PILIMATHALAWA, Sri Lanka – Every day, a 41-year-old brass craft seller from a village in the Sri Lankan inland opened his handicraft shop at about 7:00 am, and – after his offerings to Buddha – distributed the little work there was among his four employees.
The lack of orders and a rise in raw material prices during the last five years had severely affected Senaka Jayalath’s trade in Pilimathalawa, which he has carried out for more than two decades.
The lack of proper wages that ensued had left tens of thousands of artisans on the verge of losing their livelihoods.
But Jayalath’s quiet routine has been altered since late last month after a change of government unsuspectingly began to boost his waning industry – a tide turn he hopes will allow the metalworking sector to regain its glory.
The unexpected decision of new Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaska proved pivotal to this revival after he ordered that politicians’ images in state institutions be replaced by emblems of the nation shortly after taking charge – the most popular of which are handmade from brass.
The emblem of a lion with a sword surrounded by lotus petals has become the new face of Rajapaksa’s government, who won the Nov. 16 election having promised to improve security and the economy in a country still shocked by the Easter Sunday Islamist attacks which killed 269 in April.
Pilimathalawa is located about two-and-a-half hours from Colombo and is famous for its brassware craftsmanship, which lately depended almost exclusively on orders from Buddhist temples and the military.
Jayalath started as a goldsmith there more than 20 years ago and now owns his own shop. The industry that feeds him is very volatile, he told EFE: some months, he made 200,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $1,100); others, he barely cashed in 30,000 rupees.
These days – following the demand surge – Jayalath and his employees begin the day at 6:00 am at his shop, where he sells decorative brass items. His workshop is located in the same residential building and he now hopes it will provide a stable income for a couple of years.
He has already received several orders, he said, adding that his workers are each making five emblems a day.
“We are stocking our products. In January, we will get big orders,” he said.
Jayalath is eying businesses from the military that would also display the emblems in their stations and offices. Several military officials have already visited Jayalath’s shop and sought quotations.
Each emblem, usually 45 centimeters (about 18 inches) long and 30 centimeters wide, fetches about 10,000 rupees depending on the quality of raw materials used and the finishing on the final product.
Brass craftsman Rasika Kelum Dharmadasa and his brother Udara were finishing 200 emblems to deliver an order.
Dharmadasa, who has been in the trade since 1994 when he was still in school, said the industry is returning to its former glory – similar to when he started.
“Now we earn about 50 percent more of what we earned just a month ago. All the craftsmen in my village are very happy,” he told EFE, adding the new president’s move has brought new life into his village.
Even younger craftsmen are anticipating a bright future.
Anusha Chamara Liyanage, in his late 20s, is continuing the legacy of his father, who made brass ornaments for about 30 years before passing six years ago.
Liyanage is confident they can make a good profit from the business despite the high prices of raw materials imported from India and China.
“The brass crafts industry was forgotten by the people. Now with the demand for state emblems, we are getting the recognition,” Liyanage said, adding he had already completed an order of 200 emblems in the past 10 days.
For now, Pilimathalawa is rejoicing the country’s newfound desire for brass emblems. But people in the trade generally don’t want to pass the craft down to the next generation because of its volatility.
Jayalath wants his two children, aged 16 and 13, to “find better jobs than this one.”
“This industry does not bring in a stable income,” he said.