‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’ said Leonardo Da Vinci. Nothing exemplifies this more than the simple but stunningly sophisticated Kotpad weaves from the Koraput District of Orissa. This textile tradition lay undiscovered in the jungles of Central India, until the Festival of India’s Viswakarma exhibitions in the early 1980s.
Emerging from the core of a primordial people, the simplicity, harmony and elegance of the tribal way of life has been captured and crafted in these rough-spun, nature-sprung fabrics which adorn the dark, bejewelled and lithesome woman. These textiles, now fashioned into a modern design template like dupattas and stoles, apart from the traditional sari, now hold a distinct place in the wardrobe of the urban buyer.
Nestled in the verdant forests of the Eastern Ghats, the cluster areas of Koraput include Nabarangpur, Phulbani and Rayagada districts. Scholars have dated the history of Koraput to the 3rd century BCE, occupied by the valiant and dreaded atvika people. The region was successively ruled by several royal dynasties and finally came under the modern state of Odisha in 1936. These hills are home to tribes like the Santhal, Kondh, Gond, Munda, Oraon and Bondo.
Like all tribal cultures across the world, their world view has given rise to an elegant creativity, with nature as its inspiration. The fabrics of Kotpad are one such and make it absolutely unique in that these fabrics are completely non-chemical. Rough to the touch, they are dyed with the reddish tinge of the roots of the Indian Madder (Aal) tree. It is eco-friendly, non-toxic and hence non-harmful to the skin. In fact, it is even said that the magic weaves of Koraput actually have a healing effect! The powerful and vibrant colors range from deep maroon to dark brown depending on the proportion of dye used and the addition of sulphate of iron.
This limited, but deep and mysterious color range is offset by the natural unbleached off white of the major portion of the fabric, producing dramatic results. The reddish color is offset by creams and blacks with motifs drawn from nature and their way of life. Some of them are crab, conch, boat, axes, fan, bow, temple, pots, snakes, palanquin bearers, and huts.
The Kotpad weavers, also called ‘Mirgan,’ make saris, gamchas and tuvals. Typically, these minimalist saris indicate the wearer’s identity and mark the rites of passage in a woman’s life. Depending on the occasion, the saris get a bit more elaborate, such as a wedding, as shown by elaborate designs on borders and muhs, (pallavs), dominated by the kumbha. The tuval is worn by men as a lower garment which also has typical Kotpad borders and motifs. 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 processing of the Aal root dye (collected from the deep jungles) and treating the cotton yarn with dung, wood ash and castor oil is an elaborate and laborious one, sometimes going up to nearly a month. Despite the use of castor oil there is no shine or smell. Instead the cloth becomes soft and the colors lustrous and fast. The dyed coarse cotton yarn, ranging from ten to twenty counts is woven in a simple but highly evolved three-shuttle pit loom with extra weft patterning for the more complicated motifs. Solid border effect of the fabric is made with the interlocking method of the multi shuttle.
The women of the community are responsible for the dyeing work. They essentially prepare two colours—maroon and brown. Although dyeing is an elaborate process that takes roughly 30 days, in its briefest form, we can describe it in the following way.
• Cotton yarns are dipped in water and then castor oil.
• The dyers then apply cow dung, wood ash, ‘Aal powder’,’Heerakashi’ and ‘Haradaa’ powder to the cotton yarns in measured quantities.
• Application of these items involves several cycles of heating and drying the threads.
The concept of sustainability, during the process of dyeing, is not just limited to the raw materials alone but also extends to the utensils or other tools used in the process. For washing, the women take the yarns to the yarns to the nearby pond. They use wooden rods to dry them. Even for heating the water, they use a handi or earthen pot. As for drying the yarn, sunlight is sufficient.
A pit based loom made of wood and bamboo is used to weave the yarn. Everything is hand-woven. To weave a simple sari with tribal women motifs (pattas) takes about four-five days, while a conventional sari takes about a minimum of two weeks.
Back in 2005-06, the Odisha government successfully acquired the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the natural dyeing process involved in Kotpad weaving, ensuring that it is never pirated or copied.
Despite all its uniqueness, some obvious obstacles are standing in the way. For starters, the Indian Madder tree is slowly dying out which will bring the natural dyeing process to a grinding halt.
Also, considering that the entire process is time-consuming, scaling it up for mass production seems highly unlikely. Kotpad fabric also cannot compete with the mass produced and cheaper synthetic fabric. Each year from June to October, there is little to no weaving activity because the rain destroys the material. As a consequence, the younger generations of Kotpad weavers are unwilling to pursue this art form and instead, have taken up other blue collar jobs on offer.
The problems plaguing this art form, on the brink of getting lost forever, are not insurmountable. The eco-friendliness, beautiful tribal motifs and a generations-old tradition testify its worthiness. If given the right motivation and aid, Kotpad weavers can make their mark in the global garment industry.