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The Glory Of The Odisha Bandha Sari – From Villages To The World

Authentic handloom weavers of the Odisha Bandha sari from villages form a significant part in the Odisha's cultural heritage. In today's context, they are often forgotten and are in dire need of support. 

Authentic handloom weavers of the Odisha Bandha sari from villages form a significant part in the Odisha’s cultural heritage. In today’s context, they are often forgotten and are in dire need of support. 

India lives in its villages – Mahatma Gandhi.  

 My mother wore colorful handloom Odisha saris every day. She looked stunning. Growing up in Odisha, I could not figure out how she would take a bath in it and change into a fresh one.

The sari is uniquely Indian and feminine: a five-meter-long wrap of colorful and vibrant fabric — usually silk or cotton; with synthetics entering the mix in the 20th century — that conveys women’s beauty and grace.

When I started working as a college lecturer in Odisha, I embraced the sari as my daily formal wear and became known for my beautiful, handloom sari collection. When I came to the USA, I would wear a sari only on special occasions. For everyday use, I discarded the sari for ‘easier’ and ‘more comfortable’ attire.

Even in the age of automated looms churning out synthetic saris by the millions, there is a special allure in a hand-woven sari, an artisan work of skill and beauty, designated in 2013 as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Among woven saris, the Odisha handloom sari has remained my first love, especially the Odisha Bandha saris made in different regions. Here I will discuss the weavers of the Cuttack and Sambalpur regions of Odisha.

Maniabandha/ Nuapatna villages in the Cuttack district

I bought my own Maniabandhi pata (silk sari) with my very first lecturer’s salary in December 1981.  I have always been drawn to the vibrant colors, textures, design, and symbols (conch shells, lotuses, elephants, lions, wheels) woven into these saris. On each trip to Odisha, I visit the emporiums for the latest Odisha handloom designs and proudly showcase them as markers of my identity.

Strangely, I knew little about the weavers who make them.

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In 2007, while researching making a film on the Myth of Buddha’s birthplace in Odisha, I visited Maniabandha and Nuapatna villages, known for their singular Bandha design. I came face to face with the weavers. I discovered that Buddhists and Hindu weavers live side by side and share feasts and festivals.

Since 2007 I have been to these villages many times. According to the Ministry of Textiles record, 2015, about 15,000 weavers work in this region across six villages – Nuapatna, Muktanagar, Birabarpur, Abhimanpur, Kankadajodi, and Maniabandha – with Nuapatna as the largest and most prominent cluster. Here alone, there are around 2,300 households and more than 7,000 weavers.

It is a common sight to have a loom in the entrance room of the weaver’s family and a few more small ones around the house. Each family member is involved in weaving the saris (coloring the thread, drying it, putting it into the loom, working on the patterns, and weaving the sari ).  The design follows oral tradition passed down through generations.  Learning by doing is part of their daily life. Women of all ages are the producers of the textile. They take pride in their creations and display their creative work in exquisite patterns.

The author with the weavers

At the loom

The Buddhists among these artisans say their craft is tied to  Buddhist philosophy. As one of them put it, “We are weavers. We do not kill animals. If we plow the land, we may have to destroy lives. As weavers, we do not tell lies; we do not cheat. Also, we do not have any rich person or family in the village.”

Buddhists and Hindu weavers serve Lord Jagannath

The artisans of Maniabandha and Nuapatna weave a unique piece of ceremonial garment known as khandua with tie-dyed inscriptions from the Gita Govinda for Lord Jagannath, the state deity known as the preserver of the universe. The Gita Govinda (Song of Krishna), altogether twelve chapters, was composed by the 12th-century Hindu poet, Jayadeva. People of Odisha claim that He was born in Odisha. 

Picture of the textile Gita Govinda

Gita Govinda is the ultimate tribute to the divine.  Besides the deities Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra, and sister Subhadra, Gita Govinda textile is used as ritual garments by certain priests known as daita ( temple servants). As per the Jagannath temple’s historical record, the khandua weaving for Jagannath goes back to 1719.

