The Kotpad weave, Odisha’s 1,000-year-old ethnic textile, is back in the reckoning

The over 1,000-year-old textile is regional to the Mirgan tribals of Koraput region in southern Odisha and Chhattisgarh

Manju Latha Kalanidhi Published :  27th February 2022 12:48 PM   |   Published :   |  27th February 2022 12:48 PM
WEAVING. Image for representational purpose only.

Image for representational purpose only.

Reviving ethnic textiles is a familiar millennial trope. When once the Suriaya Hasan Boses, Ritu Kumars, Martand Singhs and Jaslin Dhamijias were few, now a visitor to a textile expo cannot help tripping over young, sustainable designers and textile businesspersons chanting handloom resurrection. But Anupriya Mridha, a 29-year-old Kotpad handloom revivalist, is in for the long haul. “If Indian textiles were a movie, Kotpad is the breakout star,” is her motto. 

The over 1,000-year-old textile is regional to the Mirgan tribals of Koraput region in southern Odisha and Chhattisgarh. “In 2011, as a student of NIFT Delhi, I did a project on Kotpad textiles. I was appalled to note that the local weavers barely had two or three saris for sale and display. Ten years later, I am now fielding calls, emails and messages from the US, Canada, Singapore etc for Kotpad saris. My studio alone supplies around 80 every month.” It is priced Rs 15,000 upwards. Kotpad craftsmen traditionally weave saris, gamchas and tuvals. Right now, Mridha needs her stock to be ready for an upcoming handloom pop-up in Hyderabad on March 12 and 13. Kotpad weaving is done by weavers sitting in pits working on stacked chest level horizontal handlooms.

Mridha worked as a textile consultant before co-founding Vani Vrtti (meaning weaving livelihoods), a home studio in South Bengaluru that specialises in the Kotpad saris she designs. The Kotpad weave, like any other tribal handloom product, is unique in pattern, embossed effect and contrast in the weft and weave. The fabric is organically authentic and non-toxic. “As a result of various natural elements, the eco-friendly fabric is super soft and lightweight,” she points out. The process requires immense patience. The yarn is first soaked in a mix of castor oil and cow dung.

The dye is prepared by boiling the root of the Madder tree (Indian Madder) in large cauldrons. And it takes between two weeks and a month for the yarn to catch the colour. For the tribals, their textiles are an identity statement, with the weaving rhythms imbedded in historical memory. The Kotpad palette is limited: shades of scarlet, maroon, earth brown and pale white.  The motifs are inspired by natural tribal habitat—leaves, animals and rivers. The season decides the fabric; work is paused for six to eight weeks during peak monsoon season. Preparing the yarn and the dye is mostly left to the women. The weavers—called panikas—are men. Syncretism is evident in the Kotpad legacy since the weaving begins every day with the panika singing a Kabir Das song, in which the rest of the community joins. Kabir, the poet-saint, was a weaver who had inspired the Hindi metaphor ‘taana-baana’ (warp and weft) that illustrates the harmony of contrasts. 

“I started Vani Vrtti in Bengaluru on National Handloom Day on August 8 in 2016. Most weavers would work with small looms to make a traditional sari. We taught them to create grand and festive wear, incorporating extra weft and ikat technique. The designs are based on the current fashion trends that I keep track of as a designer and creative artist. In a good month, a panika, who typically earns Rs 11,000 can make up to Rs 20,000 a month. Mridha’s enterprise disburses loans up to Rs 25,000 to buy looms.

“We also promise them constant work besides offering health insurance, job security and other perks,” she explains.  She says “reviving Kotpad weaves” has been on her bucket list for over 10 years now.  The first glimmers of interest happened when Mirgan weavers would visit Damanjodi, the town in Koraput district she grew up. Today, Vani Vrtti supports 50 weavers from Sonepur, Gopalpur, Kotpad and Bargarh. The pandemic had knocked on their doors too. But just when Mridha began to worry about weavers losing out on livelihood during the lockdown, their website was ready to take orders.  She has now re-opened her studio for solo exhibitions for clients to “touch and feel” the magic of the fabric. “Once you touch Kotpad, you are a fan for life,” she exults.