November 2010


Laaksha: An Art Of A Bygone Era
November 2010




The different patterns of lac-work

When visitors to Sri Lanka enter a reputable handicrafts shop they are invariably impressed with the wide range of eye-catching indigenous items on display, such as the bizarre but fascinating masks used in devil dances, geometrically patterned Dumbara mats, and intricately designed filigree brassware.

Words: Richard Boyle | Photography: Mahesh Prasantha

There's another special traditional handicraft, not so familiar, that will be found nestling on the shelves. Commonly called lacquerware, though lac-ware is more appropriate, it is exemplified by wooden objects - ashtrays, jewellery boxes, bookends, letter-openers, betel-leaf holders and candle stands amongst them - that are characterised by decoration of "great brilliancy and gaiety of colouring," as Sri Lanka's great savant, Sir Ananda Coomaraswamy, states in his study of the craft in Medieval Sinhalese Art (1908).

This decoration, consisting of both simple lines and complex scroll and floral patterns, is achieved by the employment of an extraordinary material and artistic technique - the material being the resin of lac insects and the technique; the use of the thumbnail of the left hand and the nail of the right hand's smallest finger.

During the period of the Kandyan kingdom from the 15th to 18th Centuries, arts and crafts became extremely organised and received royal patronage, which included the formation of guilds, the standardisation of payments, and even the imposition of penalties for bad work. Lac-workers, or I-vaduvo, literally "arrow-makers," were responsible for the wood-turning and ornamentation necessary for producing bows, arrows, spears, staves, bed-legs, banner poles, powder horns, oboes, and book covers.

The finest lac-work, or laaksha as the craftspeople term it, was created in the village of Pallehapuwida, located in the hills near Matale, 15 miles (24km) north of Kandy. And it's the same today. But that's as it should be, because this village, according to folklore, was where it all began. Villagers recount how, in the 1630s, King Rajasinghe II sent a messenger throughout the kingdom requesting a craftsman to create window panels with lac-work - probably based on the existing Indian version - for the palace.

In a distant village a man named Pusappu hailed the messenger to undertake the job. Indeed the king was so pleased with the work that he gave Pusappu some land, and 30 apprentices, accompanied by an elephant who migrated there. On arrival the elephant lay on its side to relax, so the village was called Hapihida ("where the elephant lay down"), later Hapuwida, and finally Pallehapuwida. And thus, it is said, the first specialist lac-work village evolved.

During November and December, Pusappu and his fellow lac-workers searched the forest for twigs bearing the resinous nests of two species of insects known as the keppitiya and telakiriya lakada. The twigs were dried and then the resin removed, pounded, and heated. The wax was then drawn out between two sticks and doubled up until it became a long ribbon of lac of a golden brown colour. The four pigments used were then mixed into the lac: red was produced with vermilion (mercuric sulphide), yellow with orpiment (arsenic trisulphide), green with orpiment and indigo, and black with the soot of a lamp.

Such preparation happens today, too, but though the brilliancy of these colours lasts for centuries, imported dyes that fade faster are also used to avoid the tedious and complicated process.

However, the technique of using the finger-nails, called niyapoten veda, remains unchanged. The lac-worker sits with a chatty (pot) containing a charcoal fire nearby, for the lac and object to be decorated have to be warmed continually. The tools consist of short sticks with a coloured lump of lac at one end; also a strip of the leaf of the talipot tree. First, the object is coated with the ground colour, after which it is warmed over the fire and the lac pressed and smoothed with the talipot leaf. A lump of lac is warmed and a small piece held between finger and thumb while the rest is pulled away, leaving a connecting thread which is wound round the bent knee of the lac-worker. Pressure is used to attach the thread to the object to be decorated and when the design is complete the lac is severed with the thumbnail and smoothed with the talipot leaf.

Floral patterns include kekulu lala, a flowing jasmine flower design; vel pota, a linked honeysuckle border design; kalasdangaya, a floral design within a geometrical frame; kol vela, an interlacing vine; and bo kola, the leaf of the bo tree. Geometrical patterns include arimbuwa, a row of small circles and dots between parallel lines; pathura, akin to an isosceles triangle, or chevron, used in elongated form; and binduwa, a design of dots in a linear arrangement.

Another village, Angalamaduwa near Tangalla on the south coast, specialises in beralu veda, or "spool-work". The object to be decorated is rotated on a lathe and a hardened stick of lac is applied. The heat produced by the friction softens the lac and causes it to adhere. This method is limited to objects that can be turned on a lathe and does not permit the fine patterns of niyapoten veda, just concentric bands of colour known as adara kondu.

A visit to these villages is an enlightening experience. It's also an act of responsible tourism: your appreciation and probable purchases will provide vital encouragement to the lac-workers and help sustain and even develop this remarkable Sri Lankan craft by convincing the young to acquire the necessary skills.

 

  • image01
    image01

    A village lac-worker working with a lump of lac and a tailpot leaf for niyapoten veda

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A village lac-worker working with a lump of lac and a tailpot leaf for niyapoten veda

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A thin thread of lac being wound around to design a walking stick

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Walking sticks designed with niyapoten veda

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The object rotated on a lathe while hardened lac is applied on its surface

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The different strips of pigments used in lac-work

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The wood sheared to the right shape with the use of machines

    Prev Next
  • image01
  • image01
    image01

    Cut wood for preparation

    Prev Next