Leonardo Da Vinci famously said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Nothing embodies this sentiment more than the elegant and simple Kotpad weaves from the Koraput District of Orissa. This textile tradition remained unknown until the Festival of India’s Viswakarma exhibitions in the early 1980s.
The simplicity, harmony, and elegance of the tribal way of life is captured and crafted in these rough-spun, nature-sprung fabrics. These textiles, which now include modern designs like dupattas and stoles, as well as the traditional sari, have a unique place in the wardrobes of urban buyers.
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, when the valiant and feared Atvika people occupied the area. The region was ruled by several royal dynasties before becoming part of the modern state of Odisha in 1936. The hills are home to tribes like the Santhal, Kondh, Gond, Munda, Oraon, and Bondo.
Like tribal cultures around the world, the Kotpad weavers‘ world view has given rise to an elegant creativity that draws inspiration from nature. These fabrics are completely non-chemical, with a rough texture and a reddish tinge from the roots of the Indian Madder tree. They are eco-friendly, non-toxic, and even believed to have healing effects. 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.
The limited but deep and mysterious color range is offset by the natural unbleached off white 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 the designs include crabs, conchs, boats, axes, fans, bows, temples, pots, snakes, palanquin bearers, and huts.
The Kotpad weavers, also known as “Mirgan,” make saris, gamchas, and tuvals. 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 more elaborate, such as a wedding, with intricate designs on borders and muhs (pallavs), dominated by the kumbha. The tuval is worn by men as a lower garment with typical Kotpad borders and motifs. The dimensions of the sari vary 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 and treating the cotton yarn with dung, wood ash, and castor oil is an elaborate and laborious process, sometimes taking nearly a month. Despite the use of castor oil, there is no shine or smell. Instead, the cloth becomes soft, and the colors become 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. The 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 colors—maroon and brown. Although dyeing is an elaborate process that takes roughly 30 days, in its briefest form, it involves dipping cotton yarns in water and then castor oil. Each year from June to September, Kotpad faces a shortage of water, which is a major challenge for the weavers. This leads to reduced production and less income for the weavers.
Furthermore, the lack of recognition and appreciation for traditional crafts has led to a decline in interest among younger generations to continue the tradition. The weavers, who are mostly women, often face exploitation from middlemen who offer low prices for their labor.
Despite these challenges, efforts are being made to preserve and promote the Kotpad weaving tradition. Organizations such as the Kotpad Weavers’ Cooperative Society Ltd. have been established to empower weavers and provide them with fair wages and better working conditions.
In addition, the government of Odisha has taken steps to promote and protect the Kotpad weaving tradition. The GI tag for the natural dyeing process involved in Kotpad weaving is one example of this. The state government has also established a Kotpad Handloom Park to provide weavers with modern facilities and training.
Overall, the Kotpad weaving tradition is a testament to the beauty and elegance of traditional crafts that are deeply rooted in nature and culture. By supporting and preserving such traditions, we can ensure that they continue to thrive for generations to come.