Weavers' tales

By Business Standard 

If you didn’t know where it was, you would easily miss ‘Artisana’, the flagship outlet of the Crafts Council of West Bengal, located in a quiet and sleepy lane off Gokhale Road, near Kolkata’s famous Calcutta Club. Like its location, the Council and its honorary secretary Ruby Palchoudhuri, too, maintain a very low profile. Formed in 1966, the Council has been training artisans, developing new designs, reviving old and original ones, and upgrading the technology used in textile weaving, dyeing and embroidery, terracotta and metal-casting. “We have also brought talented craftspersons to the national and international arena,” says Palchoudhuri, “and organised exhibitions and sales overseas.”

“Nadambika”, on in Artisana, shares the Council’s objective of encouraging crafts. Showcasing handmade natural fabrics and hand-woven textiles from Odisha, “Nadambika” is organised by Bhubaneswar-based Vriksha, a collective of artists, artisans, weavers, tailors, farmers and forest dwellers working to revive local economies. Formed by Gunjan Jain in 2008, Vriksh promotes eco-friendly clothing and accessories made of handloom fabric, jute and recycled yarn.

“Nadambika”, refers to the flag on the chariot of Subhadra, the female deity who forms a triumvirate with the two male deities Jagannath and Balaram worshipped all over Odisha. Jain says Nadambika aims at “liberated” women who are not taken in by advertising, women “who understand the essence of handloom and their responsibility as consumers. This is liberation from polyester and about a healthy natural experience,” Jain explains.

The collection includes rare bomkai saris, cotton and silk ikats, natural dyed saris and stoles from Kotpad, and a range of khadi and tussar saris woven in Odisha, printed with natural-dyes using dabu blocks in Kala Dera (Rajasthan) and embroidered with kantha in Bengal. The aesthetics is contemporary; care has been taken not to dismiss traditional designs but to re-interpret them.

For Jain, “handloom” is not just about beautiful fabrics but a sustainable way of creating fabric. “It is part of our culture and it is important to strengthen weavers by ensuring fair wages, providing design inputs and bringing back the designer in them.”

Jain trained as a fashion designer in New Delhi and worked in apparel exports for a few years, but was soon disillusioned. In 2007, she moved to Orissa to see how she could be of use to the weavers. “There was a need to blend traditional skills with contemporary design, production and distribution. So I set up Vriksh, using natural materials and adopting traditional practices and blending native craft with contemporary design,” she says.

Of late, Vriksh has been working to revive the lost bomkai saris of Berhampur. Only three weavers are left in Bomkai village (from where the sari takes its name) who still weave the beautiful thick cottons with extra weft designs inspired by what they see around them — bitter gourd, parrots, trees, flowers, and fish in vibrant colours. The rest have migrated to Surat to work on power-looms. “The irony is that traders use the name bomkai to sell heavy silk saris with gold or silver colour jacquard aanchals made in Sonepur district,” she says.

Besides Bomkai, Vriksh is also showcasing Odisha’s unique ikat which, Jain explains, is woven into intricate curvilinear designs unlike the ikat of Andhra Pradesh or Patan, Gujarat. “There are many art forms, designs and weaving techniques struggling to find a foothold in markets outside Orissa. We are witnessing the slow death of textiles such as dhala pathar, kala pathar, siminoi, habaspuri, the original cotton bomkais and soon Kotpad may also become a museum piece,” Jain says.