The Gopalpur (Jajpur) cluster is situated on the banks of the Brahmani river and is one of the leading Tussar silk-producing clusters in India. This cluster has a history of around 400 years and is associated with the great saint Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Lord Chaitanya was a renowned 15th-16th century Hindu scholar who later became a spiritual leader, influencing thousands of people during his travels across India. He was considered to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna.
During one of his religious journeys, Lord Chaitanya visited Puri, Odisha from Nadia, West Bengal in the 16th century, accompanied by thousands of followers. This was believed to be the largest religious journey of that time. When Lord Chaitanya returned, many devotees from the Guin and Gauda communities of Bardhaman, West Bengal, who had accompanied him, stayed back in Gopalpur and continued their weaving profession.
Until 1972, weavers in Gopalpur were weaving cotton fabrics. However, a super cyclone that struck the region destroyed looms and houses, changing the weaving landscape. The cyclone also led to an increase in wages and yarn prices, making cotton weaving expensive for the locals. In response, an export company offered low-cost but superior quality Tussar yarns to the skilled weavers of Gopalpur.
This facilitated an adaptation that resulted in the production of remarkably beautiful Tussar sarees and other textiles. Today, the weavers of Gopalpur have successfully transitioned from cotton weaving to Tussar silk weaving, which has become a leading industry in the region.
In 2009, the Government of India awarded the Geographical Indication tag to the craft produced in Gopalpur. This region is known for producing various Tussar fabrics such as sarees, scarves, stoles, dhoti, joda, shirting, chaddar, etc. These fabrics are designed using Tussar and Gheecha and are enhanced with an extra weft technique. Additionally, products are made using different blends of Tussar, including cotton, Tussar-eri, and Tussar-mulberry.
One of the unique artisanal skills associated with Gopalpur craft is the use of hand-spun and hand-reeled yarns, which is mostly done by female artisans in the family. While there are many activities that are special to Gopalpur weavers, their incredible ability to bind the Odia culture with a highly technical process of weaving stands out.
Tani Jodiba (joining ends)- The artisan in Gopalpur meticulously knots the two ends of the warp together, one end coming from the previously woven saree border and the other from the newly set warp in the beam. This process is called “taani jodiba” in the Odia language, where “taani” refers to the warp and “jodiba” means to join. Typically, it takes an artisan four hours to join four thousand threads for a forty-eight-inch width saree. However, a highly skilled artisan can complete this task in just half an hour.
Dhala (Warping) -The process of transferring the warp from the warping drum to the warp beam (known as “Naraja”) is an integral part of the pre-loom process. This process takes about four days for a warp of twenty-five saris, or 140 meters, to be nicely combed and put into the beam, part by part. In Gopalpur, this process takes place on the terrace of Itishree Sur, one of the artisans. Three artisans are involved in this process. The warp beam, from which the border of the saree is added, is known as “naraja.” The lease rods at the back are called “pachaada,” and the one in the front is called “chalani.” The dents, which are also known as combs in the Odia language, are called “paniya.”
Tussar silk is a special kind of silk that has been gifted to us from medieval times. Unlike other silkworms, the breed that produces Tussar silk is not fed on mulberry leaves. Tussar silk is also known as “Kosa” in Sanskrit and “wild silk” in common. These silks are not only used for handloom clothes but are also used in various handicrafts as a base material. These desirable silks are found in countries like Japan, China, Sri Lanka, and India, where India is the second-largest and exclusive producer of Tussar silk. In India, Tussar silk is exclusively produced by the tribal community. The tribal community of Gopalpur produces the finest Tussar silk. These silks are extremely peerless and have been awarded a Geographical Indication (GI) tag since 2009.
Gopalpur Tussar is used to create a variety of garments including dhotis, scarves, shirts, stoles, jodas, sarees, and chaddars. One interesting aspect of these handloom textiles is the use of blends, where Tussar silk is combined with cotton, eri silk, and mulberry silk to create a beautiful and unique yarn. The fishbone designs on the pallu and aanchal (the two ends of the saree) are a particularly striking feature of these textiles. The borders are also eye-catching and can easily be spotted in a crowd. In addition to their visual appeal, these handloom textiles are also comfortable and breathable, with a lustrous and gleaming texture.
The intricate and refined work of the artisans is a testament to their skill and dedication. However, the path to achieving this level of skill was not without its struggles. In the 1970s, the weavers of Gopalpur were weaving cotton fabrics until a cyclone hit and destroyed their homes and raw materials, leaving them in a state of despair. As cotton became more expensive, private entrepreneurs stepped in and provided low-cost, high-quality Tussar yarns, which allowed the weavers to adapt and create beautiful Tussar fabrics.
The involvement of female artisans in this craft has brought more strength to the community, making them more independent and empowered. However, despite their tireless efforts, the financial assistance and recognition provided by the Geographical Indication fall short of meeting their basic needs. It is essential to take measures to provide a better level of wages to preserve this artistry for future generations.