It’s a sticky morning in Borella. Long-time assistant, Lena, arrives and says “Good morning”. Nelun Harasgama has exquisite batik silks draped over her dining table in the centre of a sprawling living area of her tropical, open-air home. Nelun is heard quietly giving Lena instructions for this saree in the making. Nelun has been busy cutting out the sections, for what will be a unique and striking design.
The batik fabric is one-of-a-kind and designed by Nelun herself. Warm colours, earthy tones of mustard, orange and rusty red. It has taken six weeks to be made. It now sits atop this table with Nelun’s beloved beagle snoring away below. Once finished, these sarees don’t sit around on a hanger collecting dust. No – they are highly sought after by lawyers, writers, artists, financial controllers of big companies. These women will keep coming back wanting more walking works of art to proudly show-off and stand out from the rest. Nelun herself is shy of the attention she receives and downplays their acclaim: “These types of fabrics are not fashionable, I’m not sure anyone wants them.”
Want them, they do. Her first year of saree making, every single one she hand crafted was bought. In 2015, Nelun’s sarees sold under the Ohe Island brand, were a show-stopper at the annual Colombo Fashion Week and pictured below at Fashion Riot in April 2016.
Nelun wasn’t always a master saree designer and crafter. In fact, sewing is not her thing. But four years ago she decided to try her had at a few drapes just for fun. Nelun Harasgama has a long career as an artist with international exhibitions spanning the globe: USA, United Kingdom, Maylasia and India. Her landscapes are contemplative and abstract. Portraits stark and haunting – often devoid of any colour. Lone, forlorn figures stand in the corner of a blank room, waiting for something. A person looks down, or holds their face in their hand. And yet again, Nelun is only wanting her paintings to be purchased as a pretty object to hang on the wall – not as a profound statement or anything influential. Despite this fact, Nelun’s work is renowned for the message her images convey about loneliness, isolation and grieving for the past.
From as long as she can recall, Nelun has been expressing herself through art. Her parents paid for Nelun to attend art classes from the tender age of five in the mid- 1960s. She fondly recalls her art teachers not giving the children any direction – “Just paint!” they said. And paint she did. Now fast forward some years later and Nelun was looking for a more joyous outlet. Painting is a labour intensive process, and the techniques and colours that are Nelun’s hallmark style (white and unembellished) were somewhat restrictive. She hasn’t put away her brushes just yet, but sarees are now a firm fixture in Nelun’s (daily) artistic repertoire and are an avenue to use colours – joyous colours! “I still paint, but I started doing sarees because all my paintings are white and unhappy…but now I thought: I am old, and I cannot be doing these unhappy things,” says Nelun. Yet again, Nelun is quite detached from the notoriety of her designing work and expresses surprise when I clarify that I am here to discuss her saree work, wryly exclaiming: “Oh! Perhaps I shall be famous now?!”
“I really don’t know why I just decided to do that first collection. It was to do with painters and paintings – Rembrandt. And Rembrandt colours. And then my friend took me to buy a Singer sewing machine and I remember thinking 22,000 rupees for a sewing machine I will use for a week?”
In 2012, Nelun made contact with a batik artist in Kandy. Taking along some hand drawn sketches, she visited the workshop and made her hands messy with dyes. Nelun was excited to make a colour swatch
– oh the colours! Rarely a blue in sight – “I really don’t like blue”. Eagerly she mixed about thirty bold and bright colours with Rembrandt on her mind. “The design process is very simple: whatever comes into my head. The first sarees were Rembrandt, and my friend came and modelled them for me.”
Nelun showed her finished products to a businesswoman friend of hers, Valli. So excited by what she saw, her friend asked for more – many, many more. Nelun recalls: “I just did two or three sarees and showed it to Valli who has a shop. She said she’d like to have forty. So it took me about a year, and I did forty and she SOLD them!” Nelun says this in astonishment – this theme of self-effacing modesty surfacing yet again.
These days, Nelun’s liaising with a Kandy batik workshop is more streamlined: “I draw the design on A3, send (scan and email) it to the batik factory and they send it back.” As you can imagine, when working with seven metres of saree fabric, the batik process is far from fast. After around six weeks, Nelun receives her finished product back.
In true form, Nelun made an unrestricted artistic choice by choosing the fabric she loved, but not because it was the easiest choice. Handloomed cottons and raw silk are unusual choices for batik as they’re quite heavy and porous. Raw silk in particular, tends to over-absorb the wax and dyes. It is a difficult material to work with and requires repeated boiling and washing (in Nelun’s kitchen) to remove the waxes. “It’s a bit difficult to do batik on raw silk because you have to boil it four times, so nobody does it. And it’s a heavier silk and it’s more porous.”
Once Nelun has received her batik material from Kandy, the saree construction – cutting, piecing, sewing – takes her about a week to complete. Nelun wakes each morning, ascends the stairs down to her table and gets on with the task of finishing the next section. A quaint little sewing cottage is located within walking distance near the front of her home once the desired design has been achieved.
Despite the slower pace, the future is looking bright for the Ohe Island label. Nelun is no stranger to social media, and actively promotes latest collections and upcoming events on the Ohe Island page. She is in charge of this herself. Only employing one assistant over the past four years has been a deliberate tactic. Nelun wishes to employ few and therefore pay well. She refers to this as “slow fashion; like slow food.” Nelun is in no rush to produce a beautifully crafted piece of fashion and prefers that it is done well. Her fifteen year old daughter is also no stranger to pitching in, and has assisted with photographing and patchwork sections. Having her O-levels coming up means that she has other things to focus on, and so does Nelun. She has been on the hunt for a small studio cum shop to direct sell her latest drapes. A friend has offered a “tiny little space” in her Colombo home and true to form, Nelun is keen. This is yet to be finalised, but my hot tip is to keep a close eye on the latest news from Ohe Island for updates about this store. At present, Nelun’s sarees can be purchased through Barefoot Gallery, Zudhora and Rithini.