The Kotpad adivasi weavers have managed to keep both tribal and urban consumers happy. Will the good times last?

On a cold winter evening, I stepped into the Kotpad adivasi textiles stall displaying shawls and saris in white and red, replete with animal and bird motifs at the Dastkari Haat Samiti Mela at Dilli Haat. Far removed from their traditional adivasi haats in Bastar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, were National Awardee-couple Jema and Goverdhan Panika.

I was fascinated by the sophistication of the textiles and intrigued that they attracted both the adivasi and the urban consumer.

How did this hitherto-insulated vibrant textile tradition of Koraput transpose itself to these distant urban settings? How are the weavers handling these varied markets and consequently, the altered design template?

The coarse cotton yarn, ranging from 10 to 20 counts was woven into varied products by the tribals of the region, such as the tuval (towel), luga or paata (sari), dhoti, shawl etc. The Panika caste weavers employed a highly evolved weaving technique of three shuttle pit looms with extra weft patterning, looms of different sizes ranging from 15 to 52 inches, and a minimalist colour palette of natural dyes — white (colour of the bleached yarn), red from the roots of the aal tree (Morinda citrifolia), and black. Kotpad is one of the last few remaining textile traditions, which still use only natural dyes. Harvested in the deep forests by the Muria, Koya, Bhatra, Gadaba and Paroja and other adivasis, women of the Panika weavers’ families extract the red dye from aal roots.

Jema Panika learnt the art of making dyes when she was 10 years old. She also learnt the craft of yarn processing with dung, wood ash and castor oil. The month-long arduous processing is so sophisticated that, despite the use of castor oil, there is no residual oily sheen or smell. Instead, the cloth becomes soft, the colours are lustrous and fast and the yarn withstands repeated daily washing in the stream.

National Award-winner Kapileshwar Mohonto points out that the adivasis are extremely finicky and demand a high standard for the cloth they buy. If the cloth did not last a minimum of two years, the name of the weaver was mud; nobody would talk to him in the haat, and no forest product was ever sold to him nor any cloth bought from him. This has ensured high quality of dyeing and weaving.

Special saris with their distinct muhs or end pieces and laden with specific motifs served as visual identity markers of the wearers. There is the most minimalist sari — the saada paata, which consisted of a white body with aal red border with two muh for daily wear; the more elaborate wedding saris — of the bride, her mother (mae luga) and bride’s sister (saas paata), sundermani paata, kabori paata, taraf paata, lagan paata — these saris mark the rites of passage in a woman’s life. 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 motifs were visual cultural codes, common as well as unique, specific to each tribe. Common motifs are the kumbh, which continues to be the most common and sacred motif across the region, phool cheetah chowk of the wedding saris, and the sacred axe possibly of the Paroja tribes. The motif of the palanquin bearers possibly came from the Gadaba tribals.

This sophisticated textile tradition lay undiscovered and unsung in the jungles of Central India, until the Festival of India’s Viswakarma exhibitions in the early 1980s. But post-1980, with the opening up of distant urban markets and the continued support of the Odisha government, beginning with its Kalingavastra programme and the Weavers Service Centres, the Kotpad textiles have transformed into a modern-day trade cloth for urban markets. A modern design template has evolved from the traditional — the tuval is now a stole, the short eight-haath paata is now a six-yard sari with only one muh draped in the Nivi style, the hunting shawl is now a dupatta with tribal motifs. Yardage is new and has no traditional equivalent. So are the new colours such as blue, purple and yellow and the finer yarn counts of 100 to 200, as well as mixtures of tussar silk and cotton.

Varied marketing outlets sell Kotpad. One major outlet is Boyanika. Then there are the urban craft melas such as Dilli Haat, Dastkari Haat Samiti, Surajkund Crafts Mela, CAPART’s Saras, shops like Kamala, and boutiques.

The weaver has, until now, successfully handled the demands of the two opposing markets without altering the original template. But the future is full of challenges like the increasing shortage and migration of weavers, skyrocketing prices of cotton yarn, increasing preference for cheaper synthetic saris, as well as the limited availability of aal root. With barely 25 to 30 full-time active weavers, production is necessarily limited. The sustainable extraction of aal, if not addressed immediately, will result in the adoption of chemical dyes. But on the whole, Kotpad textiles, unlike many other dying traditions, is a success story.