By azkia arif
Textiles are cultural artefacts that reflect social histories of the places where they originate. In the Indian subcontinent, owing to its vastness, an account of its wide-ranging textiles presents a particularly speckled map. Textiles in India vary from place to place dramatically, not only in terms of the type of material or cloth but also in design, manifesting in them the diversity in geographical and ethnic cultural patterns. And amongst the different types of fabrics available in India—chiefly wool, jute, hemp, silk and cotton—it is cotton that offers the richest styles of expression. While other fabrics have a distinct quality in texture, cotton being relatively flat has been explored most ingeniously by Indian weavers in terms of colours and designs to create striking results. Craftsmen have devised different design and weaving methods. Ikat is the most intricate and elaborate of all these methods involving resist dye as well as weaving of loose threads post the dyeing. The yarn already bears the impression of the pattern when the loom is set for weaving. If both warp and weft are resist dyed the resultant weave is called ‘double ikat’ which is primarily associated with the patola ikats of Patan, in Gujrat.
And if either the weft or the warp yarn alone is dyed, the weave is termed ‘single ikat’, more widely produced in Odisha. Despite the supposed influences of Gujarat’s patola on Odishan weaving, the two are strikingly different in design. The Gujarati patolas are recognisable through their bold outlines, geometrical grid-like overall design. However, the Odishan ikat follows a curvilinear style and has a feathery look with hazy outlines. This essay provides a general overview of the latter tradition, as primarily practised in the Sambalpur region in Odisha, with a focus on the profound symbolism and cultural moorings which inform the ostensibly decorative styles. To quote Judith Livingstone’s succinct description of ikat’s multiple cultural connotations, “these fabrics have been worn as costume, exchanged as gifts, acquired as items of status and prestige, utilized for ceremonial and ritual purposes. They have also served as a medium of communication between members of social groups, as much as between the physical and spiritual world.” Ikat is an Indonesian word derived from the word ‘mengikat’, meaning to tie. Apart from India, Indonesia, Japan and China are the other countries in which this method of weaving is widely practised. While indigenously this resist dye and tie method is called bandha kala or tie art in Odisha, because of the international resonance of the term ‘ikat’, this essay will primarily use the latter term to also refer to the Sambalpuri textiles.
Ordinary craftsmanship of extraordinary creation—that is bandha kala. One can say this for two reasons. Firstly, ordinary craftsmen of Odisha living ordinary lives and in some cases in abject penury, display extraordinary creativity in producing some of the most exquisite designs in textiles. The famous saying of Odisha’s legendary poet Bhimabhoyi (late 19th century) has remained an inspiration for the weavers, ‘The suffering of humankind—I hope my life becomes hell but alleviates the human condition’. And secondly, through these textiles ordinary life is constantly imbued with an extraordinary vision regarding evolution, the nature of human civilisation, as well as the cultural values of the Odishan society. As the primary wearer, the woman drapes over herself these rich symbolic imageries connecting her everyday world with the divine and the spiritual.
In different scriptural texts or shastras, the Indian woman is associated with qualities of elegance and abundance by the ‘wise men’. For instance, the following old poem cited in Kunja Meher’s Meher, it affixes various attributes to the Odia woman in so many words:
Padmini Padmabasini (who smells like lotus) Mrugarajkati (with a waist as slim as a deer’s) Nindeghanajagani (with round thighs) Gajabaschali Gajagamini (whose walk is soft and sensual like an elephant’s) Kokilakantha jina (whose voice is like a koel bird’s and even better) Chandramukhi lalana (oh moon faced girl) Mrugachahani (with the swift innocent look of a deer) Mrughakhi (whose eyes are also shaped like the deer’s) Jabaadhari (with the red lips of a hibiscus flower)
Thus, as seen in these effusive lines describing a woman’s beauty, comparing ideal feminine qualities to nature’s elements had other social connotations. For instance, the ideal woman had to cultivate certain personality traits as the householder—she was the softspoken, gentle and forgiving woman. Her physical traits were a reflection of an inner resilience and virtuousness. . Such was the fantasised role of women in the shastras, epics, poems and depiction in the architecture of Odishan culture since ancient times. Other major literary inspirations for female representation in Sambalpuri ikat are poet Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam and the verses from ‘Madhumaya’ poems in the book Pranayabalari by renowned Odia poet Gangadhar Meher, who himself belonged to the weaver community. Radhanath Ray’s poems describing the Chilika Lake in Odisha, its water, sky, and birds are also depicted in the sarees.
