Odisha’s handwoven wonder makes a comeback
It is as if poetry is translating itself into different shades and hues. And on to a different medium. The astapadis (hymns) from Sanskrit poet Jaydev’s epic Geet Govind, Radha-Krishna Leela or even poems of Upendra Bhanja have now found their expressions on the hand woven saris of Odisha.
Odisha handloom saris, considered a symbol of grace and dignity, is moulding itself to re-emerge as the choice of the contemporary classes as well as the masses. Over the past 30 years, it has moved on from just being a one thread weave normal loom to many.
From the iconic Indira Gandhi in the 1980s to the classy Sonia Gandhi of 2012 and former president Pratibha Patil have donned this piece of beauty. Actress Jaya Bachchan had one specifically designed by master craftsman Chaturbhuj Meher to gift her daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai on her wedding day. Hosts of socialites, bureaucrats and activists play ambassadors of this Odishan handloom across the globe. Such is the demand now.
“The demand for Odishan handwoven saris has always been there but in the last two to three decades, it has become a craze among women to own one sari at least,” says Meher, the master craftsman who has been conferred the Padma Shri for his contribution to revival and development of the handloom textile.
Having seen its evolution over the decades, the septuagenarian understands the nuances of Odisha Handloom like the back of his hand. He was born into the weaving community of Sonepur and started making saris at the age of 12.
“Earlier, it was like an ordinary weave in cotton — plain and simple. Then, there were minimalist work done over the plain weave whereas now you can see a lot of changes in design, pattern, colours. Patterns like human figures, animals, mountains, trees, alphabets saying a rhyme and many others are now being skillfully woven on a normal handloom sari with extra warp and weft,” he says.
The ushering in of change is mostly because craftsmen have been trying to woo clients with the best of innovation and design. Sometimes, the design is manual with the help of just the jala (the part of a loom used to weave a pattern over a normal weave). Sometimes, they use the mechanised jacquard, a technology used while weaving with extra warp and weft over the normal weave to make any complicated work and that too in a relatively easier way than one does in the normal loom, Meher reveals.
Each Odishan sari has a distinct identity of its own and has a story to tell. And mostly these saris owe allegiance to a district or a region of the state, varying in some way from the other. Though all the saris marketed are mostly mistaken to be ‘Sambalpuri’, the many variations available include Sonepuri, Kotpadi, Habaspuri, Nuapatna (Khandua), Dhalapathara (Kusumi), Mayurbhanj, Siminoi (Dhenkanal), Berhampuri (with Southern influence), Bargarh, Bichitrapuri. The list is endless.
A single sari could take days to be woven and completed. Normally all members of the craftsman's family put in at least 6 to 7 hours a day. Similarly the texture could be cotton, silk, tassar and now vanya silk, depending on the choice of the client. Now technology has found its way into the traditional Odishan handloom and helping designers like Jayasmita.
“Earlier we used to toil hard to come up with a novel design but thanks to CAD, designing is a bit easier since it produces the graph in minutes and is less time consuming,” adds Jayasmita.
“These days, even the tribal motifs on the hand woven saris are much sought after,” says Jayasmita, who is an empanelled designer of Government of India and working in tandem with weavers at the ground level since the past decade. Use of zari in the Odishan saris has begun which is giving the textile a different charm.
The marketing is the biggest challenge for the weavers. “Once marketing of the products is assured, it would solve the problems of weavers of many areas who are struggling for survival and many are leaving the profession in search of greener pastures,” rues Meher, who, on his own, has done a lot for the weavers of Sonepur. He started a Vayan Vihar in the district leaving a lucrative government job in 80s to involving hundreds of weavers providing them with the raw material and setting up looms. However, in many other parts of the state, owing to lack of patronage, the weaving community has been reduced to three or four families though their products are unique and their art equally enticing.