The Gita Govinda inscribed textile is produced in ikat using white and yellow silk threads, and the weaver uses multi-colored threads on the loom. The end product is spectacular. The Buddhist weavers worship Jagannath as the very embodiment of Buddha and take pride in making the Khandua sari for the lord. In their daily rituals, the Buddhists continue to worship Hindu gods and goddesses, and they do not see any contradiction in doing so.

These weavers use  Buddhist symbols such as temples, swans, lions, water pitchers, and elephants. They use Hindu characters like mythical beings composed of nine different animals ( navagunjara) are part of the intricate bandha design; the navagunjara representing a particular manifestation of Krishna revealed to Arjuna in the Mahabharata, after the warrior renounced arms.

In their daily rituals, these Buddhist weavers worship Hindu gods and goddesses, and they do not see any contradiction in doing so. Maniabandha has established five Buddhist temples, where both Buddha and Hindu Gods reside. The village temples carry Buddha and other Hindu deities, mainly Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra. They are honored side by side, and villagers offer prayers, e.g., chanting and evening arati together. This common worship of Buddha and the Hindu shrines symbolizes both communities’ religious co-existence, continuing the societal construct dating from antiquity in this region of India.

Odisha’s unique weaving tradition: Odisha Bandha

Odisha is well known in India and abroad for its unique weaving tradition. The uniqueness lies in its bandha design prepared through an age-old tie and dye technique known as Ikat (Indonesian name). Marie- Louise Nabholz – Kartaschoff, in her 2013 article Colorful Bandha Textiles of Orissa published in the book, Imaging Odisha, says that it is a highly sophisticated and complex process.  “The design is created by patterning the yarn before the weaving so that every thread shows several colors according to the design planned.”

On my visit to these villages, I saw different color threads dyed, dried, and rolled in bundles to create the right design and color combination. I always wondered how the weaver without any sophisticated degree or training makes sure to do the correct design and color, starting from two saris to eight or sixteen saris on the loom at a time? This mastery of intricacy passed down through generations remains an enigma to those outside the weaver tradition.

Sambalpuri Bandha Sari in Western Odisha: A visit to Baragarh

The heart of sari-craft remains in western Odisha – Sonepur, Bargarh, Sambalpur, Boudh, and Balangir. Indeed, this region’s abundant Sambalpuri saris have become a synonym for all Odisha handloom saris. Here the traditional bandha style finds a  regional significance. The sari style is distinctly different from Maniabandha/ Nuapatna. The famous traditional design is Sakta (Square) Design, namely Pasapalli, Patlibomkai, Sachipur, etc., are developed in the fabrics. Besides, each region in western Odisha has its distinct style and patterns specializing in cotton, silk, or both.

Kartaschoff says that in style and technology, the western regions of Odisha in Sambalpur, Balangir, Buddha Kandhamal “form a certain unity contrasting with the former feudal villages” of Maniabandha and Nuapatna in the Cuttack district.

Origin of the Odisha Bandha

Where did this intricate design originate?  Kartaschoff says that Fourteenth-century texts could trace bandha design to Gujarat, famous for its double ikat patola textiles. Some research trace the migration of the weavers in the region of Sambalpur from Chhattisgarh in Madhya Pradesh. Still, there is a consensus that the unique bandha design of the Odisha weavers may be indigenous to the state itself. In the summer of 2019, when I was in Indonesia, I was amazed to see the similarity between Odisha Bandha and Indonesian Ikat design.

In the ancient times traced up to the 17th century, Odisha Bandha textile was exported to Java, Sumatra among other Southeast Asian regions. The annual celebration of Bali Jatra on the banks of Mahanadi in Cuttack symbolizes the maritime trade where the sadhabas (traders) used to sail off to distant Indonesian archipelagos (Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Bali) for trade and cultural exchange in the sea-going ships known as boitas.

The changing life experience of the weavers

 According to the Fourth All India Handloom Census ( 2019 – 2020), there are 4.5 million handloom workers, and the handloom industry is the second-largest employer for rural India, next only to agriculture. Weavers constitute 75.9 percent of the handloom sector, 72.7 percent in rural areas, and 67.8 percent in urban areas. Even though they produce unique saris and textile fetching the highest revenue, the weavers live a neglected life. This sector contributes nearly 15 percent of the cloth production in the country, and 95 percent of the world’s hand-woven fabric comes from India.

