From being rejected for the Odisha Handloom Award in 2016 to Vidya Balan donning it for promotions of ‘Shakuntala Devi’, the famed Sri Ganeet saree has travelled far and wide in the last four years. Diana Sahu traces its journey
Vidya Balan and her sarees weave magic. When the ace actor appeared for promotion of her last film Shakuntala Devi draped in that six yard Sambalpuri Bandha of pure grace – the saree’s black body dotted with mathematical equations, formulae and symbols – magic had to flow. An entire nation was in awe of the handcrafted silk fabric that is a blend of both the contemporary and the conventional; and genius of the faceless weavers from the Western Odisha districts.
Ever since, the Sri Ganeet (mathematics) saree, as it has come to be popular, has travelled far and wide. Last heard, a 20-year-old student of IIT-Guwahati, Debanshi Mishra picked it up from an online auction for a whopping Rs 55,000 on Thursday. Before Vidya donned it, the Sambalpuri Bandha (tie and dye) saree had moved to several weavers’ workshops. Now it is travelling even faster. But very few know that four years back, when Sonepur’s Bhagabat Meher sent the exquisite saree to Textiles & Handlooms Department for Odisha Handloom Award, it was rejected.
Sri Ganeet saree today is a subject of pride for Odisha but there are many claimants for it, thanks to absence of a patent on the original design. Bhagabata has his solid claims based on the designs he made under the watchful eye of a technical assistant of Textile and Handloom Department of the State Government. But, at least two more weavers of the district today claim to have originally designed the Mathematics saree.
Journey of Sonepur’s Mathematics Saree
Sonepur, the hub of Ikat weaving in Western Odisha, is home to at least 6,000 weavers and 200 of them including Bhagabata reside in Tikirapada village under Subalaya panchayat. In 2016, the 40-year-old weaver approached Prafulla Meher, a technical assistant of the Textile and Handloom department, seeking new designs as he was keen on applying for the State Handloom Award for 2015-16.
“Bhagabata wanted to innovate and approached me for ideas. I came across some mathematical equations written on a blackboard while browsing the internet”, recalls Prafulla, who is known for his out-of-the-box ideas in textile designing and has been helping weavers of Sonepur with new designs for many years now. He then created a graphical design which resembled mathematical symbols, formulae and equations written with a chalk on black background and handed it over to Bhagabata to weave the saree. That was in August 2016.
Three days before the deadline for application for handloom awards in December the same year, Bhagabata brought the finished product to Prafulla. Bhagabata who has studied till Class VIII was apparently unable to understand the formulae and equations and had woven the design in reverse.
“As the design was incorrect, it stood a chance of being rejected by the jury. I asked him to weave another saree and he delivered it within 72 hours”, recalls Prafulla, who had won the National Merit Certificate, instituted under National Handloom Development Programme, in 1991 for contributing to development of handloom products. In fact, it was Prafulla who named the saree ‘Sri Ganeet.’
As the saree now finds many claimants for its original design, Bhagabata is upset and recalling the hardships he and his family had to go through to weave the new saree within three days to apply for the award. “I had taken the help of tie and dye artists Brundaban Meher and Ganga Meher of Kendupalli to prepare the Bandha of the saree. Since they had prepared extra yarn for four sarees, we could weave the second saree within the time limit”, he says. He dearly holds on to the affidavit and application form he submitted for the State Handloom Award competition. The Sri Ganeet saree never won the award but fetched him recognition in the district for its uniqueness nonetheless.
Subsequently, Bhagabata made two more pieces of the same saree and sold them for Rs 25,000 each to Jharana Meher, a master weaver of Birmaharajur under Sonepur district. Later, one of the pieces was given away by Jharana to Kala Bhoomi, the grand handloom and textile museum of the Odisha Government which celebrates the magic of State’s craftsmanship. The Sri Ganeet saree continues to adorn the handlooms gallery. Sources say, the saree went on to be replicated by weavers associated with Jharana and made its way to other weavers’ workshops in the district.
Interestingly, after Balan endorsed the saree, the design has found more claimants. Dibya Meher, son of late Bhagaban Meher, a Sant Kabi awardee of Barpalli is one. Rabi Kishore, another tie and dye artist of Kendupalli who has been selling the saree through his handloom outlet in Sonepur too stakes claim.
However, none has any documents to support it. “My father had spoken to me about the saree in 2013 but unfortunately, we do not have any documents or graphs to prove that he conceptualised the design which was inspired by my engineering notes,” says Dibya, a software engineer based in Bengaluru. His father, he says, was uneducated and hence, did not file a patent of the design which has been copied by several others.Bhagaban had named it ‘Engineering Saree’. Rabi Kishore says he has been commercially producing the Sri Ganeet saree since 2017. “I had created this design to bring uniqueness to Sambalpuri Bandh sarees. The saree must have been purchased by some weaver from my shop and is now being replicated”, he asserts.
Innovative Motifs, Unique Design
What makes Sri Ganeet saree so unique? Over centuries, tie and dye craftsmen have mastered traditional motifs as they find making them relatively easier. To make a new design requires a different level of skill. “Regular motifs like geometrical patterns, flowers are easier to tie and dye than irregular motifs like numbers or signs of a square root. Clarity in Bandha is important. If the lines are fine and clear, it shows a high level of skill. In this case, the design had very fine lines, completely sharp and no blurring,” says an officer of Kala Bhoomi.
