"Textiles are like languages. If families abandon them, they will die," says Akshita M Bhanj Deo, whose ancestors once ruled Odisha's Mayurbhanj district. Known for its Phuta Jhala sari, the coarse cotton with check prints was a common wear for the tribals of Mayurbhanj district. "But sadly, very few clusters in Mayurbhanj make the Phuta Jhala sari now," says the 27-year-old communications strategist.
The situation prompted her to initiate The Karkhana Chronicles, a digital installation series, where this lost weave is one of the muses. Bhanj Deo is running the series along with Priyaraje Scindia and Chaitanya Raj from the erstwhile royal families of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan respectively. Through Instagram stories and tours, they are sharing the history, importance and making of some of India’s ancient textile forms.
Fashion designer Lipsa Hembram, who started her label in 2014 contemporising Santhali saris, has mounted an installation at the 200-year-old Belgadia Palace-turned-homestay of Mayurbhanj, as part of The Karkhana Chronicles.
A tribal woman can be seen clad in a Phuta Jhala sari and cape, adorned with dokra jewellery made from a metal casting process that dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, almost 4,500 years ago. "We have replaced the petticoat with kacha - a male thing. But we have used it to highlight both the masculine and feminine sides of these women," explains Bhanj Deo.
Swipe to the Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior to catch a glimpse of the yarn that the Scindias continue to promote - the resplendent Chanderi. Hand-spun from a cotton yarn extracted from a special root called Kolikanda, it's as light as air and often draws comparisons from the famous Muslin of Dhaka in Bangladesh.
At this mansion-cum-museum, the focus is on the Shindeshahi Pagdi. "It’s unique because it’s folded in the shape of a boat from the Chanderi cloth," explains Bhanj Deo, who is also curating the show.
At the 800-year-old Jaisalmer Fort, there is a play of embroidery, printing and upcycling traditions in the form of an indigenous villager: his cloak styled out of Pattu, a weave traditionally made from sheep and camel wool and used as a shawl; his turban demonstrates Ajrak, a form of geometric block-printing practised by the Sindhi community on bags and stoles; and the backdrop is Ralli, a multi-purpose quilt sewn from old fabrics.
"Ralli is made only for domestic use," says Raj, the 27-year-old scion of the Jaisalmer family. The royals stress the urgent need for government support, market linkages and innovation. Making each thread count is the only way forward.