Often in the shadow of her more famous cousin from Pochampally, the Sambalpuri Ikat of Odisha is strikingly different. The curvilinear motifs and hazy outlines depicted in this handloom weave have profound symbolism and cultural significance. Be with us as we spend September in Sambalpur.
Ordinary craftsmanship of extraordinary creation—that is bandha kala (tie and dye art). One can say
this for two reasons. Firstly, ordinary craftsmen of Odisha living ordinary lives and in some cases in
abject penury, display extraordinary creativity in producing some of the most exquisite designs in
textiles. The famous saying of Odisha’s legendary poet Bhimabhoyi (late 19th century) has remained
an inspiration for the weavers, ‘The suffering of humankind—I hope my life becomes hell but
alleviates the human condition’. And secondly, through these textiles ordinary life is constantly
imbued with an extraordinary vision regarding evolution, the nature of human civilisation, as well as the cultural values of the Odishan society.
Major literary inspirations for female representation in Sambalpuri ikat are poet Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam and the verses from ‘Madhumaya’ poems in the book Pranayabalari by renowned Odia poet Gangadhar Meher, who himself belonged to the weaver community. Radhanath Rai’s poems describing the Chilika Lake in Odisha, its water, sky, and birds are also depicted in the textiles.
The following old poem cited in Kunja Meher’s (Meher 2004) book affixes various attributes to the Oriya woman in so many words:
𝘒𝘰𝘬𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘬𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘩𝘢 𝘫𝘪𝘯𝘢 (whose voice is like a koel bird’s and even better) 𝘊𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘶𝘬𝘩𝘪 𝘭𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘢 (oh moonfaced girl) 𝘔𝘳𝘶𝘨𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘪 (with the swift innocent look of a deer) 𝘔𝘳𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘢𝘬𝘩𝘪 (whose eyes are also shaped like the deer’s) 𝘉𝘪𝘮𝘣𝘢𝘢𝘥𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪 (with the parrot’s red lips) 𝘔𝘦𝘦𝘯𝘢 𝘯𝘢𝘺𝘢𝘯𝘪 (fish-like round eyes) 𝘔𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘥𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘢 𝘔𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘢𝘩𝘢𝘴𝘪 (the sensitive woman and the one who smiles proportionately—slight, sweet smile) 𝘎𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘬𝘦𝘴𝘪 (with thick hair) 𝘗𝘶𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘣𝘢𝘵𝘪 𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘬𝘢 (with hair like the creeper with lots of flowers) 𝘑𝘢𝘣𝘢𝘢𝘥𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪 (with the red lips of a hibiscus flower) 𝘋𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘮𝘣𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘫𝘢𝘥𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘪 (with small white teeth like the seeds of pomengranate) 𝘔𝘳𝘶𝘥𝘶𝘬𝘶𝘮𝘶𝘥𝘢𝘬𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘪 (your skin color is like that of a blooming lily) 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘭𝘢𝘨𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘪 (you have a swan-like walk) 𝘊𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘯𝘦 (round is your visage—moonfaced) 𝘕𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘬𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘱𝘶𝘴𝘱𝘢 (your nose is slender like the flower of the ‘til’ plant) 𝘒𝘶𝘴𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘪 𝘬𝘶𝘭𝘢𝘳𝘢𝘫𝘢𝘯𝘪 𝘨𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘬𝘦𝘴𝘪 (You are like a flower with lush hair).
To quote Judith Livingstone’s succinct description of Ikat’s multiple cultural connotations, these fabrics ‘have been worn as costume, exchanged as gifts, acquired as items of status and prestige, utilized for ceremonial and ritual purposes. They have also served as a medium of communication between members of social groups, as much as between the physical and spiritual world’ (Livingstone 1994:153).
Textiles are cultural artefacts that reflect social histories of the places where they originate. In the Indian subcontinent, owing to its vastness, an account of its wide-ranging textiles presents a particularly speckled map. Textiles in India vary from place to place dramatically, not only in terms of the type of material or cloth but also in design, manifesting in them the diversity in geographical and ethnic cultural patterns. And amongst the different types of fabrics available in India—chiefly wool, jute, hemp, silk and cotton—it is cotton that offers the richest styles of expression. While other fabrics have a distinct quality in texture, cotton being relatively flat has been explored most ingeniously by Indian weavers in terms of colours and designs to create striking results (Varadarajan 1984).
A semblance of the Odishan ikat can be seen in the garments of the beautiful sculptures in Konark Temple. In the Chandi Mandir in Saintala also one can see the attractively patterned drapes resembling the ikat fabric on figurines of Ganga and Jamuna. So also is the case with the sculptures of Baidyanath Temple in Sonepur district. R.N. Mehta argues that the ikat tradition dates back to about the 13th century CE in ancient Kalinga (cited in Livingstone 1994). According to local oral history, the group of Bhuliya weavers were originally from Madhya Pradesh during the 18th century, and later migrated to the Sambalpuri area of Odisha and brought knowledge of the Gujarat patola ikat tradition to this region as well (Livingstone 1984).
O’Molly, a British traveller, has also spoken of the Bhuliya tribe (O’Molley 1908). O’Molley in 1809 CE writes of his travels to Borpalli Patora, Kshetra Bhushan, Sapta Padi, Bichitra Puri, Mukta Jhari, Kumbha, etc., and speaks of the different weaving traditions in these areas. At different times, various experts have thus claimed the bandha kala art to be one of the oldest textile crafts of India. Notwithstanding these sources, the exact origin of this art in the eastern region remains unknown. While the origins seem unclear, the decline of this craft from a state of widespread production and export to neighboring areas to gradual poverty of weavers, has been traced to the 18th century.
Through these textiles ordinary life is constantly imbued with an extraordinary vision regarding evolution, the nature of human civilisation, as well as the cultural values of the Odishan society. As the primary wearer, the woman drapes over herself these rich symbolic imageries connecting her everyday world with the divine and the spiritual.