The Binding Thread

Tribal folklore is her muse and local weavers are helping hands reviving Odisha’s textile tradition 
Pankaja Sethi/Shamim Qureshy
Pankaja Sethi/Shamim Qureshy

Designers are looking towards the bounties of tribal art and textiles to create epiphanies in cotton. Designer Pankaja Sethi, seduced by the unspoilt texture of coarse cotton, has gone on to create a line of saris that capture in their weft and weave the beauty of tribal folklore through hand-woven organic fabric and natural-dyed weaves with Adivasi silhouettes. Her contemporary collection, shown under the label ‘Pankaja’ at the Lakme India Fashion Week in Mumbai, was a neo-tribal affair with minimalistic sensibility and featured under the campaign, Sustainable Fashion. 

“Each sari was coloured with natural dyes, to create motifs of fish and dragonflies. I chose a muted colour palette, using shades such as rustic grey, off-white and beige. A twist was to introduce pockets in backless saris and keeping embroidery minimal,” says the 39-year-old fashionista.Pankaja tries to go beyond the usual patterns and reinterpret indigenous fashion as contemporary design. Adivasi folklore is Pankaja’s inspiration, as she works to promote its nuances in textiles. “The rural silhouettes of Odisha have functional features such as blouseless drapes worn by the Adivasi women of Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh. Their clothes reflect the ease and comfort necessary to work in rural areas,” says the Bhubaneswar-based designer and social anthropologist, who has worked with Dongria Kondh women weavers for years. The Pankaja collection was created working with the weavers of Nuapatna, Gopalpur and Kotpad. 

“The tribals of Odisha, like tribals everywhere, are closely linked to Nature. This connection is clearly visible in their textile heritage. Their weaves mostly revolve around myths, legends, stories 
and nature-centric symbolism,” says the Delhi NIFT alumna, who has been inspired by working with Odisha weavers and artisans for the past decade.To add more body to her work, Pankaja has been researching the tribal weaving and textile traditions that have been passed on from one generation to the other. In 2001, she started out designing home furnishing in Delhi.

Five years later, she came into contact with two women Self Help Groups in Jharkhand and Bihar, which opened her eyes to an ancient and undocumented textile tradition.  She returned to her native state in 2006, enriched by the knowledge she had gained. “Since then, I have been travelling to villages to understand the craft of weaving practices of tribals. My experiments with weaving focus on minimalism and emphasising each element of design at a time,” says Pankaja, who is presently working on the textiles of Gadaba tribals for her next project. She is also studying the use of bark as apparel, which was shown by the ascetics of Mahima Dharma of Odisha, under the Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellowship. 

Pankaja believes organic cotton dyed in natural colours is rich, sustainable, environment-friendly, and good for the human body. Her design studio in Bhubaneswar has an array of tribal weaves from across the state. Apart from saris, her oeuvre includes stoles, striped jackets made with striped Adivasi towels, tops featuring ‘Dongriakon’ embroidery, Dokra buttons and ‘Aal’-dyed tops in variegated patterns.Pankaja believes sustainable fashion means honouring weavers, artisans and designers. “Sustainability is not free!  It takes a lot of thought process to recreate, revive crafts and empower weavers,” says Pankaja, who did a course in social anthropology from SOAS, University of London. Her next collection is expected to follow the same  au naturel philosophy that stresses organic sustainability. 

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