The Sambalpuri Ikat of Odisha is what many of us associate the traditional textile of the state with. It is a ubiquitous presence in the state, and what comprises most of our souvenir bags when traveling in Odisha. Subtly dense and dignified, the Sambalpuri weave has a pretty long history that is tied closely to the journey of the Ikat itself. The term ‘ikat’ is said to have been derived from the Indonesian term ‘mengikat’, which means ‘tie’. It is popularly called the ‘bandh kala’ in the northern belt of the country such as in Rajasthan because it employs the resist method of tying and dying, which creates beautiful, wispy, uncoloured spots on the fabric.
Odisha, known as Utkala in ancient times, finds prominence in inscriptions and records for its art and craft of weaving. The ikat style, in fact, is one of the earliest methods of dyeing yarn and creating varied styles of fabric out of it. It was practised widely in ancient China, Japan, and Central America. In Odisha, it is believed to have been introduced by the migrating Bhulia people who fled northern India after the fall of the Chauhan dynasty in the 12th century–some say, they brought with them the bandhani tradition of Rajasthan. Over the course of many years, this community of people interacted with local communities like the Koshtha and the Kuli, and became associated with the weaving profession. The Bhulia people along with the other local communities were responsible for saving and protecting the life of the pregnant queen fleeing her northern Indian kingdom, which made the King of Patnagarh a lifelong patron of the weaving community, and under whom the art of ikat flourished. He also set up his capital at Sambalpur which gives the weave its most familiar name. Till about the 16th century, it continued to grow and develop into a prominent art form adorning the royal family and the nobility.
The story of Sambalpuri ikat is one of the most diverse cultures, meeting and interacting with each other, in the process of which a unique tradition emerged. Although it is done mostly on silk (tussar, more commonly) yarn in the medieval times, ikat weaves are available in both cotton and silk today. The influence of the patola ikat style of Gujarat can be detected in the Sambalpuri style, seen in the presence of the sturdy grid structures that house the contrasting hazy and feathery ikat patterns–called the ‘curvilinear’ style. It is astonishing to think of how these simple woven patterns and structures become the canvas of not Odisha’s history and tradition but also of the evolution of the human mind, its creativity, and skill. For instance, it is common to weave characters and motifs from our mythology and epics, ancient temple sculpture and architecture as well as from the abundant natural resources from the state. The sky, birds, the Chilka lake and its water, temple gopurams and their idealised female form–all manifest as symbols and motifs on these weaves. The sarees are named according to the patterns dominating them: Bichitrapara, with motifs of animals like deer, elephants, lions and ducks; Indumati, with depiction of the ideal (Odia) housewife; Panchkanya, with depictions of women striking varied poses along with items central to Odia culture such as the conch, fish, lotus and peacock; and Charuchitrapata, resembling the scroll paintings of Patachitra that depict Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu.
Sarees are also named according to their design and layout: ekphuliya (single flowered), duphuliya (double flowered), dusphuliya (ten flowers), boulomaliya (garland of flowers), mandara phuliya kapata (hibiscus flower layout), nagabandi (entwined serpents facing each other), asmaan tara (sky full of stars), and pasapalli (the board game of pasa). Just the sheer range of designs inspired by cultural as well as everyday objects along with traditional lore is enough to give us a peek into the rich imagination of the Sambalpuri ikat weavers.
For the people of Orissa, especially for those associated with the weaving tradition or for those belonging to the weaving villages, this art form has deep spiritual significance as well. Each family of weavers preserves their own ikat fabric that has been woven by their forefathers, each generation adding on to the same fabric to signify change and continuity. The pallu, often the area that is adorned the most with motifs and designs, is seen as the auspicious end of the garment that serves as a reminder of both god and tradition. One can say that this is the closest we can get to tactile spiritual embodiment; it is no wonder that the ikat serves as the fabric upon which the oldest surviving form of religious verses is found, known famously as the ‘Gitagovinda cloth’.
Modern Odisha saw efforts of reviving the glory of this art form in 1930, through the setting up of Sambalpuri Bastralaya Handloom Cooperative Society Ltd, under the initiative of Late Padmashree Krutarth Acharya. Since then, through the 60s to the 70s and the 80s, this ikat form not only gained a permanent place in the mainstream national market but also reached international platforms. Despite the strong traditional values, the weavers themselves have moved ahead with the demands of the times in order to cater to newer trends and fashion. The Sambalpuri ikat is a gentle reminder to us about the immense scope of indigenous art and craft forms, and the triumph of talent and hard work.