Surendra Kumar Patra, was born in a family of ikat weavers in Nuapatna village, Cuttack district, Odisha state, India. He learnt the technicalities of ikat dyeing and weaving, while growing up, from elders in the family. He received the National Award in 1993 for Art Textile (Tie & Dye). He retired as Deputy Director, Weavers Service Centre, Ministry of Textiles, Government of India, based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. He says Odisha has a rich heritage of handmade textiles and shares his thoughts on the weaves of Nuapatna. Odisha was formerly known as Orissa.
Please could you give us a glimpse of the culture of Odisha Surendra Kumar Patra
Surendra Kumar Patra: Odisha, a state located in eastern India, has a long coastline and this led to sea trade and cultural ties with South-East Asian countries in ancient and medieval times. There are broad rivers as well that helped inland transportation and trade. Ancient Odia culture was influenced by the presence of Buddhism patronized by King Ashoka in the third century BC and spread to other places from here. Its culture was subsequently influenced by Jainism for some period during the rule of Emperor Kharavela from the first century BC; however, the impact of Buddhism was quite visible.
Hinduism became predominant from the seventh century AD. The faith in Lord Jagannath and rituals performed at the 12th century Shri Jagannath temple at Puri have deeply influenced different aspects of Odia culture, from literature to food and textiles. The prevalence of Hinduism is epitomised in the spectacular 13th century Sun Temple at Konark; it is designed as a monumental chariot of God Surya, the Sun God, and is a masterpiece of stone architecture.
Odisha has thirty districts and has several indigenous communities, each of which has its distinct culture, living in different parts of the state since ancient times. Odia, a classical language, written in Odia script, is spoken here. All these aspects of the state’s history find connection with traditional textiles. Today weavers weave textiles for deities; for personal traditional attire such as sarees; and yardage for varied purposes from garments to home furnishings.
Image: Nabakothi saree. Image above: single ikat saree from Nuapatna
Please tell us about Odisha’s textile traditions/heritage
Surendra Kumar Patra: has nine Geographical Indications tags for handmade textiles which is remarkable. There are woven, embroidered and appliqué textiles in Odisha. Textiles have been woven with cotton, mulberry silk and tussar yarns; tussar is an indigenous silk. The weaving is done on frame and pit looms.
Broadly we can classify hand-woven textiles from Odisha as ikat and non-ikat. Over 70% of woven textiles are ikat. Odisha is known for its ikat textiles; these are predominantly weft-ikat. I believe Odisha’s ikats are technically the finest ikats in India. This is because of the grouping of yarns, that is, the number of yarns per group to produce a design. In ikat weaving centres in the states of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh eight yarns are taken per grouping, however, in Odisha two to four yarns are taken per repeat. This allows the weavers to weave fine, delicate curvilinear motifs. Traditionally natural dyes were used for colouring yarns. Now, yarns are mostly dyed with synthetic dyes, however, there are weavers and designers who use natural dyes for dyeing yarns.
Across the state there are several traditional weaving centres and some which are unique such as Gopalpur, in Jajpur district where only tussar silk textiles are woven. There are about 1200 handloom weavers in Gopalpur. Bargarh district, in western Odisha, is famous for some unique ikat designs such as the double-ikat Pasapalli that features the chessboard pattern. This pattern draws from the dice game played in the ancient epic Mahabharata. There are about 35,000 handloom weavers in Bargarh district. Bichitrapuri, Sachipar, Utkalaxmi sarees are famous ikat sarees of Bargarh district.
Image: Utkalaxmi saree
The ikats of the western part of Odisha are popularly known as Sambalpuri, taking their name from Sambalpur district (adjoining Bargarh district) where single-ikat and double-ikat sarees with fine motifs have been woven for centuries. Thus, ikat sarees woven at Sambalpur, Balangir, Bargarh, Boudh and Sonepur districts are often referred to as Sambalpuri. Traditionally cotton sarees and textiles have been woven in Bargarh and Sambalpur.
Nuapatna village in the Cuttack district, and Berhampur, a coastal city in Ganjam district, are two traditional silk fabric weaving centres in Odisha. Much later, in the last two decades of the 20th century, two more traditional weaving centres of Sonepur and Boudh started weaving silk in addition to cotton that they had been weaving for centuries. Sonepuripata and contemporary Bomkai sarees are woven in Sonepur and Boudh.
Nuapatna is famous for its variety of silk ikat weaves woven for sacred and personal wear. There are about 10,000 weavers in and within a five kilometres radius of Nuapatna. They are famed for silk-ikat sarees, some of which are most beautifully designed with motifs and calligraphy in an elaborate harmonious composition. Some sarees of these designs are woven with yarns dyed with natural dyes making them even more exclusive.
