Her artisanry gives bling to an austere hand-woven ensemble that is making a statement in style and sustainable fashion. When everyone needs a place to keep their things, Vanessa’s Creations provide a unique space that is well-designed and handy and is an essential element in every woman’s wardrobe.
Words Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane. Photography Menaka Aravinda.
Vanessa Selvaratnam is harnessing the well-known universal truth of a woman’s love for handbags. She has resurrected the mundane hand-spun rush and reed bags for women to carry as a statement accessory every time they step out. What makes these bags unique today is their beautiful place in history. Not so long-ago rush and reed bags were used in people’s daily commute. They were fixtures that were evolved out of necessity. The box-shaped bags were laden with oil and joss sticks and other religious articles on the way to the temple. The tote-shaped bag was the commonest. In various sizes, they were the everyday weight-bearing staple of the natives. These bags were spared of ostentatious accouterments, just a bare necessity of daily living because they were utilitarian in nature. They were the bag for all seasons and occasions, for long journeys out of the village and trips to the town’s market. It was a bag carried by women and men in the hand or perched on the head. By the 1990s, there seemed to be a pause in their use. Fewer were seen except in areas that made and sold them and at handicrafts stores. The emerging modern landscape of the 1990s gave us alternatives, synthetic replacements that didn’t take long to run their course. Being stylish was created at the expense of our environment, where fashion culture was woven around pollution.
Enter the creative dabbler – Vanessa Selvaratnam used the pandemic and the lockdowns as the push factor to fiddle with a few rush and reed bags. So, in October 2020, with her head heavy with ideas, she decided to decorate them. It was a fun project, a way of releasing pent-up energy during a very sedentary period under lockdown. Vanessa wove her magic around the motifs she attached to the bags, the veteran painter and decorator that she is. She managed to pull off a balance between successfully retaining the value of a traditional home-spun craft while embellishing them to connect with women’s current wardrobes. It’s not surprising that her spin to a classic ensemble was immediately embraced by her children Nayantara, Sheaam, and Natashiya and friends. Vanessa still remembers her first customer Mayomi De Bruin with oodles of admiration for the bling, followed by famous chef Koluu, actress Angela Seneviratne, and socialite Priti Fernando. These individuals were not just amping their finishing touch with Vanessa’s stylish new creations. They were making a case for the traditional Sri Lankan bag by carrying them.
Vanessa Selvaratnam is no stranger to Colombo’s entertainment landscape. For over two decades, she has rendered her voice as a compere, and singer, a talent that her father Claude Selvaratnam, who had his own band, had bequeathed on Vanessa. Her engagement in the creative industry extended to painting and making handicrafts. She is famous for her vibrant collection of pottery art that she exhibited and sold widely in Sri Lanka in the 1990s before her creative prowess was kept in brief abeyance as she invested time in parenting.
Today, Vanessa’s Creations is a small home-based business that gives a fillip to an age-old cottage industry in Sri Lanka. Her decorated rush and reed ware bags are an ode to generations of weavers in the country who use sustainable practices that range from traditional to contemporary processes that use standard and rudimentary preparation methods in home-based workstations. The bags are essentially straightforward. The twist to the simple ensemble comes from the beautiful and intricate cord around the handles in silver and gold and the embellishments that make them strikingly prominent. Each one is a visual creation of Vanessa’s. No two bags are the same, as she mixes and matches colors according to the dictates of her creative mind. Cleverly combining a native product with present style quotients, she uses ethnic themes and images tastefully emphasized with rhinestones, beads, and sequins. Her clever choice of motifs to showcase Sri Lanka’s identity, culture, and history through snapshots of the temple procession, the caparisoned elephant, the dancers, and drummers enrich their quality. The demon mask is intricately carved with dazzling rhinestones despite its unusual features. Just as effortlessly the beautiful celestial nymphs of the Lion Rock in Sigiriya float on the clouds, they adorn her bag’s face with that ethereal gaze. Many are the beautiful floral motifs sumptuously embroidered with stones, giving them the quintessential yet novel feminine look. Vanessa is gradually introducing several home-décor items such as the decorated winnower and a native oil strainer called the ‘Pehe Malla’ made out of cane.
