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Artisan India: My Visit to a Small Weaving Village in Odisha Known for its Organically Dyed Fabrics and Motifs

Artisan India: My Visit to a Small Weaving Village in Odisha Known for its Organically Dyed Fabrics and Motifs

  • Panikas who belong to a weaving caste in Kotpad village, are now commissioning saris, dress material, shawls, stoles, and towels from the Tantis, with whom they have formed a business relationship.

Last month, I took a nine-seater flight, the smallest I have flown in my life, from Bhubaneswar to Jeypore. The aim of the trip was to learn about the Panikas, the weavers of Kotpad textiles who traditionally made clothes for their tribal neighbors. Named after the town Kotpad, it is known for the organic coloring of the thread and indigenous motifs, which have become very popular in the international market. 

After passing through Odisha’s forests, mountains, and rivers, and covering a distance of roughly 360 miles, I checked into a newly built hotel, The Balkrishna Palace. I then left to visit the weavers, wading corn and paddy fields, and miles and miles of eucalyptus trees, locally known as Neelagiri.

I spent a week interviewing the Panikas and their neighbors, Tantis, and it was a wonderful learning experience. I began my visit to Kotpad by visiting the home of 

My local contact Raju Mahanto, a Panika in his early 30s. When I arrived at the Mahanta home, Raju’s wife, Bobby was drying loads of colorful Kotpad flaps —Indigo, white, and traditional red — commissioned by the Reliance textile company, owned by the Ambanis, the most affluent industrial family in Asia. As I entered their pukka house, I saw mounds and mounds of Kotpad saris, dress material, stoles, and towels in the room.

On the wall was a picture of Kapileshwar Mahanto, Raju’s father, receiving an award for his weave from President Abdul Kalam in 2006. His wife Sudha, does the organic dying of the thread, the most laborious process done exclusively by women in the community. Dying is a seasonal job, impossible in the rain. It starts in December and continues till July. 

Raju calls himself a master weaver,  technically a trader who commissions saris from the Tantis and sells them under their banner in the market. He has two looms in a shed outside his house, a handloom, and a modified pit loom given by the state government. They look unused. Mohanto follows the lineage of the Panika weavers — his father lived up to age 85, and his grandfather up to 120. Raju’s family of twelve members — three sons, their wives, and grandchildren live under the same roof. 

Who are the Panikas?

Panikas are a weaving caste who are Kabir Panthis (followers of Kabir) and can be traced in the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh. Sant Kabir, the 15th-century Bhakti poet. Traditionally, vegetarian, Panikas now eat non-vegetarian food. They are also known as Mirgans, a title the Raja of Jeypore conferred on them for singing bhakti songs. I enjoyed renditions by Bidya Mohanto, a Panika. The community also believes in religious service as a means to contribute to the community. Raju is the president of Siridi Sai and is involved in building a Sai temple in Kotpad.

There are about 100 to 120 Panika families spread in one neighborhood, and are related to one another either by blood or marriage. However, only five to six families do the weaving. I saw only one active loom and wondered where the Kotpad saris were produced. I came across a signboard for the Weavers Cooperative Society (WCS) Kotpad, which, according to Raju “needs to be more active.” The members are supposed to give the Kotpad material to the society to sell to government stores. Still, the master weavers sell the products independently for more profit and quick pay. So who does the sari weaving? 

Panikas and Tantis

Tantis are spread in nearby villages, predominantly Dangiriguda and Hanshuli. Since the number of Panikas making the Kotpad sari dwindled in the 1990s, the government has promoted the Tantis to weave these saris, training them with the help of Panika weavers, making them the primary weavers of Kotpad clothing. I met 67-year-old Jagababndhu Samartha, a president’s awardee for sari design, who taught the Tantis to weave Kotpad saris. Today, his vision is poor; he had surgery on one eye and cannot weave. 

Panikas consider themselves a higher caste than the Tantis and treat them as their subjects. They make financial investments with Tantis, pay for the thread and labor, and sell the Kotpad products as their own brand. The Tantis are not recognized for their production and contribution to this Kotpad weave’s growth. 

Each of the seven Panika master weavers I met has commissioned over a dozen Tanti families to produce the Kotpad brand. Today, the Kotpad weave has gone beyond traditional cotton saris and includes tussar saris, dress material, shawls, stoles, and gamaccha (towels). Although the Tantis have mastered Kotpad weave, they are yet to learn the organic coloring exclusive to the Panika women. 

Currently, they are learning dyeing with the help of government trainers. Meanwhile, Madhaba Tanti from Dangariguda told me that they have learned only 25% of the dyeing process. They increasingly use chemical colors, and secret acid to make the fabric colorfast. 