Interesting, the nearby village of Maniabandha, also in Cuttack district, is home to traditional Buddhist weavers who predominantly weave cotton fabrics as they believe in ahimsa or non-violence; therefore, they stay away from silk weaving which involves killing silkworms for processing cocoons to obtain silk yarns. The Buddhist population of Maniabandha traces its origins to ancient times and weaving has been continually practised here for centuries. There are about 1800-2000 handloom weavers in Maniabandha.
Are there any other distinct designs woven on sarees
Surendra Kumar Patra: There are many other sarees with unique designs. Among them is dolabedi- traditionally a cotton saree and now also woven in silk. It is distinguished by the design on its end-panel that features a palanquin (dola), birds and flowers. This saree is also called biman that alludes to the palanquin. The palanquin motif derives from the palanquin, with images of Lord Krishna and Radha, carried by men on their shoulders, during the Dola Jatra procession held during the spring festival of Holi. The motifs are woven with extra weft. Traditionally this saree has been woven in Khorda and Nayagarh districts, and Nuapatna village.
Image: Dolabedi saree
Another distinct saree is the phuta woven by the Santhal tribe that lives in Mayurbhanj district. It is a cotton sari with motifs/patterns in extra weft. The body of the sari is of white ground with large checks of different colours, and the end-panel is of rib-weave with motifs of trees, birds and leaves. Yet another unusual saree is the kasumi woven in Nayagarh district. It is a cotton saree with motifs of extra weft; its distinguishing feature is motifs of trees in the end panel.
Apart from traditional designs, weavers in Odisha are often inspired to weave new designs drawing from traditional stories. One example is the Tapoi saree that features motifs of sailing boats; this motif recalls an old legend that describes the difficulties faced by Tapoi, a young girl when brothers set sail for trade to in South East Asia.
In fact, there is an annual festival called Bali Yatra held in Cuttack. Bali Yatra derives from the words Bali as in the Indonesian island and yatra that means journey or voyage, thus alluding to the historical sea links with Bali. The festival commemorates the ancient seafarers from Odisha along with Odisha’s maritime heritage and ancient links between Odisha and regions in Southeast Asia.
Please tell us about the textiles from Odisha that have received a GI tag
Surendra Kumar Patra: Odisha has nine Geographical Indications tags for textiles and this conveys the weaving heritage of the state. Of these are three famous ikat weaves, namely, Orissa Ikat that covers ikat woven in different clusters; Khandua Saree and Fabrics of a single weft-ikat woven at Nuapatna, and Sambalpuri Bandha Saree and Fabrics featuring delicate curvilinear motifs rendered by double-ikat woven at Sambhalpur.
Image: Khandua Saree
The non-ikat fabrics that have a GI are Kotpad Handloom Fabric distinguished by its deep red vegetable dyed hand-woven textiles from Kotpad village, this dye is obtained from the root-bark of Aal trees (Morinda Citrifolia); Gopalpur Tussar Fabrics; Dhalapathar Parda and Fabrics that are used for curtains; the Bomkai Saree and Fabrics that has motifs rendered with supplementary weft yarns woven in the Ganjam district; Habaspuri Saree and Fabrics from Habaspur village in Kalahandi district distinguished by longitudinal temple and fish motifs; and Berhampur Patta Saree and Joda that have borders edged by a temple motif called Phoda Kumbha. Behrampur is called a Silk City for its tradition of weaving silk fabrics that goes back several centuries.
Pipli Appliqué Work also has a GI under Handicraft like the above nine textiles; however, Pipli Appliqué Work it is patchwork technique with fabric as the raw material. Special appliqué canopies are crafted for the annual Rath Yatra or chariot festival at Shri Jagannath Temple at Puri that draws devotees and people from across the world.
Please tell us about the unique textiles woven at Nuapatna
Surendra Kumar Patra: Nuapatna has been a weaving centre for several centuries with records mentioning weaving in the 12th century. There are three main textiles woven at Nuapatna. One is Khandua that is single-ikat sarees and textiles; the sarees are traditionally predominantly of red yarns worn by brides. It has rows of repeats of motifs of the lion, elephant, lotus and creepers. Nuapatna is famous for its Khandua that is silk-ikat textiles bearing woven verses of Geetagobinda that are offered to Lord Jagannath at the Shri Jagannath Temple in Puri, Puri district. These are called Geetagobinda Khandua.
