It is 5.30am and Tope, a quaint village near Sambalpur, is buzzing with men and women, young children and old folk, busy dying colours on cotton threads tied across bamboo poles outside their little homes, unmindful of the hens and chicks darting all over the place. At some homes one can hear the rhythmic tak-tak sound of the mongas or weaving looms. This is one of the hundreds of villages engaged in making exotic Sambalpuri sarees — which take their name from the tribal belt of Sambalpur in Odisha, where these sarees originate, reflecting an ancient tie-and-dye art called bandhakala, also known as Sambalpuri ikkat. Bargarh district is also a bastion of this art.
Almost all women in Tope are wearing Sambalpuri sarees in myriad designs and colours and it is impossible to spot any other kind of saree. “My son made this for me,” says Rinky Meher, showing off the richly coloured saree she is wearing, as her son Prashant Meher beams with pride, even as he continues colouring the yarn, along with his brother Ramakanta Meher, and their father.
It is an indigenous industry manned mostly by the Meher and Golia tribes, hailing from western Odisha. The Sambalpuri sarees, made from cotton, silk, or tussar silk woven on a handloom, enjoy national and international patronage due to their exquisite workmanship, colour and design. Rinky, like every other woman in the village, suggests designs and the colours which are mostly a
combination of red, green, black, blue and yellow. “It is something to do with Lord Jagannath,” explains Rinky, referring to the predominant god of the region — Puri Jagannath. The most common motifs include the shanka (conch), chakra (wheel) and phula (flower). Only organic colours are used.
A unique method of tie-and-dye known as bandha is used to weave the Sambalpuri saree. The process involves preparing the yarn, tying and dyeing, drying it and finally weaving the masterpiece. All the family members have to get involved in this entire process. This art is passed down to generations. “No amount of teaching will help them perfect the art unless they keep practising,” says Rinky.
Dhananjay Meher (57) says, “I have learnt this skill of weaving from my father and grandfather. These days, it is no longer a remunerative business; still I am in this profession because I don’t know any other work.”
Their conversation in Odia is translated by Rtn Santosh Hota who, along with his wife Sunita, accompanied me to the village.
It takes eight days to make one Sambalpuri saree, with an intricate design taking up to six months. The varieties include Sonepuri, Saptapar (pasapalli), Sachipar, Udiaan-taraa, Panchavati, Bomkai, Barpalli, Baptaa and Paradaa sarees, all of which are popular. Some villages such as Jilimanda specialise in making shirts and bedspreads, while Sonepur and Barpalli weave silk sarees. The cost ranges from ₹2,000–7,000 for fine cotton sarees, and anything above ₹15,000 for Sambalpuri paat (silk) sarees. The high cost is due to the labour-intensive and time-consuming nature of its production.
The unfortunate part is that mastering the vocation takes precedence over education. So most of the village youth are school dropouts or stop with Class 12. Prashant has studied up to Class 12 while his brother discontinued school after Class 3. It is difficult for a bhulia (weaver) youngster to get a bride, says Rinky. Her two sons aged 37 and 34 are unmarried. “Young girls these days do not want to be tied down to this work. They want their men to be employed in big offices,” she says grimly.
Tope hosts 50 families, who work dawn to dusk every day. It is a challenge for the weavers to market their products and get a fair price for their creations, says Hota. They mostly depend on middlemen. The state’s handloom and handicrafts department supports weavers “but there are also instances where officials visit, take our signature and pay us a pittance as incentive,” says Prashant. With cooperative societies providing online outlets to market textiles, direct sales have taken a huge hit. “Not many people come here to place orders. Earlier we used to get visitors from Japan, America and Singapore,” says Rinky.
Rampant duplication of Sambalpuri sarees is posing another threat to their livelihood, says Hota. “Duplicate sarees with similar designs are available for just ₹300,” says his wife Sunita.
With little patronage and after the Covid pandemic, the weavers’ families are left with meagre income. “Many families have migrated elsewhere to work in teashops or driving autorickshaws,” says Prashant. The brick houses lining both sides of the road in Tope show prosperity on one hand, but the poorly maintained doors and broken clay-tiled roofs tell how poverty is slowly creeping into their lives.
Chinmay Satpathy, secretary, RC Sambalpur, RID 3261, says that his club has tied up with his foundation Village Kraft this year to extend support to the weavers. “We are assisting them with raw materials like threads and colours, short-term loans and in marketing their creations both online and offline. For the past so many years they have been working with the same designs. Now we are encouraging them to create new designs to appeal to the evolving market.”
Satpathy has requested the club to build an online platform called Sambalpuri Haat “where the weavers’ creations will be showcased and the proceeds will reach them directly.” This move will help eliminate middlemen “who pocket ₹1,000–1,500 a saree, while the weaver gets just ₹150–200 profit.” The club will organise exhibitions for the physical market through the foundation. The government is organising exhibitions “but when there is a bulk order the weavers are not able to execute it due to shortage of manpower and funds,” he says. RC Sambalpur is also planning to address illiteracy rampant among the communities, says club president Ranjit Singh Hura.
IIM Sambalpur recently took the support of Satpathy and Sanjay Meher, a club member who is also a weaver and a retailer, to set up an incubation centre in its campus to encourage the trade, educate the weavers about digital marketing and groom them to be customer-friendly.
Pictures by Jaishree