To ensure that the design comes out perfectly in its assigned place while it is weaved, requires high level of concentration and skill. For, the number or a mathematical symbol will not make sense if not done properly. “In contrast, an imperfect flower or bird will pass off as a flower or bird because of our familiarity with the motif. Sri Ganeet saree was perfect to the core which is why it became a part of Kala Bhoomi exhibits”, he adds.
Business to Weavers
Despite the fight over ownership of Sri Ganeet saree, Bhagabata is a happy man today. So are other weavers of the district. Vidya and Sabat sisters’ efforts made the Bandha saree a talking point which has now fetched several orders for all the weavers of the area. Bhagabata also has received orders for 30 Sri Ganeet sarees and already started weaving them. Rabi Kishore, too, has 150 orders in hand.
In Sonepur’s Kendupalli village, home to at least 200 Bandhakars, at least 15 families are now engaged in tie and dye work for Sri Ganeet sarees. “It helps when a celebrity wears our sarees and endorses it. It creates demand and increases market for our work. Customers have been calling us asking for the exact replica of the saree worn by Vidya”, Bhagabata says. While Bandha for the saree takes nearly a month because of the complex design, weaving it is relatively easier and can be completed within a week, he says. Similarly, at least a dozen brands selling handlooms have contacted weavers of Sonepur to replicate the Mathematics saree.
Vidya Balan & sabat sisters
Fascinated by the unique design, Amrita Sabat of Bhubaneswar-based Utkalamrita procured the saree from a weaver Ramakanta Meher in 2019. When she came to know about ‘Shankuntala Devi,’ Amrita contacted the film promotion team last year asking if Vidya can wear it in the movie. “Vidya had loved the saree but since shooting for the film was complete, it was decided that she will wear it for the promotions,” says Anita Sabat, Amrita’s sister and Director of Sabat Exports which owns the Utkalamrita brand.
The Sabat sisters sent the saree to Vidya’s team on July 22 and the actor wore it for e-promotions of ‘Shakuntala Devi’ on July 30, a few hours before the film was released. Photographs of Vidya in the saree went viral and subsequently, the rest of the Mathematics saree is history of sorts. “However, when we realised that the original saree was woven by Bhagabata Meher, we decided to inform everyone about him and the glory of Sambalpuri Bandha. That’s why we decided to auction the Sri Ganeet saree that Vidya wore”, says Anita. The saree, auctioned by Utkalamrita, on Thursday fetched `55,000 and the proceeds went to Bhagabata day later. Anita says they are happy that people have now come to know about the original weaver of the famed saree.
Copyright for Exclusive Designs
Sambalpuri Bandha has been one of the most sought after in the country but despite its glorious innovative weaves, the original weavers remain oblivious to the need for patenting their designs. Thanks to the debate over ownership of Sri Ganeet sarees, it has brought to focus the need for registration of designs under the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
Under the IPR, a patent or copyright for a design (also called industrial design) can be obtained. “Protecting industrial designs includes protection of aesthetic, appearance, colour and shape etc of designs for textile products. By getting an exclusive right on them, a weaver can prevent or stop unauthorised copy or imitation of protected designs by third parties which has happened in case of Sri Ganeet Saree”, says Dr SK Kar who heads the consultancy and quality wing of Intellectual Property Facilitation Centre under National Research Development Corporation (NRDC).
The owner of a protected industrial design has the right to prevent third parties not having his/her consent from making, selling or importing articles bearing or embodying a design which is a copy, or substantially a copy, of his/her protected design. “We have been asking weavers to apply for patents for their designs but there is very little awareness. The State should aggressively push weavers to protect their design rights”, Kar said. In fact, while Odisha Ikat and Sambulpuri Bandha got GI (geographical identification) tag, none of the individual textile designs of Odisha has been patented so far. “Individual designs have not been patented because for a patent, there should be an invention.
And the maker should be able to prove it,” says a senior officer of the Textile and Handloom department. In most cases, the weavers have modified existing designs so they will not pass the muster of the patent criteria. In others, the weavers do not show too much interest. In any case, it would have to be an individual filing and the department has not been approached by any weaver or received any application for filing a patent, the official added.
“It is also perhaps due to their social and community links. They may sometimes resent someone copying their design but that is not enough to enter into a legal battle. Originality of the design remains till it reaches the market. Once it’s out, there are multiple iterations, including innovative modifications. The rigid desire for IPR and patents is not very common. They also take pride that their design was copied by others or that others failed to make a replica due to its complexity. It is a fact that not many weavers would be able to make a Sri Ganeet saree even if they had it in front of them due to the skill and effort required,” said the officer.
Why is Patent Important?
Protecting industrial designs includes protection of aesthetic, appearance, colour and shape etc of designs for textile products. By getting an exclusive right on them, a weaver can prevent or stop unauthorised copy or imitation of protected designs by third parties which has happened in case of Sri Ganeet Saree Dr SK Kar, Head (Consultancy, Quality), IPFC.