‘I never draw a single line before, I take the wax and go’: Sonali Dharmawardena

Sonali Dharmawardena is one of Colombo’s best-loved batik designers. Her unique approach to batik means that you can spot her work from a mile away. For Sonali, it’s important that each piece be unique and that all her work have a signature style; something she encouraged all designers to develop because, in that way, designers become themselves and not a copy of someone else. 

Discussing her own signature style at the recently concluded Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) Retail Week 2021, Sonali said that though her work is very diverse, some of her trademarks are her strokes and her use of colour. “Fashion carries,” Sonali said, adding: “It’s important for people to recognise it as your own and not a replica of something else.” 

What makes Sonali’s batik so unique is that she approaches batik as an artist, first properly learning about the craft when her father-in-law, the famous batik artist Vipula Dharmawardena passed away and she was helping to organise a memorial exhibition in his name, and going on to approach the traditional craft with fabric as her canvas. Sonali explained that her process is very mood driven, and she makes each piece unique by viewing fabric as her canvas, and translating herself into the fabric.
Brunch sat down with Sonali for a little more insight into what makes this artist come to life. 


“When you work with brush and paint, you know what the final thing will look like, but here, till you immerse it into the colour, you don’t really know what the hell you’re doing” Sonali Dharmawardena

When did you realise batik was something you wanted to do?


For the exhibition honouring my father-in-law, I did what I thought I knew to do, which was little panels of some batik pieces and five sarees. It was actually the recommendation of my husband to do the five sarees. I invited my friends to the exhibition, friends who had been very much a part of my corporate working life, like Ramani Fernando, Dian Gomes, and Michael Wijesuriya, and all three of them absolutely loved what I did and told me this is what I should be doing. That was what first motivated me, but I was very scared because I was never really an entrepreneur; I’d always worked with somebody. 

As a child, I always loved art and was artistic – I still enjoy working with any medium. 

With batik, in the beginning, I did it very apprehensively, because I didn’t understand if I did what I was supposed to. When I see something as a source of expression, I see that this is what it’s supposed to be, but in terms of this, because it was fashion and so many other things, I wondered whether my take was right. 

I attended Cora Abraham’s art classes when I was young, and we were given a whole heap of materials and told to use them. The more I started using batik like that, as an art form, without the hindrance of a framework, the more I realised I love doing this. 


How much of an impact would you say Vipula Dharmawardena’s work has had on your own?  


To be very honest, I met him very briefly, and I look up to him like I would look up to any great person who had limited opportunity and took it to something else. That said, as much as I love and respect his style, we are completely different as artists, so my work is completely different from his. My work is very free spirited, whereas my father-in-law’s work was extensive and intricate with clear layers of colour. In my work, I can layer colour, and no one will know I’m layering colour because it’s interspersed. I think it’s fair to say there’s no artistic influence at all. It would be like comparing two very different artists, like George Keyt and Lucky Senanayake.


Tell us more about how you approach batik as an art form. How do you do it? 


There are two parts to my work – one is bespoke, the made-to-order creations. Very often, the Sri Lankan client is someone who comes in with something in their head, saying “I want this” or “ I saw this” or “I want something like this”. They’ll give you colour or design direction, which is something I, personally, always feel inhibited by. 

The other part of my work is ramp or retail collections, where I give my expression and function best because I have nothing holding me back. Some of my best bespoke work where I have people coming to me and asking for similar pieces is because a client has simply told me something like “I have a wedding, can you come up with something?” 

When approaching things, if, for example, it is a collection for fashion week, or a show, my biggest issue will be trying to work out the model, the human figure, and see how my expression works on that body, to form a silhouette. In my head, the silhouette is the only thing I actually put down, because I need to know how my expression on the fabric will work to that silhouette. After I work out the silhouette and how the fabric will be cut, I let the pattern in my head become the framework of my canvas and then move on to fabric. My fabric is my canvas. I never draw a single line before, I take the wax and go. The only time I draw in advance is if it’s something geometric and requires precision like perfect squares.


What was the thing you found most challenging about the batik craft and industry going into it?


One of the things that were challenging was the technical process and understanding the positive and negative aspect of batik making; it’s like with photographs where you have a positive and negative image and they both look different. Understanding that was a challenge, because when you work with brush and paint, you know what the final thing will look like, but here, till you immerse it into the colour, you don’t really know what the hell you’re doing. 

Now I know, and I’ve taken to it like a duck to water, but at the time, it was a little hard, but I picked it up when I treated it like a medium. 


How do you balance working with artisans and craftspeople as an artist? How do you make them do what you want them to do and approach the craft differently? 


It was very difficult and still is. They’re artisans and craftspeople, not artists. In batik, you need to layer two to three layers of wax for the fabric to resist colour properly. Where they become my helpmates in this process is when I do the first layer and then pass it on to them to touch up – they can also follow up and do things like geometrics that are representative. 

But still, to date, not one of my people is able to follow and do what I do, and I think that is because an artist has to be born an artist; you have to want to do it because of passion, not because it’s a job. That’s my struggle and they don’t really understand that. Even our education system looks at a person and grades them at distinction level if they can look at something and draw the very same thing. But that’s not what being an artist is – that’s a skill, and it’s a great skill to be able to have, maybe even greater than what I can do, because I can’t be a “me too”. 

But to be an artist, to have a free heart and mind to let it flow, that takes something different, and it’s not something that can be trained. It’s something where you have to nurture and foster who you are, and I see that as a huge lack in our education and how our children grow and their psychology. 


As a mood-driven creative, how do you meet timelines?


With timelines, I have the discipline of a convent education, as well as my formal education in chartered marketing and working in a corporate environment, where a deadline is a deadline and no one is giving you endless time to come up with a big idea. Though I struggled with this in the corporate world at times, it works very positively in the creative field.

That said, there are still moments where I feel the pressure of a deadline, but you learn to let your mind focus on certain things while mulling over other things. Even when I’m meeting one client, my thought process is still on the other things I’m working on as well. The mind is an unbelievable thing, and as creative people, that’s why we get exhausted, because our brains are working so much.

With deadlines, I ensure that I have an internal target deadline which is way before the real deadline and discipline myself to see it through. 


How do you keep yourself inspired?


I know there are other pressures that sometimes take away, but I don’t know if as an artist you can say you’re not inspired. I constantly feel inspired by a lot of things, and when I travel (I’ve travelled a lot), everywhere I go, I get inspired by some little thing, whether it’s cobblestones on walkways or an old, broken tap that has been repaired – that’s what being a person who is sensitive to your environment is like. 

When you’re sad and anxious, like during the pandemic, for example, you can still keep inspired. I couldn’t do batik, but I did pictures and when I look at them today, they inspire me. I had actually stopped working as an artist in the traditional sense (on paper and that kind of art), but when I look at these pictures, I feel like I want to do more of that. 


PHOTOS Saman Abesiriwardana and Naveed Rozais