Heritage,  History,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 19 (Ikats of India)

The term ikat comes from the Malay word ‘mengikat’ which means to tie or bind. When it comes to the ikat technique, it is difficult to say where it originated. The art of resist dyeing the threads before weaving them into patterns developed independently in India, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia. Even in India you can find distinctive differences between Odisha’s bandha work, Telangana’s Pochampally ikat, Gujarat’s Patola and Tamilnadu’s Palani technique.

I was intrigued by the variety of ikats and began researching them. So, the first question was: what are single ikat and double ikat? In Odisha bandh kala or tie and dye, the unique aspect is that the threads are dyed prior to being arranged on the loom. Single ikats are where either only the warp (called warp ikat) or only the weft (called weft ikat) are dyed. In double ikats, both the warp and weft are dyed, and it is a painstaking procedure to get the designs right.

There are a whole lot of double ikat weaves from Odisha, which you can explore in my special edition of My Saree Stories on Weaves of Odisha (Part 13 and 17). I am including some sarees symbolically here, as you cannot talk about ikat and ignore Odisha’s bandha kala.

Saree #181: A Sambalpuri ikat with Saura art patterns

This is a Sambalpuri ikat from Odisha with rudraksha motifs on the borders. Bandha kala as it is called in Odiya. But this is no ordinary ikat. Peer closer to see the motifs. This is a weave which simulates the traditional Saura art of Odisha. Remember that this is a weave and not a block print, and you will appreciate the hard work into weaving something so intricate and yet pleasing.

So what exactly is Saura art? This is a form of painting usually done by the Saura tribals of Odisha as murals or wall paintings. It does look similar to Maharashtra’s Warli painting, and these are often mistaken for each other. But there are certain subtle differences. Both art forms have pictographs or stick figures to represent human beings. In Warli art, you see two inverted triangles placed one over other to depict the torso and lower half of the human body. Here the male and female icons are clearly distinguishable. However in Saura art, these genders are not usually clearly distinct. Here the lower half might either be depicted holding a drum or sometimes show some curvature to depict movement. Another difference is that Saura art uses a ‘fish net model’. This means the art is usually surrounded by an ornate border or boundary. And the artiste works from the border towards the centre.

Sauras are a primitive tribe and find mention both in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Some say that Shabari who fed ‘ber’ to Rama was a Saura tribal. Another legend goes that Jara, the hunter who accidentally shot and killed Lord Krishna with his bow and arrow was a Saura tribal. The legend says that Jara’s body floated into the sea and was found on Puri beach as a wooden log. The idol of Jagannath in Puri is believed to have been sculpted from that piece of wood.

Saura tribals not only inhabit Odisha, but also live in Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. It is said that the Saura tribals worship a deity called Idital and these art forms when created on walls are called italons or ekons. Their paintings have religious significance and are usually made by Kudangs or the priests. They depict either nature or their routine life. The ekon is usually made in a corner on a wall inside a home, when a new house is constructed.

Have a close look at the woven motifs. The tree is the primary centre figure and the human figures seem to be either tending the tree or paying obeisance around it. I wonder if it is the Tree of Life motif that is seen almost in all traditional designs from different parts of India. What I particularly love are the numerous monkey figures on the trees and on the ground. Do tell me if you enjoyed this story and the frames.

Saree #182: A Sambalpuri ikat cotton saree woven by a master weaver

This one too is a Sambalpuri Ikat cotton saree from Odisha. But this piece is made by a master weaver. I just saw a single motif on the pallu of this saree and bought it. The creativity of that one design was so stunning that it was irresistible to me. See for yourself and decide if you agree with me.

This saree depicts conservation, not just by its green colour. But look closely at the motifs of women carrying water pots. In remote arid parts of this country, the onus of carrying water from long distances to home lie on women. Water is precious. Water is scarce. And look at the stunning interpretation of the weaver. Where he has turned these water carrying belles into parts of an elephant. Elephants incidentally have matriarchal societies where the leader of the herd is a cow. Is it his way of saying the women are the actual leaders of the world, in their own gentle way?