On my visit to the weavers’ villages, I could see the weavers’ poor living conditions – most of them live in kutcha and thatched houses. Housing is a vital marker of the living conditions of the weavers. 2019- 2020 Handloom census reports that 64.5 percent of all India weavers live in kuccha houses in rural areas and 16.9 percent in semi- pucca homes ( a concrete wall or a roof), and altogether 78.9 percent of weavers live in kuccha or semi- pucca homes. During rainy seasons, the floor of these houses often remains wet and sticky; the roof starts leaking at many places, which affects the work of weaving.

Weavers facing a tough time due to low wage

2019, at a Handloom exhibition in Bhubaneswar, I was drawn to the uniquely designed cotton khadi ( handloom) saris in a stall. It was from the weavers from Padmanavpur in South Odisha. Unfortunately, this stall was deserted, and it reflected on the spirit of the weaver. My friends were not interested as it was expensive to maintain with starch and iron. I quickly bought two saris for about ₹700 (less than $10) each.  The weaver said how hard it is to retain their legacy as the wages to make these saris are very low.

Sundar Rao, President, Padmanabhpur Weavers’ Cooperative Society, said, While a daily laborer gets ₹ 250 per day, a weaver could make only ₹100 a day. So why will one continue if they get an alternative job?”

I discussed the struggles of weavers with about 30 young women from ages 18 – 36 in Nuapatna. Many of them do weaving but are very disheartened with their profession. Gayatri Patra, a 32-year-old mother of a 2-year old, said, “we have the loom but do not use it. It is a lot of work and expense but no income”.

Kageshwar Mehr, a weaver from the Kushta Pada area of Sambalpur, said to Business Standard on 3rd February 2019,  \”We need at least four to five days of weaving from dawn to dusk to complete one Sambalpuri saree. Two or three people are engaged in the weaving. But we don\’t get enough remuneration for our customized work; that’s why so many weavers are leaving this work”. The weavers are financially struggling.  He says, “the weavers who engage their whole family in this work get only ₹8,000 to 9,000 per month”.  Many families engaged in the hand-woven saree business for generations give up their traditional occupation under pressure and look for other jobs, Mehr said.

“There were around 100 families in the area who were weaving the Sambalpuri saree, but today there are only a few left because It is difficult to manage a family along with children with this profession,” said Mehr.

According to the 2019-2020 Handloom census, 68.5 percent of handloom workers make less than Rs. 5000 and 24.9 percent come under Rs. 10,000 (approximately $143) per month.  One can imagine the precarious living condition of the weavers in the villages. On average, they are getting 280 days of job annually from handloom—their workflow decreases during three months of the rainy season, reflecting on their income.

Evolving state of cooperatives

 Historically, the weavers have worked with cooperatives who coordinate mass production, distribution, and marketing of the saris. The weaver produces the textile and uses the cooperative to market the saris.  Lately, the government has created a new class of merchants known as master weavers, prominent in the village of weavers. With their capital, resources, and networking, they generally do not themselves weave but work as middlemen between the weavers and the govt and private enterprises who order saris. They provide all the raw materials to the weavers, collect the final product by paying a specific wage and supply the sarees to govt and non-govt stores.

Sudhir Pattnaik, the editor of an investigative journal Samadrusti, says, “Master weaver is a misnomer. They are mostly the moneyed businessmen in the village. The traders and intermediaries take up all the profit from the weavers. In reality, the person who created a new design, a new skill, new ways to make the traditional saris should be called the master weaver”.

Weavers today depend on these intermediaries and brokers to earn a livingSince they do not have any surplus money and thus live a precarious life, they are dependent on the intermediary for a new order for saris with all the raw materials provided. The weavers are skilled and versatile. But they produce saris as per the demand of the traders.

Many private designers in India and abroad have patronized some of the weavers and produced saris for the global market. For example, New York-based Bibhu Mohapatra, the fashion and costume designer who has made dresses for dignitaries like Michelle Obama, is from Odisha and has started his Odisha textile design. Still, the weavers are not getting due recognition.

