Postcolonial and Global Heritage Narratives from Communal and Individual Perspectives in Dumbara Weaving – Sri Lanka

Chamithri Greru, Britta Kalkreuter

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This chapter examines colonial, post-colonial, global and local perspectives in constructing living heritage by considering specific examples from a textile weaving tradition in Sri Lanka. The work is based on observations and conversations with artisans during extended field work in 2014 in Sri Lanka, and is informed by archive research as well as interviews with government and other institutional officials who classify this craft as traditional and seek its preservation, promotion and development as a distinctly national and local cultural identity.
Dumbara textiles weaving in Talagune, Ududumbara in the Kandyan region represents a unique site since the Kandyan region as the country’s highland is widely regarded as authentic and indigenous, when the identities of lowland and costal areas were considered ‘hybridised’ due to repeated colonial invasions of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British (Jones 2008). In this paper, we will pay attention mainly to the British interventions in the early 20th century alongside revival of traditions promoted by proponents of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, such as the Anglo-Ceylonese geologist, art historian and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy. Looking at Dumbara weaving in the Kandyan region as a craft practice that has been relatively free from outside influences and might thus be considered indigenous, provides us with a case study where we can trace how recent heritage actors utilized the writings of Coomaraswamy and the perceived image generated by the British. We find that state parties, design and craft councils, museums, national and international designers, businesses and the press are constructing a particular image of Dumbara textiles weaving which continues to have romantic connotations of its truly vernacular status.
We will present examples of artisans having re-appropriated, responded to and redefined these multiply constructed narratives of Dumbara weaving heritage to strategically break free from the oppression of a caste based system, to improve their economic condition and to progress within their own communities. We will identify issues relating to such multiply constructed heritage practices as they become contested through identity, labour, professionalization and occupational aspects of craft making. In doing so we pay attention to the contemporary craft practices which artisans engage with on a day to day basis, and discuss the way in which they negotiate between the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’ (Smith 2006), or official heritage implemented by the state parties and institutions, as opposed to artisans’ contemporary expressions about living traditions. We will argue that Dumbara weavers do not construct heritage only by focusing on the material, process and object culture of their tradition, or on what is presented to them as official heritage, but that instead they consider past, present and future from various perspectives and at various levels, and that they make opportunistic and strategic choices to define what Dumbara weaving means to them. We present examples of such subjectively constructed living heritage of Dumbara weaving, and attempt to answer how a heritage narrative can inflect the production and marketing of a local craft in a post-colonial and global context, and lead to construction of own individual heritage within contemporary and innovative maker practices.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCraft and Heritage
Subtitle of host publicationIntersections in Critical Studies and Practice
EditorsSusan Surette , Elaine Cheasley Paterson
Place of PublicationLondon
ISBN (Electronic)9781350067592, 9781350067608
ISBN (Print)9781350067585
Publication statusPublished - 21 Oct 2021


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