A semblance of the Odishan ikat can be seen in the garments of the beautiful sculptures in Konark Temple. In the Chandi Mandir in Saintala also one can see the attractively patterned drapes resembling the ikat fabric on figurines of Ganga and Jamuna. According to local oral history, the group of Bhuliya weavers were originally from Madhya Pradesh during the 18th century, and later migrated to the Sambalpuri area of Odisha and brought knowledge of the Gujarat patola ikat tradition to this region as well. At different times, various experts have thus claimed the bandha kala art to be one of the oldest textile crafts of India. Notwithstanding these sources, the exact origin of this art in the eastern region remains unknown. While the origins seem unclear, the decline of this craft from a state of widespread production and export to neighboring areas to gradual poverty of weavers, has been traced to the 18th century. During the last quarter of the 18th century, cotton textiles from Odisha were initially exported by the British. However, this alliance was only momentary and eventually the custom duties levied on cotton bales became so high that indigenous production and trade further declined. The British encouraged import of machine made clothes from Calcutta into Odisha. Gradually the indigenous weaving industry began to cater only to the poor peasantry of Odisha who could not afford the imported clothes. During the last quarter of the 18th century, cotton textiles from Odisha were initially exported by the British. However, this alliance was only momentary and eventually the custom duties levied on cotton bales became so high that indigenous production and trade further declined. The British encouraged import of machine made clothes from Calcutta into Odisha. Gradually the indigenous weaving industry began to cater only to the poor peasantry of Odisha who could not afford the imported clothes.
Although the British wanted to terminate the handweaving industry, the ikat craft still survives. Radhashyam Meher, Kunja Bihari Meher, Chaturbhuja Meher and Krutartha Acharya are some of the leading exponents of Sambalpuri ikat who have helped display this art on the world stage. After Independence, the well-known freedom fighter of Sambalpur, Sri Radhashyam Meher, made an active effort to keep the craft alive.
The mid-1990s can be seen as a point of commercial peak for Sambalpuris. During this time the textiles started being shown at the Surajkund or Dastkari Haat fairs in and around New Delhi. Demand has seen a steep decline since, particularly in the last decade. Locally, more and more consumers are moving towards the factoryproduced printed products which are extremely cheap compared to the expensive handwoven clothes. Even the most basic Sambalpuri cotton saree made of coarse thread costs anything between 500 rupees to 2,000 rupees. The more intricately patterned and finer cotton sarees range between 5,000 to 15,000 rupees. These are possibly the highest priced cotton products in the market at par with silk products. The silk ikat sarees start from 8,000 rupees onwards. The steep costs of these textiles is primarily due to the labour-intensive and time-consuming nature of its production. Typically, the entire weaver’s family has to contribute to the making of each saree which takes between two or three days on a minimum to as long as six months for the highly sophisticated works. Exceptionally patterned sarees made for exhibitions abroad take months and even a year or more to complete. They are woven by rural weavers but the designs remain the copyright of master weavers. Master weavers are not only regarded as experts in the field but also culturally and financially more resourceful. They not only create the intricate designs but also support other weavers by providing raw material and purchasing back the finished products to market them adequately. Sometimes the master weavers also acquaint the local weavers with market trends and provide technical guidance and innovative designs to boost the quality of products.
These days, with the advent of automatic looms the traditional designs are being transferred onto polyester, nylon, etc. But cotton and silk were the original raw materials for ikat and the effect with synthetics is far from the striking precision that is attained through manual supervision. Clearly in the case of ikat, machines have failed compared to hand art. It is the weaver’s discretion and the soft and magical touch of his hand which produces such symmetry in the designs of the borders and end panel that this becomes impossible to be reproduced by mechanical means. Tie and dye art is unique especially because of this manually produced synchronisation and balance. With little thread, one can make any number of intricate designs, including realistic portraits. The term ‘Devanga’ used to refer to weavers is therefore intuitive here, an ancient divine attribution in oral history but also an acknowledgement of the extraordinary artistic spirit of the common weaver whose entire family and life revolves around this art. As famously stated by Berkely, “the hand art cannot be replaced by machine because the spirit is part of the craft.”