Major threats to the weavers

One major threat is the replacement of the handloom with the power loom. The present Government of India has proposed to amend The Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 to include some of the power looms under handloom, which will remove the authenticity of the handloom saris and make the products cheaper. Indian Express report of May 27, 2013, says that the textiles ministry has proposed to “redefine handloom as any loom, other than power loom; and includes any hybrid loom on which, at least one process for weaving requires manual intervention or human energy for production.” With this, the weavers will lose their unique independent identity and skill. The govt has already started pilot initiatives combining handloom with power loom.

Another significant issue is keeping the authenticity of the sari material and design.

In most instances, the raw “silk” imported from China is synthetic, usually made from blends of rayon, polyester, or mercerized cotton. The color used in the saris are chemicals harmful to health. The weavers use the raw material provided by the traders who want to keep the sari price down. The poor quality of these saris affects the reputation of the weavers.

The other big challenge facing weavers is the large-scale replication of the sari designs.

The traditional saree has woven handlooms and typically features motifs like the conch shell, spinning wheel, and indigenous flowers created with the complex Ikat technique.  These were given the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2010. The label offers protection to weavers practicing the art. Unfortunately, the copy of the handloom saris is rampant.

The cheap synthetic saris copy the exact structure of these Sambalpuri and Nuapatna saris.

Parvati Mehr, a shop owner in Sambalpur, said, “Today this traditional handloom (Sambalpuri saree) is in its dark phase because people are replicating designs illegally and selling them in the market at a low cost. The market now is full of such replicated sarees. An original saree costs ₹3,000, but duplicate sarees with the same designs are available in the market for only ₹300. Why would people purchase a saree for ₹3000 when they can get it cheaper? They also are not aware of the difference between an original and a duplicate.”

Some weavers in Sambalpur told me that they filed a written complaint in 2018 to the Textile and Handloom department regarding the fake Sambalpuri sarees.

Health hazards are plenty

The weavers work in the informal sector, and their work is home-based. They generally do not have health insurance. In Sept 2019 article “Health Hazards Faced by Handloom Weavers in Odisha Need Urgent Attention,” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Ratri Parida says that weaving work is highly labor-intensive, with the labor cost accounting for up to an average of 65 percent of the production cost”.

Majid Motamedzade and Abbas Moghimbeigi, in their 2013 study “Musculoskeletal disorders among female carpet weavers in Iran,” say that Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are commonly related to weaving, namely carpal-tunnel syndrome (CTS), tendonitis, and lower-back pain, because of repetitive motions, awkward and non-neutral postures, poor working conditions, among other things.

I came across a young mother in her 40s. She had a severe back injury. She had to sell the family land to take care of her husband’s ill health until his death. She was sharing her life story, “I have been very sick, constantly in and out of the hospital. Both my young daughters are taking care of me. They said, Ma, do not worry. We will weave saris and will take care of you”. Under these circumstances, the burden of the household falls on the youth, and they end up discontinuing their studies to take care of ailing parents.

Ramakrishna Patnaik, one of the leading fashion designers in Odisha, says, “weavers do not get the reward for all their hard work.” He blends two kinds of handloom (Maniabandhi and Sambalpuri) to create his design and has many customers in the diaspora. Still, the weavers in the villages are not recognized.

Way forward for the Odisha Bandha

The government is spending tens of millions of rupees on the weavers’ benefit, but unfortunately, they do not reach them. In the bureaucratic process, the poor weaver without any rope to get through the government schemes remain underdeveloped. The state builds handloom museums and handloom parks, yet there is hardly any investment in the youth and no improvement in the material lives of the weavers.

The youth feel lost and do not see a future in weaving. They need to be meaningfully employed to be proud of their heritage. I have started South Asia Study Initiative (SASI), a non-profit organization with a few like-minded friends. We raised some money to help the impoverished weavers during the covid. Now we are working with the weavers, especially the youth, to introduce a marketplace portal to sell their products. We hope to connect the weavers directly to the global market to get the entire profit from selling their products.

Image courtesy – Odisha Tourism official site

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About the Author

Annapurna Pandey

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge read more...

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