated’ Sinhalese of to-day, after, on the one hand, a century of foreign government, and of education in which the national culture has been completely ignored, and, on the other hand, an equal period of subservient and obsequious imitation of foreign manners, have little reason to be proud of their present achievement in the Art of Living”. (1908).
Coomaraswamy was writing about the ancient traditions of arts and crafts of Lanka, as they survived among the skilled craftsmen and women and among the peasantry and were part of their everyday life, more or less unchanged, until the total colonisation of the country by the British in 1815, with the fall of Kandy. He implies that he was writing about an era prior to the decisive separation of ‘art’ from ‘craft’ practices, which was the case in mediaeval Europe and India as well. The work in these eras was authorless as is the case with the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe and the religious sculptures and architecture of India. The creation of ‘Art’ as an autonomous activity separated from the Church and the State, gradually evolved in Europe and was established only by the 18th Century with the rise of industrial capitalism and its markets and commodities. Coomaraswamy, though a Geologist by training, was a Ceylonese polymath. He had a deep understanding of European art history from philological and philosophical-aesthetic perspectives, having a command of Greek and Latin and many modern European languages and Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhala. He was also deeply knowledgeable in Indian and Greek philosophy and theology, and able to read the primary texts in the original languages. It is this background that enabled him to make the pioneering study of Indian arts and crafts and philosophical-aesthetics, as part of the Indian Independence movement, working with Rabindranath Tagore and others. Trained as a scientist, he also taught himself the historical skills of empirical gathering of primary sources by travelling widely in rural Ceylon and studying the remaining arts and crafts and documenting many aspects of the life of craftsmen and their practices. Prior to that, he had done the pioneering geological surveying of the island while working for the Survey Department. The book is a labour of love that he and his wife invested in, to understand the immense labour, skill and dedication of mediaeval craftsmen and women, which in turn made them appreciate their simple traditional ways of living. In choosing to study a range of craft objects, without hierarchy, he showed respect for the skills required in the making of humble pots for daily use, as well as the spinning and weaving of cloth, metal work, carving, along with the cutting of gems to make sophisticated jewellery. He also focused on sewing and embroidery and we are told that men also sewed. He presents diagrams of a variety of stitches made with the needle. The focus is very much on the processes of making and then the conceptual formulation of their implications.
Along with the fine-grained, rigorous empirical work, he also developed a theory of Mediaeval art which was influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris, Ruskin and others in the 19th Century. They actively tried to stem the destruction of the deep craft knowledge and traditions of Europe under the destructive power of the industrial revolution which replaced the tools of the craftsmen with industrially powered machines of mass production. Coomaraswamy lovingly hand-printed the limited first edition of the book on Sinhala craft practices over a period of 15 months, having purchased the very press which belonged to William Morris, who printed the famous special edition of Chaucer’s collected works on it. The craft values with which the celebrated Mediaeval English poet’s work was printed is legendary, but the exacting quality and beauty of the book on Lankan crafts, with its historical photographs, is less well known because it was a limited edition, perhaps ignored by the colonial Ceylonese of the time. However, Coomaraswamy has been criticised for his uncritical valorisation of all things Mediaeval and yet even the Indian Modernists like Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Geeta Kapur, have recognised his pioneering contribution to understanding Indian art and aesthetics and his contribution to the Independence struggle by defending and theorising Indian art and craft practice against colonial English ignorance and derision. They held a symposium on his work and published the proceedings in a volume entitled Paroksha (Intuition), which he considered a category of Indian philosophical-aesthetics. His concepts of ‘Margiya’ and ‘Deshiya,’ the ‘Great Tradition’ and the ‘Little Tradition’ are useful ideas providing ways of organising art historical objects within epochs of Indian art with its vast and rich heritages of the classical and the folk.