Six yards of Kotpad legacy

Kotpad weaves are attracting both tribals and urban consumers, thanks to the concerted efforts of dedicated weavers like Gobardhan Panika and his wife Jemma who have kept the labour intensive weaving technique alive

IN the bylanes of Mirigan Sahi (weavers’ colony) in Kotpad, a small town located around 70 kms away from Koraput, the rhythmic movement of shuttles of pit looms and the mild aroma of Aal powder solution boiling over firewood fill the air. The colony houses members of Mirigan community who have given a unique identity to the State’s textile heritage in the shape of natural dyed textiles.

There are at least 20 weavers’ families here that have been carrying on with the age-old craft tradition of preparing dye from bark of Aal (Indian Madder or Morinda citrifolia) tree, dyeing cotton yarn and weaving magic with fabrics. Their Kotpad sarees, which were once used as a bridal fabric by tribal women of Koraput, are today catching the fancy of women and fashion designers worldwide. Interestingly, Kotpad is still a pit loom fabric and while dyeing is an all-women job, men of the community weave.

Inside his asbestos-roof house, Gobardhan Panika, a master weaver who recently got the Padmashree Award, dries maroon coloured yarn while his wife Jemma Panika boils a vat full of Aal powder. The couple owns a pit loom and has been working on it for the last two decades. As the loom is set for only one piece of handloom, all the textiles that Gobardhan weaves turn out to be unique.

“My ancestors worked with Aal dye and I learnt the weaving from my father at the age of 12. Kotpad houses one of the very few surviving natural dyeing techniques in the country. If you see the entire map of natural dyes in India, you will find a lot of Indigo and red colour which comes from different sources. Kotpad’s palette includes only rustic, earthy colours which make it all the more interesting,” says the weaver, who works with the colour range of maroon, black, brown and the natural unbleached off-white. He received the National Award from the then President of India Abdul Kalam in 2004 for a ‘Bagchura’ dupatta that he had created.

Gobardhan says the Aal bark is harvested by local tribals from the forests in Kalahandi and Nabarangpur and they sell it at Rs 2000 to Rs 3,500 for 10 kg depending on the quality. Collection of the bark takes around eight days after which, it is dried and powdered to create the dye. The powder is mixed with castor oil, alum and iron particles in dye bath for development of shades like maroon, brown and black. The age of the tree bark and proportion determine darkness of the colour, says Jemma, who primarily looks into the dyeing process. Before dyeing, yarn is processed with castor oil, cow dung and ash and one vat of colour solution is used to dye 4.5 kgs of yarn. During summer, it takes at least 25 days to complete the dyeing cycle, she says. Jemma had won the National award in 2009 and she learnt the nuances of dyeing from her mother. The motifs of Kotpad fabric are basic, inspired from tribal lifestyle. While ‘Kumbh’ is the most commonly used motif in the fabric, some others used are temple, crab, birds, flowers, leaves, fan, bow, axe, scorpion and conch. These motifs are developed by the extra wefts.

The weaver sells his creations at the local Koraput haat and neighbouring Jagdalpur market apart from supplying them to cooperative societies and handloom based e-commerce websites. Owing to the demand, the dimension of Kotpad saree has changed. While it was eight haath (one haath is the length from fingertips to elbow) to the ankle-length 16 haath earlier, weavers like Gobardhan and others in the colony have started weaving sarees with width of 52 inches and length of six metres now. “Even today, there are tribals who wear the four metre saree in both Koraput and Jagdalpur,” says the weaver.

Gobardhan Panika and his wife Jemma Panika

The couple works with a team of eight weavers, who reside in the same colony. Gobardhan fears that his might be the last generation to practice the craft. His children, like many youngsters in the colony, are not interested in learning Kotpad dyeing and weaving which are considered labour intensive and time consuming. Jemma says there were as many as 120 pit looms in Mirigan Sahi three decades back which has now come down to just 20. “Thankfully, Government has now started noticing our craft and there has been no shortage of raw material so far. If only our children realize the importance of this textile tradition, Kotpad fabrics will continue to be in demand in Odisha and outside. Sadly, many of them are now opting for menial jobs outside Koraput,” she says.

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