Where culture meets design: A look at Odisha’s rich handloom heritage, the challenges and future outlook

For a country as diversified as India, it is obvious that each state has its own culture that reflects heavily on the designs and patterns emerging from it. Odisha, is no exception. Its rich cultural diversity, values, motifs and local talents reflects extensively on its popular products in the textile industry. Locals will tell you that Odisha is quickly emerging as the hub for fabrics, apparel designs and handloom.  The handloom sector in Odisha arguably is one of the largest employers in the state. Odiya artisans are known to possess skills and artistry that has been inherited unhampered for generations.

The Odisha government has been an active participant in the efforts to nurture this incredibly high potential cottage industry. With 4 percent of the population of the state dependant on the sector and the demand for products on the rise, the state has a massive responsibility of making the sector lucrative for newcomers while at the same time developing the infrastructure to support the existing talent. According to the Odisha Government’s Handlooms, Textiles and Handicrafts Department there are around 1.19 lakh looms in the state of which 88186 have been brought under the cooperative fold. During 8th & 9th five-year plan the Directorate of Textiles also introduced several schemes to improve the condition of the sector.

The potential

According to the government website, production potential for the various textile products emerging from Odisha is the following:

Type Region Looms Production potential (In lakhs) INR
Silk Tie-dye, Silk and Cotton Bomkai Boudh, Sonepur 6773 4063.8
Khandua Silk Saree Cuttack 2255 1217.7
Cotton tie-dye Saree and Furnishing Bargarh, Sonepur, Bolangir and Nuapada 8045 3816.6
Tasar thana saree and furnishing Bargarh, Jajpur, Balasore, Nuapatna 2424 1163.52
Berhampur Silk Saree Joda Ganjam 609 292.32
Single count fine cotton Saree Jagatsinghpur 2234 804.24
Medium variety cotton Jajpur, Khurda, Bargarh, Bolangir, Ganjam and Nayagarh 5563 2003.47
Course variety cotton Bolangir, Cuttack, Khurda, Kendrapara, Nayagarh, Puri, Nuapara,Kalahandi, Kandhamal, Balasore, Bhadrak & Sambalpur, Sonepur 17220 5166
Nuapatna - Handloom Heritage
Nuapatna – Handloom Heritage

The unorganised sector

While the organised textile manufacturing and handloom sector in Odisha soars to new heights each year, there looms some serious dark clouds over the unorganised segment of the cottage industry. However, we interviewed few handloom owners and found out what they were doing, the challenges they faced and their future outlook about the industry. Here is a brief extract from our travels across the state:

Interview 1

Name: Madan Mohan Patra,

Age: 70

Profession: Weaver, designer, owner

Products: Cotton and Silk Saree

Speciality: Using skin friendly dyes and fabrics

Madan Mohan Patra, in spite of his age, has a modern approach in his production.  He owns a small loom where he produces cotton and silk sarees. His biggest interest is studying modern designs and he has been introducing constant changes to his products to keep up with the current styles. He also ensures that he shares his insights with his group weavers and is therefore an influential weaver in his locality.

He explains that the biggest challenge for his weavers is the lack of infrastructure to increase production. A larger space to work would translate into more innovation higher production. The working conditions have a great scope for improvement in terms of hygiene and safety. Mr Patra also ads that the nature of their work forces weavers to sit in one place for long hours. This causes health problems including eye disorders. He explains that the process of mixing acid with colours during the colouring stage is also a dangerous process. However with exposure to modern ideas, the weavers have been able to ensure better safety with the help of gloves and masks now available locally. Among other challenges, Mr Patra says that the rising price of silk is making it difficult for the weavers to afford the material.

In terms of future outlook, Mr Patra feels that there needs to be more support to the small scale handloom sector from the government, the local communities and also the master weavers.

 

Interview 2

Name: Somnath Patra

Age: 40

Profession: Designer and Master Weaver

Somnath is a popular local designer and master weaver in Odisha who has worked with both unorganised and organised players in the textile sector. His work also involves selling in bulk, sarees that he procures from local weavers. He explains that one of the biggest challenges in the small scale sector in Odisha is the lack of infrastructure for quality machine printing. He also says that filing patents has to be made more accessible for the local weavers and designers. He adds that the day the village weaver can file for patents is when the weaving and handloom sector in Odisha will truly take off. He also says that it is difficult to raise the price of the products though the price of raw materials has been constantly increasing

While business is not the same all year round, festivals such as Durga Puja, Sabitri and Raja festivals spell good sales for the weavers and handloom owners, according to Somnath.

Industry outlook

Digging deeper into the handloom sector in the state, we find a very contrasting picture where on one hand, traditional handloom owners want to adopt to modern techniques and infrastructure while globally there remains a constant demand for the traditional patterns and authentic embroideries. Interestingly, some of the weavers we interviewed did not want their next generation to pursue the business and instead wanted them to be doctors and engineers.

With the government taking steps to bring in more and more players into the tax net and thereby pulling them into the organised sector, it will ideally require a mix of nurturing the traditions and shaping them for the future. There is not a bleak outlook in the industry but when one compares it to traditional small scale industries of European countries or even some parts of Western India, we find ourselves wondering whether we are doing justice, as a nation, to the massive talent of Odiya weavers.

Published in the Apparel Magazine (CMAI)