Each bag is personally selected by Vanessa, who travels to Weweldeniya in the Gampaha District in the Western Province. The bags are made from Pang rushes harvested from the marshes by hand, which are cleaned, dried, and dyed, and from Pandanus leaves, which are boiled, and dried. Despite the challenges, weavers use indigenous materials like juices of leaves, fruits, and flowers to dye the stalks in different colors that are alternately woven into the sand-colored stems. Her bags have been given as gifts abroad, generating significant interest among her foreign acquaintances who encourage her to explore the potential in the export market. As Vanessa continues to relish the gains of her small business, she is exploring avenues of expansion with emphasis on quality and treatment of the dried raw material.
Each one is a visual creation of Vanessa’s. No two bags are the same, as she mixes and matches colors according to the dictates of her creative mind.
Vanessa loves what she is doing as she invests loads of passion into the project. Similarly, she wants her clients to love what they carry, be it to the office, a party or formal meeting, travel, or the market. She wants her decorated bags to speak for themselves as a new accessory. The simple utilitarian bag has transcended its ubiquitous role to become a positive style statement. It has become synonymous with the modern style compass that borrows from the past to transform it into a chic accessory that boasts of native and ethnic vibes.
Vanessa has just explored that space and is doing an excellent recreation of the past with ample bejeweling. As her bags blare the bling, they call for a mindful reworking of one’s wardrobe so that when you carry one of Vanessa’s Creations, what was unnoticed before will get noticed now.
Facebook: Vanessa Selvaratnam
Mobile: (+94) 77 474 4984
Sinhala and Tamil New Year
The calling of the Asian Koel (Koha) is a sign that signifies the arrival of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. The dawn of a New Year is a time to revel in celebrations that draw the Sinhala and Tamil communities to rejoice in the festive spirit.
New Year, called ‘Aluth Avurudda’ in Sinhala or ‘Puthandu’ in Tamil, evokes unity, prosperity, and good fortune. The festival celebrates the island’s traditions, customs, and religious practices. It is the time for every islander to enthusiastically look forward to indulging in the week-long festivity with their families.
The New Year symbolizes the beginning of the summer season, with lush greenery and nature’s lovely offerings. Plenty of attractive and aromatic flowers overflow in abundance. It is the time to spot seasonal fruits such as Kaju Puhulan, Rambutan, Jackfruit, Mangoes, and flowers like Ehela (Golden-Rain Tree), Mai (Poinciana blooms), and Erabadu bloom (Indian Coral Plant).
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year symbolize the sun’s movement from Pisces (Meena rashiya) to Aries (Mesha rashiya), marking the end of the harvest season. The New Year brings an abundance of positivity and flourishing vibes that spread in the hearts of the islanders.
The festival is intertwined with several customs and traditions unique to each community. Buddhists follow the ‘Nekath Seettuwa’, a schedule of the auspicious timings indicating the dawn of the New Year, lighting of the hearth, cooking and serving of the first meal, anointing oil, and leaving for work.
During Nonagathaya or Punya Kalaya, the neutral period (before the old and new year), activities such as cooking, studying, and engaging in business are avoided. People spend their time in spiritual practice. Children and elders look forward to specific timings for Ganu Denu, giving and receiving gifts and cash. Hisa thel gama (anointing oil) and other customs are held according to auspicious timings. Each ritual has a meaning and is carried out with utmost care. The tradition of offering betel leaves to parents and elders reflects the act of paying gratitude.
Each community has a significant color that is specific for each year. Shops are filled with attires of unique designs catering to everyone’s style. Everyone looks forward to don in style and welcoming a flourishing new year. Be it the vibrant shades of sarongs and complementing shirts and contemporary attires or the traditional osariya (Kandyan style) as preferred by the Buddhists. Most Hindu men wear veshti with subtle or vivid colored shirts while young girls dress up in striking half sarees or pavadai sattai (skirt and blouse) and dazzling sarees. The ambiance is filled with the festive vibe that pervades in the air.
Sinhala and Tamil New Year brings an abundance of positivity and flourishing vibes that spread in the hearts of the islanders.
Hindus clean the house, sprinkle turmeric water, adorn the floors with intricate kolam patterns, and the doorway with mango leaves at the breaking of dawn. Deities in shrine rooms, decorated with flowers and garlands, placing of the kumbam with coconut and mango leaves, and the fragrance from incense sticks – all create a divine ambiance.