The first word which immediately came to mind when I saw this picture was “Gajagamini”. Then I stopped. What did this word mean? When I think of Gajagamini all I remember is MF Husain’s film with Madhuri Dixit. A film I didn’t understand at all. And why was he comparing Madhuri Dixit to an elephant in the first place?

So I decided to go back and hunt the origins of the word ‘Gajagamini’. I came upon an ancient Odiya poem where the qualities of an elegant woman are listed. These are:

  • Padmini Padmabasini: one who smells like lotus
  • Mrugarajkati: one with a waist as slim as a deer’s
  • Nindeghanajagani: one with round thighs
  • Gajabaschali Gajagamini: one whose walk is soft and sensual like an elephant’s
  • Kokilakantha: one whose voice is like a koel
  • Chandramukhi: one whose face is like the moon
  • Mrugachahani: one who has the swift innocent glance of a deer
  • Mrughakhi: one whose eyes are shaped like a deer’s
  • Bimbaadhari: one who has red lips like a parrot
  • Meena nayani: one who has fish-like round eyes
  • Maninimadalasa Mandahasi: one who is sensitive and the one who smiles proportionately with a slight, sweet smile
  • Ghanakesi: one who has thick hair
  • Puspabati latika: one who has hair like the creeper with lots of flowers
  • Jabaadhari: one who has red lips of a hibiscus flower
  • Dalimbabijadonti: one with small white teeth like the seeds of pomengranate
  • Mrudukumudakanti: one with skin color like that of a blooming lily
  • Maralagamini: one with a swan-like walk
  • Chandranane: one with a round visage like the moon
  • Nasikatilapuspa: one whose nose is slender like the flower of the ‘til’ plant
  • Kusumathani kularajani ghanakesi: You are like a flower with lush hair.

I read these and thought…. how many expectations from us women! Can’t they just accept us for what we are? The way we are? So many definitions of beauty, interestingly all drawn from the natural world around us. Sadly the respect for both women and nature is wanting. There are lots of lessons to learn. Lots indeed.

So why do I still feel like naming it my Gajagamini saree. Not because one wears it and walks with swaying hips. But because women walk gently, silently and still lead the world, without being noisy. Could they ever do without us?

Saree #183: A Pochampally ikat saree inspired by a Cambodian pattern

This is a Pochampally ikat silk saree. There are several villages in the district which are engaged in this craft. It is said that weavers from Chirala brought the weaving process to Pochampally. Locally this craft was called ‘chit-ku’. Single ikats are of two types, depending on whether the warp or weft is dyed. Pochampally ikats are double ikats which means that both the warp and weft have been dyed. Imagine the difficulty in getting geometric patterns correct when both yarns have been dyed. That gives it the characteristic blurring at the edges of the motifs.

The uplifting part is that these days weavers are inspired by other techniques and are not shy of experimentation. The motifs of this saree are inspired by the Cambodian designs. Traditionally Cambodian ikat is a weft predominant ikat. It is woven using a multishaft loom and has an uneven twill weave. This means that the weft threads appear a little raised on the front of the fabric. Cambodian ikat is also called Khmer ikat. Its history was marred by the Khmer Rouge regime which had banned its production calling it elite wear. Several traditional motifs were lost during that devastating time. Pochampally ikat sarees usually have geometric and abstract prints. But these chevron and arrowhead shaped designs, and that dark wine coloured background highlighting the white motifs enamored me to buy it. It is heartening to see weavers try this cross fertilization of ideas to produce newer designs.

Saree #184: A simple Pochampally cotton with a chevron pattern

The Pochampally ikat technique is not very old. As I mentioned earlier, ikat came to Pochampally from Chirala. While the weavers of Telia rumals used alizarine dyes, weavers at Pochampally used synthetic ones. No oil processing was used, but the typical double ikat weave was retained. Pochampally silk sarees these days borrow a lot from the Patola patterns of Gujarat. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. However Pochampally ikat is made using pit looms unlike Patola.

