Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ikat - Odisha’s unmatched art of weaving

By Udita Chaturvedi
Photographs: Courtesy Udita Chaturvedi
Earlier patterns used to be hand-drawn and then copied on looms
Earlier patterns used to be hand-drawn and then copied on looms

Odisha is a state that is full of culture, tradition, history, heritage, dialects and handloom products. In fact, it’s one of the two Indian states that weaves beautiful ikat prints on silk and cotton sarees (the other state being Andhra Pradesh).
It is mesmerising to see the fine thread work in Nuapatna (in Cuttack district), the centuries-old favourite cross print in Barpali (in Bargarh district), the breathtaking bomkai in Ganjam district or the floral favourites of Sambalpur. Home to 1,92,339 weavers and 43,652 handlooms, different parts of Odisha weave ikat in different styles.
Barpali Sarees
Barpali Sarees
weaving barpali's cross print
Weaving Barpali's cross print

Nuapatna is a cluster of weavers who, when compared to those of Barpali, produce sarees and stoles that are very intricate and mandate meticulous care. They are also more experimental with patterns on Bangalore silk, Malda silk or Tasar sarees; whereas, Barpali weavers have stuck to half-a-dozen designs (mostly checks and crosses) that have been passed down the generations. And today, they’re known for those prints.
ikat and the art of weaving in odisha
Weaving Barpali's check prints                                                                                   A double ikat tie-and-dye frame

Single ikat (dyeing the weft) and double ikat (dyeing both weft and warp) is what differentiates a Nuapatna saree from a Barpali one. Some of their sarees though, especially those made in Nuapatna, even take three to seven years to be made and are priced anywhere between Rs. 3 lakh to 30 lakh.
National Award-Winner Sarat Patra shows a wedding saree that took seven years to be made  and represents the many rituals at a wedding
National Award-Winner Sarat Patra shows a wedding saree that took seven years to be made
and represents the many rituals at a wedding

A National Award-winning weaver family, headed by Sarat, in Nuaptana has several such sarees that were made 500 years ago. These sarees have been passed down generations and are a matter of great pride for them. At his weaving centre, one can witness an interesting transition in the process of designing that Sarat’s family, like many other weaver households, has been through. Earlier, the patterns and designs were hand-painted, complete with ikat-edge effect, and then copied on to the sarees. Today, they take print outs of designs from Google Images. In the near future, they hope to directly make original designs on their computers, a teaching initiative by  Delhi-based NGO, Digital Empowerment Foundation.
weaver spinning thread
Weaver spinning thread

Nuapatna is also one of the few clusters of Odisha that still heavily relies on natural dye. Unlike most other weaver cluster across India, Odisha weavers using tie-and-dye/bandhini technique for ikat don’t necessarily require a graph paper for designs either. Most of them, due to their several years of experience, just recall a design and start working on it through mental calculations, bringing their ideas from mind to machine (read handloom).
applying starch to a handloom saree
Children help apply starch

Fortunately for Odisha, it is perhaps the only Indian state, where local handloom products are sold in the local market to the locals. This is probably why the Odisha handloom industry fairs much better than that in West Bengal or Andhra Pradesh, where sarees are manufactured for the export (national or international) market, not making it directly accessible to the weavers and opening a window for exploitative middlemen. In this struggle for the right market, weavers too have started producing to meet the contemporary needs of the customer. For example, until some years ago, stoles were wider than they are today. Weavers say young girls want stoles that are not very long or wide, so that they can be easily wrapped around the neck to accessorise western clothes.  

Well, short or long, here is a very traditional and timeless craft that can mould itself into any contemporary avatar - keeping the quaint handloom alive.

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