The ritual of placing Maruthu Neer (herbal water boiled with saffron and selected leaves and flowers) on the head before having a bath has its significance. Donned in striking new attire, elders and children joyfully await to begin the rituals. Families visit temples to seek blessings and participate in poojas performed by the priests. At home, elders make the first transaction (Kai-vishesham) at the auspicious time by giving cash to young members in the households.
At the auspicious hour, Sinhalese and Tamils light traditional oil lamps. Arrangements are made for the lighting of the hearth and boiling of milk in pots. A much anticipated moment is when the milk brims to the top and spills over, symbolizing a year flowing with good luck and prosperity.
Creamy Kiribath accompanied with lunu miris, delicious ambul thiyal, and other sweet delicacies are part of the spread of the festive table.
Hindus, upon boiling milk, prepare sweet Pongal and indulge in the spread of sweetmeats. Sharing and exchanging sweetmeats with neighbors, relatives and friends convey the message of bonding and recalling the strength of the nation’s customs. There is much hype when it comes to the preparation of Avurudu sweets. Households make a tasteful spread of sweet delicacies from the classical Konde Kevum to crunchy kokis, prepared in the shapes of flowers, butterflies, and stars. The fluffy, fried Adhirasa, crispy Aasmi with drips of pink caramelized syrup creating pretty patterns, slices of sweet Dodol, diamond-shaped Aluwa, Aggala, and Narang kevum are some of the customary ones. Hindus prepare two types of laddu – Boondi or Rava laddu. Murukku are spiral, flat, deep-fried savory crunchies. The sweeter version is the Seeni Murukku, which is dipped in sugar coating. Paasi payuru urundai or Narang Kavum is another favorite, and the flat, crunchy Paruthuthithurai vadai from Point Pedro or fluffy Ulundu vadai are popular too.
The celebration of the New Year is heralded by crackers, playing the Raban, and organizing Avurudu Uthsavaya, which includes joyous competitions and avurudu games that children and adults partake in. Games such as Olinda Keliya (a game involving a chart and bright red Olinda seeds), Pancha Keliya (a board game played with seashells and a coconut shell), Onchilla padima (swinging), Bambara Sellama (a game of spinning tops for children), Greese gaha nageema (climbing the greasy pole), Kotta-pora (pillow fight), Kamba Adeema (Tug of war), bunis kema (eating buns), Aliya asa thabeema (where participants must place the eye on a drawn elephant), Kana mutti bideema (hitting the clay pot), Gal Keteema (Balancing pebbles) and Gama haraha divima (cycle races and marathon).
The Avurudu Ulela draws communities of all age groups together. It is a pageant for choosing the young, handsome Avurudu Kumaraya (Prince) and beautiful Avurudu Kumariya (Princess).
The joyous festival is celebrated in a multi-ethnic atmosphere to welcome a prosperous and peaceful new year while reminiscing the festival’s age-old traditions and importance.
Easter or Resurrection Sunday recalls the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after being crucified in Calvary. Easter concludes the ‘Passion of Christ, which begins with 40 days of fasting – Lent and is concluded by the Holy Week. Holy Thursday and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday is a part of the Holy Week, which ends on Easter Sunday. The Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday is the highlight of the Easter festival.
Churches throughout the island make arrangements to hold mass services during the evening on Holy Saturday and on Sunday morning.
Devotees engage in the recital of prayers with families. The priest blesses the fire lit outside. Then the Easter candle is lit with the sacred fire. Devotees would then light their own Easter candles and carry them inside the church before the beginning of the service. During the service, water would also be blessed by the priest.
Easter is celebrated as a joyous occasion. On Easter Sunday, Christians rejoice and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Families and friends gather together in fellowship to mark a day of immense spiritual significance.
Easter Egg hunts, chocolate Easter bunnies, and chocolate Easter Eggs add fun while helping children understand the meaning of the day. The tradition of dyeing and coloring Easter eggs is ancient, and its origin is obscure. The practice of decorating and making Easter chocolate eggs are part of the festival.
Families rejoice in the festive spirit with their loved ones with the preparation of delightful spreads. Easter brunches and lunch are also hosted in several hotels across the island.
Easter is celebrated as a joyous occasion. On Easter Sunday, Christians rejoice and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.