I’m in love with the sober but elegant cotton sarees from Pochampally. They serve as my formal bhashan wali sarees or lecture wali sarees. I think I have four cottons and my appetite for these is still not satiated. How can one not fall in love with these simple but striking diagonal lines in green and white, and the Chevron lines in the pallu?

Saree #185: The Telia Rumal Saree

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the ikat technique is called pagdu bandhu, buddavasi and chitki. The double ikat weaving style here is highly skilled and is performed by weavers of the Padmasali and Devang communities.

This saree is a distinctive double ikat weave from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana called the Telia rumal saree. Telia rumal literally means oily handkerchief. This weave originated in the early 19th century in the town of Chirala (interestingly the name Chirala comes from the Telugu word for saree, cheera).

This weave was originally used to make square shaped telia rumals (also called chowkas and Asia rumals). These rumals require the use of alizarine dyes and smell oily. These were exported to the Middle East where in the dry climate placing an oily handkerchief around the neck was soothing. Locally two unseparated pieces of telia rumal were used as lungis or loincloth by fishermen or dupattas by Muslim women. Sometimes they were used as mardans (turbans or headgear) for Arab travellers. In 1950, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who was the chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board, mooted the idea of using these Telia designs in sarees.

The technique of making these sarees is very tedious. The yarn has to be first treated with sheep dung, castor pod ashes and oil. This helps the cloth retain colour and gives it cooling properties. Further each thread has to be individually positioned on the loom following the pattern made on a graph paper. The yarn is tied and dyed in accordance with the required pattern. The thread design is tied and dyed and positioned in the loom before weaving. Making these distinctive geometric patterns perfectly requires skill, precision and years of experience.

Traditionally three colours were used: red, black and the undyed white. The distinctive red comes from the aal or Indian mulberry tree. The genuine Telia Rumal saree costs above Rs 1.5 lakhs and is made on pre-order for connoisseurs.

With time, the laborious oil treatment has been done away with. So it should be questioned if it still a Telia. Weavers no longer use alizarine dyes but now use quicker synthetic dyes. The number of motifs per saree has gradually increased from 4 to 8 to 9, 12, and 36. If you have less number of motifs the pattern looks blurred. More the number of motifs, the more precise the pattern looks. This is a 12 motif cotton saree. Weaving 36 motifs is extremely laborious and is done only on dupattas. A cotton dupatta with 36 motifs will cost above Rs 13000. Copying these double ikat motifs on the powerloom is difficult. Do not go for the single ikat variants which are fakes woven on powerlooms.

With time, these sarees became extinct in Chirala. But this craft was learnt by master craftsman Gajam Govardhana (Padmashri) and taught to weavers in his village, Puttapaka. These continue to be made here.

Many changes have happened to these sarees. These are available both in silk and in cotton. Another saree of this kind I have is rather coarse. This one is probably mercerised and softer. Mercerisation is a technique where the yarn is treated with sodium hydroxide for lustre and strength. This weave is a heritage. When I looked at the ancient patterns which are no longer made, I found birds and elephants woven in the squares. Although it has undergone modifications with time, increased interest keeps it alive. I chose to buy an indigo Telia rumal rather than the traditional one, as I like the indigo-red-white combination and I waited until I found a 12 motif saree. But even the black and red ones are beautiful. Hope this detailed process behind the making of a Telia rumal saree was useful to you all.

Saree #186: Another Telia Rumal double ikat cotton saree

I’m posting this Telia rumal double ikat cotton saree to show you the effect of having less or more motifs compared to the previous saree #185. As I have described before, these days weavers no longer perform the tedious step of processing the yarn in oil. So there is a school of thought which questions their nomenclature as Telia rumal sarees, and simply prefers to call these double ikat sarees.