So how long does it take to weave these fabrics, especially a sari and how are they priced? The price of the sari is determined by the days of labor tied to the intricate design and the cost of the thread. Some cotton saris with intricate designs will take two people up to 14 days of work. Hari Tanti says the cost of thread to weave a cotton sari is about Rs. 2000, and five days of full-time labor for two people is Rs. 3,000. They will sell the sari to the master weaver for Rs. 5000, who will add his profit. Tanti weaves the saris along with his wife who learned to weave only after marriage and has been weaving for ten years. The saris cost Rs. 8,000 ($100) to 14,000 ( $175), and the making is laborious.

Old and New Weaves

In the past, the Panikas wove dhotis, a special taraf pata for weddings for the tribals. This 3-meter-long organic cotton fabric had a plain red or black border. The color in the garment came from the Aal tree root. In the last few decades, the state government realized their unique, organic coloring, combining Aal roots, flowers, wood ash, and Harida (gallnut), and asked them to make 6-meter saris. Kotpad handloom fabric is the first item from Odisha that received the Geographical Indication of India tag in 2005, authenticating the originality of the product tied to the place. 

Initially, they used pit looms through pedals, about 2 feet dug under the ground. The base of the pit loom is stronger than the handloom. Samarth, an experienced weaver, says the finer designs made possible on the pit loom may not be feasible on the frame loom or handloom sponsored by the government through the cooperatives in the village. The modern weave is more homogenous and gives a new look to the traditional weave. Samarth’s sari, woven about 20 years ago, is a masterpiece; the design is the same front and back, impossible in a handloom. He says the perfect design is in mind, and one has to use the mental faculty for the correct thread count, like two threads wide and four long, to depict it in the textile. 

See Also

Modern looms sit above the ground, and two people use it sitting on either side of the bench and weave, coordinating with each other through hand and foot movements. The rainy season is not conducive to weaving on pit loom. The ground, about two feet deep, where the weaver runs the foot pedals for weaving, may get flooded, ruining the sari, and the weaver’s health is affected by sitting on the rain-soaked ground and the feet dipped in the groundwater for hours and days. 

Dwindling Numbers

In the last decade, despite government patronage, the Kotpad youth is less inclined to weave because it is labor-intensive and time-consuming. One must spend eight to 10 hours on the loom, often with a partner, to make Rs. 300 daily. The young people can make much more by working in the nearby National Mining Development Corporation (NDMC) service sector. Some go for small businesses such as tea and paan stalls or become private drivers. I saw buses from Kerala making rounds in the Kotpad market a few times a day to pick up labor to run various facilities in the state. 

The Panikas, honored with state and national awards, are forming a class separate from other weavers who resent them for their money and power. They have become master weavers, and their national recognition has helped them connect with many government and social elites. Their brisk business, leading to sudden wealth, has created a new hierarchy among the Panikas. I was surprised that the master weavers and their adult children are mainly interested in marketing their products but not in weaving. 

Prahlado Mohanto, a Panika, owns a local Kotpad clothing store. He sells the saris nationally and internationally through contacts. When I was sitting at his store, people from faraway cities of Bhubaneswar and Sambalpur came and addressed him as Padmasree. His status helps brisk sales in his business.

Social media has also played a huge factor in these master weavers’ success, especially during the COVID-19 when Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp broadcasting have helped spread their name and fame, bringing them much more business. The tech-savvy children of some of the master weavers have helped them promote their businesses on social media, which has also aided with access to social and economic capital.

Despite their success and fame, many men in the community are succumbing to alcohol. There are a dozen liquor stores in and around Kotpad town, and people beeline to buy booze. Earlier people drank Mahua liquor on festive occasions, but now the chemically processed liquor is an everyday phenomenon, Mahanta said. When I went to meet the president of the local weavers cooperative in Dangari Guda, he was asleep in the middle of the day, thanks to alcohol. His wife took saris from the cloth bundle to show me, but she could not tell me the price. She said her husband knows the price but is drunk and will not wake up soon. 

In the era of globalization, Kotpad saris have traveled far and wide, and capitalism has seeped into the community. The Panikas and Tantis have formed a new alliance for mutual convenience and benefit. We, the global customers, are interested in the symbolism as do-gooders but need more time and interest in discovering the roots of what we wear and the changing value of that culture reflected in the saris. 

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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  • Great to learn more about the backstory behind these weavers. The power dynamics are more complex than I expected, and it’s too bad that many are succumbing to alcohol excess. It will be interesting to see where this industry goes over the coming years.

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