The Kotpad adivasi
weavers have managed to keep both tribal and urban consumers happy. Will the
good times last?
On a cold winter
evening, I stepped into the Kotpad adivasi textiles stall displaying shawls
and saris in white and red, replete with animal and bird motifs at the
Dastkari Haat Samiti Mela at Dilli Haat. Far removed from their traditional
adivasi haats in Bastar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, were National Awardee-couple
Jema and Goverdhan Panika.
I was fascinated by the
sophistication of the textiles and intrigued that they attracted both the
adivasi and the urban consumer.
How did this
hitherto-insulated vibrant textile tradition of Koraput transpose itself to
these distant urban settings? How are the weavers handling these varied
markets and consequently, the altered design template?
The coarse cotton yarn,
ranging from 10 to 20 counts was woven into varied products by the tribals
of the region, such as the tuval (towel), luga or paata (sari), dhoti, shawl
etc. The Panika caste weavers employed a highly evolved weaving technique of
three shuttle pit looms with extra weft patterning, looms of different sizes
ranging from 15 to 52 inches, and a minimalist colour palette of natural
dyes — white (colour of the bleached yarn), red from the roots of the aal
tree (Morinda citrifolia), and black. Kotpad is one of the last few
remaining textile traditions, which still use only natural dyes. Harvested
in the deep forests by the Muria, Koya, Bhatra, Gadaba and Paroja and other
adivasis, women of the Panika weavers’ families extract the red dye from aal
Jema Panika learnt the
art of making dyes when she was 10 years old. She also learnt the craft of
yarn processing with dung, wood ash and castor oil. The month-long arduous
processing is so sophisticated that, despite the use of castor oil, there is
no residual oily sheen or smell. Instead, the cloth becomes soft, the
colours are lustrous and fast and the yarn withstands repeated daily washing
in the stream.
Kapileshwar Mohonto points out that the adivasis are extremely finicky and
demand a high standard for the cloth they buy. If the cloth did not last a
minimum of two years, the name of the weaver was mud; nobody would talk to
him in the haat, and no forest product was ever sold to him nor any cloth
bought from him. This has ensured high quality of dyeing and weaving.
Special saris with
their distinct muhs or end pieces and laden with specific motifs served as
visual identity markers of the wearers. There is the most minimalist sari —
the saada paata, which consisted of a white body with aal red border with
two muh for daily wear; the more elaborate wedding saris — of the bride, her
mother (mae luga) and bride’s sister (saas paata), sundermani paata, kabori
paata, taraf paata, lagan paata — these saris mark the rites of passage in a
woman’s life. The dimensions of the sari too varied from the short
knee-length eight haath (one haath is the length from fingertips to elbow)
to the ankle-length 16 haath.
The motifs were visual
cultural codes, common as well as unique, specific to each tribe. Common
motifs are the kumbh, which continues to be the most common and sacred motif
across the region, phool cheetah chowk of the wedding saris, and the sacred
axe possibly of the Paroja tribes. The motif of the palanquin bearers
possibly came from the Gadaba tribals.
textile tradition lay undiscovered and unsung in the jungles of Central
India, until the Festival of India’s Viswakarma exhibitions in the early
1980s. But post-1980, with the opening up of distant urban markets and the
continued support of the Odisha government, beginning with its Kalingavastra
programme and the Weavers Service Centres, the Kotpad textiles have
transformed into a modern-day trade cloth for urban markets. A modern design
template has evolved from the traditional — the tuval is now a stole, the
short eight-haath paata is now a six-yard sari with only one muh draped in
the Nivi style, the hunting shawl is now a dupatta with tribal motifs.
Yardage is new and has no traditional equivalent. So are the new colours
such as blue, purple and yellow and the finer yarn counts of 100 to 200, as
well as mixtures of tussar silk and cotton.
outlets sell Kotpad. One major outlet is Boyanika. Then there are the urban
craft melas such as Dilli Haat, Dastkari Haat Samiti, Surajkund Crafts Mela,
CAPART’s Saras, shops like Kamala, and boutiques.
The weaver has, until
now, successfully handled the demands of the two opposing markets without
altering the original template. But the future is full of challenges like
the increasing shortage and migration of weavers, skyrocketing prices of
cotton yarn, increasing preference for cheaper synthetic saris, as well as
the limited availability of aal root. With barely 25 to 30 full-time active
weavers, production is necessarily limited. The sustainable extraction of
aal, if not addressed immediately, will result in the adoption of chemical
dyes. But on the whole, Kotpad textiles, unlike many other dying traditions,
is a success story
First Published -
The Hindu. Features/ Sunday Magazine -
July 6, 2013