Now let’s come to the number of motifs. If you compare this ochre-black-white saree with my last post, you can see that this one has only two motifs repeated again and again. The previous indigo-red-white saree had 12 motifs. The blurring and haziness is visible when lesser motifs are used and this is less expensive, and easier to weave.

Saree #187: A colour blocked Koyyalagudem saree

In the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, several villages around Pochampally became hubs of ikat weaving. Through the years, several weaving centres showed a steady decline in sales. However Nalgonda district managed to reinvent itself and showed significant success and has started attracting migrant weavers from adjacent districts.

This is an ikat cotton saree from Koyyalagudem. This village now forms part of the Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district in the newly carved map of Telangana. Several weaver cooperatives exist in this village. Koyyalagudem managed to survive the economic crisis by diversifying their products.

While the art of ikat was learnt from the Chirala weavers, Telia Rumal is hardly made here as there are no buyers. Cotton sarees made out of synthetic dyes are popular. They have expanded to dress material, dupattas, and furnishings. The dimensions of the looms had to be altered to make bedsheets. There was a time when European guidelines banned textile made of chemical dyes, and so they had to adapt there as well.

In Koyyalagudem, entire households and families are involved in the different steps of preparing the yarn, sizing it, dyeing it etc. Elsewhere in Pochampally, there is considerable division of task. Like one weaver only prepares the yarn and sells it to another. Another weaver does only base colour dyeing. However in Koyyalagudem these tasks are not outsourced and taken up by family members. I liked the bold colour blocks in this Koyyalagudem saree. Although I rarely pick such strikingly contrast and bright combinations, once in a while it is permissible to go astray! Paired it with an ikat blouse to go with the ikat patterned pallu.

Saree #188: A Dubakka saree from Telangana

This is a Dubbaka saree. These sarees are woven in Dubbaka in Telangana. There was a time when these sarees were woven by 10000 weavers in this region. There used to be a beeline of traders from Odisha to buy these sarees. But sadly that time is long past and around 1000 weavers remain.

These cotton sarees are different from the double ikats from Pochampally. Those sarees have ikat patterns set on both the warp and weft. Dubbaka sarees are weft only ikat sarees. There is so much to discover in the world of ikat. Not everything needs to be shiny and glitzy. Sometimes the elegance and comfort of everyday soft cotton is sought for the soothing touch and look. Great for everyday work wear.

Saree #189: An ikat saree from Palani in Tamilnadu

This saree is a Palani tie and dye saree from the weavers of Palani in Dindigul district in Tamilnadu. These soft silk sarees clearly seem to be inspired by Pochampally ikat designs. Here, the weft yarn is dyed using the tie and dye technique to obtain bold motifs and the feathery ikat designs. These sarees are known for the bright colours they use and their zari borders.

The name of Palani brought a gush of childhood memories to mind. Palani (pronounced Pazhani), is a temple town with an ancient Murugan temple. As kids we really used to look forward to the delicious prasad from the temple if anyone returned from a pilgrimage from there. Last year, the Palani Panchamritham, which is the prasad from there, was given a GI tag. This is the first time a temple prasad was given that tag! The very thought of the dark panchamritham bought back the unique flavor of the five constituents of the prasad — jaggery, bananas, ghee, honey and cardamom — to the mind.

The temple used to be accessible by climbing up several hundred steps. I don’t know if it still exists but there used to be a rope-way to reach the temple on top of the hills. I remember as a child, that we went for the last pooja. That night is deeply embedded in my memory. We were packed into dark lightless cramped train-like carriages. I distinctly remember the loud creak of the pulley, as the carriages were inclined at a scary steep angle. To my child-like mind, the jerky ride felt as if a couple of men were pulling the ropes! What if they got tired and if the rope slipped from their hands? Would all of us go hurtling down the hill?! I was so scared until we reached the top of the hill. I guess I prayed more for safety than anything else on that trip. Though I think there are now railway tracks to reach the hill.