Image: Nabakothi Saree
The second textile is the Nabakothi that literally means nine - from naba, houses/squares from kothi. The saree has a harmonious grid that has nine motifs, one in each square. These are traditional motifs – lion, deer, lotus, parrot, peacock, conch shell, butterfly, elephant and temple are the typical motifs. The third textile is the Tarabali that means group of stars and the design of the saree is inspired by the beauty of stars in the sky. The field of the Tarabali saree has rectangular spots in rows forming diamonds with a motif in the centre of each diamond that give an appearance of stars in the sky.
All these are single ikats, with silk in the weft and warp, and many of the weaves are entwined with beliefs. Some Khandua textiles are woven with cotton warp and weft. The motifs have white outlines from the resist-tying of the yarn (that is white in colour) before dyeing commences. It requires immense skill to tie and dye the yarns, and to set the loom, to obtain perfect motifs when the yarns are woven. This is specially so for the Nabakothi as it is a multi-coloured textile for which the yarns are tied and dyed several times with great precision.
Apart from these ikat textiles, there are some non-ikat textiles that are woven at Nuapatna such as the pancha-phulia tussar saree that has five (panch) rows of rudraksha motifs, and ikat tussar scarves. The Siminoi saree was earlier woven at Dhenkanal district, however its weaving ceased there. It has been revived at Nuapatna. This successful initiative reflects the skills of the weavers. It has rectangle-shaped temple motifs along the borders and ek-phulia or a row of one flower in the borders. It has straight lines in the end-panel of the saree.
Image: Khandua or single ikat saree
What is the origin of the Nabakothi
Surendra Kumar Patra: When I was young, the elder weavers would say that the concept for the Nabakothi saree emerged from the mythological narrative related to the Nabagunjara stemming from naba meaning nine and gunjara meaning animals.
The Nabagunjara is a fantastic creature that finds mention only in the Odia version of the Hindu epic Mahabharata; the Odia version was written by the 15th century Odia poet Sarala Dasa. The narration says that when Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic, was meditating Lord Vishnu appeared before him in the form a composite creature with nine different parts- the head of a rooster; one foot each of an elephant, tiger and deer/horse; one limb of a human arm holding a lotus/wheel; neck of a peacock; humped back of a bull; body of a lion; tail of a serpent. Arjuna is initially disturbed by the creature, however, when he realises it is in fact Lord Vishnu he prostates before him.
Inspired by this event, the weavers of times past are believed to have woven a saree with nine traditional motifs. It is textile close to their hearts. The traditional colours are maroon, mustard and purple that was obtained by dyeing with indigo (blue) and lac (red). Now a variety of colours are used for weaving the Nabakothi as well as other traditional sarees.
Please tell us about Khandua weaves for Lord Jagannath
Surendra Kumar Patra: Jaydev, the great 12th century poet, composed the Gitagobinda that encapsulates the devotees’ devotion to the Lord. Historical narratives tell us that Jaydev wished to offer his composition to Lord Jagannath. He thus had the verses woven by ikat weavers so that the fabric with the verses could be offered to the deities at Jagannath temple and would be in contact with the deities. These textiles called Gitagobinda Khandua came to be woven at Nuapatna since the 12th century, and continue to be offered by devotees to the deities enshrined in the temple.
Are there any other textiles woven at Nuapatna for Lord Jagannath
Surendra Kumar Patra: Yes, apart from the Gitagobinda Khandua many other textiles are woven at Nuapatna for Lord Jagannath, God Balabhadra, Goddess Subhadra, the Sudarshan emblem and other deities enshrined at the Shri Jagannath Temple.
There are specific textiles to adorn the Lord for each day of the week, for the night when he retires to sleep, for different seasons, for different rituals, for festivals, for his ritual bath, for the ritual when He prays to his ancestors and other requirements. These deep beliefs and rituals have led to and sustained a unique textile tradition, across centuries, spanning weaving and appliqué in Odisha. For over seven centuries, weavers in Nuapatna have been weaving silk and cotton cloths for Lord Jagannath. This subject of the Lord’s textiles is fascinating and worthy of a book.
Image: Nabakhoti saree
Find out more: Surendra Kumar Patra: email@example.com
Written by Brinda Gill
Images Courtesy: Surendra Kumar Patra
Want to know more about ikat?
Starting on 9 May 2023, Seattle Art Museum will present over 100 textiles from the museum’s global collection with gifts and loans from a dedicated Seattle-area collector, Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth is an introduction to the meticulous and time-honoured processes of dyeing threads to create complicated hand-weaving.