Ena De Silva by David Robson

We are celebrating the life of Ena De Silva, a pioneer in reviving old craftsmanship and batik design in Sri Lankan. His life is symbolic to the vivid colours festooned in her works, which are characteristic of her vibrant and preserving personality. When we met David Robson on another encounter, he shared with us the article that he contributed to the Journal of Modern Craft (associated with  the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) which appeared in its Volume 1, issue 3 of November  2008. After going through the article we thought it was apt to publish it on ARTRA Magazine to publish at this point of time to remember her immense influence to the local art scene for which David kindly agreed.

Ena De Silva was one of a group of designers who were closely associated with the architect Geoffrey Bawa during the 1960s and who would later exert a profound influence on the lifestyle and self-image of the people of Sri Lanka. The group initially included the weaver and colourist Barbara Sansoni who established a weaving company called ‘Barefoot’, the artist Laki Senanayke and the architect Ismeth Raheem and later took in the architect C. Anjalendran. 

Ena De Silva was born in 1922 into a high ranking Kandyan family. Her father was Richard Aluwihare, whose ancestors had acted as guardians of the famous Aluwihare temple, and her mother was Lucille Moonnemalle. Richard Aluwihare was a civil servant under the British who become the first ‘native’ Inspectors General of Police and was later given a knighthood. In 1941, at the age of nineteen, Ena shocked polite society by marrying out of the caste, having eloped with Osmund de Silva, a police officer who later rose to the Inspector General.

Ena was renowned as a Sinhalese beauty and in 1948 was selected to play the role of the ‘Spirit of Lanka’ in Deva Suriya Sena’s huge ‘Pageant of Ceylon’ which was staged to mark Ceylon’s independence. A year later she was one of the organisers of a ‘Festival of Arts’, an event held to mark the first anniversary of independence which sparked off her interested in traditional craft. Encouraged by her husband, who had already assembled a large collection of traditional printed clothes and flags from Sri Lanka and South India, she started to collect examples of traditional craftwork. Throughout the 19602 she travelled extensively around the Kandyan region visiting villages that were associated with specific crafts such as weaving, wood carving an lacquer work, encouraging craftsmen to develop new designs and commissioning works to sell to friends. 

In 1955 her husdand Osmund was appointed Inspector General in succession to her father, but was later criticised for not dealing forcefully enough with the ethic riots of 1958 and was pushed into retirement by Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake shortly before the latter was assassinated in 1959. In the same year the couple bought a modest piece of land in Alfred Place and commissioned the architect Geoffrey Bawa to build a house for them.  Ena and Geoffrey became close friends and she played an important single project of Bawa’s early career. She had very particular demands – an open plan living space around a larger courtyard, an office for her husband, a studio for her son, a small Buddhist shrine room – and it was she who found the four huge grinding stones which occupy the four corner of the courtyard and had them carried to the suite by an elephant. It was in her new house that Ena began seriously to experiment with the ancient art of batik making, assisted by her young son Anil Jayasuriya and the artist Laki Senanayke and here that she established the firm of ‘Ena  De Silva  Fabrics Ltd’ or E- Fab as it later came to be known. 

In 1961 Ena held her first ‘pavement sale’ under the front porch of the house in Alfred Place. She had sold a piece of land which she has inherited and used the proceeds to buy and commission products from the Kandy craftsmen which she sold alongside her own creations. Though she failed to cover her costs. The sale was a great success. Hitherto people could only buy imported clothes, while here for the first time they could buy traditional Dumbara weaving an startling new designs printed in modern colours. 

The batik business grew quickly during the 1960s and Ena was able to open a shop in Colpetty selling cloth clothing and soft furnishing. Her main designer during these early commissions had been to make giant concrete relief panels on a new classroom block for St.Thomas’s Prep School that was built by Geoffrey Bawa (1961) and later the firm worked collaboratively with Bawa to produce the batik celling panels for the Bentota Beach Hotel (1969) and the pennants of for the Ceylon Pavilions at the Osaka Expo (1970). 

It soon became clear that the studio and court yard in Alfred Place were not equipped to make larger pieces or meet big orders and Ena set up a wadapola or workshop at Kotte on the eastern edge of Colombo along with five other subsidiary workshops. At its peak the company employed over one hundred people and was run by a board of directors.  

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12th April, 2021 Applied Art