Coming back to some background about the Palani temple. It is dedicated to Lord Murugan, who is more popular as Kartikeya in the north. As the story goes, Narad Muni visited Kailash and offered to give a gyana-pazham (fruit of knowledge in Tamil) to whoever went around the world thrice. While Kartikeya mounted his peacock and actually went off to encircle the world, Ganesh merely circum-ambulated around his parents and won the contest easily. A miffed Murugan, who is worshipped perennially as a young boy, felt the need to grow up, and decided to meditate in Palani. So in Palani, Lord Murugan is worshipped as a young hermit, shorn of his locks and finery, clad in a loincloth, armed with only a staff or dandanam.

The Palani temple is considered the first of the six abodes of Murugan — the others being Thiruthani, Tiruchendur, Swamimalai, Thiruparankundram and Pazhamudircholai. Another fascinating story goes that once, all the sages and gods assembled in Kailash, to meet Lord Shiva. This resulted in the earth tilting precariously to one side. To maintain the balance, Shiva asked sage Agathiyar to go with a demon called Ettumba and place two hills in the south. However the demon could not budge one of the hills. It turned out that Lord Murugan stood on that hill. When the sage begged for forgiveness, Murugan allowed the hill to remain at Palani and made it his abode. The other hill was carried by Ettumba to Swamimalai where again Murugan is worshipped.

Saree #190: A Patola from Rajkot in Gujarat

In 2019, I travelled with my friends to Patan. I remember reaching the Patan Patola museum and seeing the closed doors. My face dropped in disappointment. This museum is not closed on Diwali, New Year or Christmas. The only day of the year when it is closed is on Makar Sankranti, and I had chosen to go there on that very day! I remember sitting quietly on the steps outside the museum for a full 30 minutes ruing my fate.

But then I consoled myself with two things. One, photography isn’t allowed inside the museum. So in any case I wouldn’t have enjoyed writing about it on my blog minus the photographs. And secondly the price of genuine Patan Patolas is upwards from Rs 1.5 lakhs, which was way outside my budget. So what was the point of seeing the museum? Just a way to provide solace to my meandering mind, I guess. But then all the nearby shops were also closed on Sankranti and I didn’t get to buy anything, despite going all the way to Patan.

Coming back to Patola sarees. They have an intriguing 800-year old history. Patan was the glorious capital of the Solanki empire. It is said that weavers from the Salvi community with expertise in making these textiles originally belonged to Jalna in Maharashtra. But the Solanki king, Kumarapala had a tradition of wearing a new holy cloth each morning at prayer. This ‘holy cloth’ was always a Patola and it was discarded after the prayer. He wanted to be sure of the ‘purity’ of the new cloth which he received from Jalna. So he entered into a pact with the rulers of Jalna, and around 700 families of Patola weavers shifted to Patan under the patronage of the Solankis.

The Patola was an exclusive fabric worn only by the royalty and the aristocracy. Even today only the rich and famous can afford Patolas. There was a time when these fabrics were more famous outside India than within. Traders sold this fabric to Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia through the sea route, and it inspired the development of the Indonesian ikat style.

What makes the Patan Patola such a prized possession which is coveted by connoisseurs? It is not just the vibrant colours, but the tedious process of making a saree. Weaving one saree can take anywhere between 8 months to over a year. This is a double ikat tradition where both the warp and the weft are dyed before weaving. But first the traditional geometric designs are drawn on graph paper. The silk is hand-twisted to strengthen it. The process of weaving is more complex than the double ikats of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. Imagine ensuring the intricate design is correctly made on the threads before they are woven on the loom. The process of colouring the threads step by step by covering them by thread sequentially to get the right pattern is unimaginable. The loom itself is unique having a decline-incline style which needs two weavers to weave it simultaneously. A rose wood shuttle called ‘vi’ is used at the loom which led to the community being called ‘Salvi’. It is a lot of hard work, which unfortunately does not give adequate dividends. So the children of these weavers are drifting to other professions.

At the moment there are around 3-5 families in Patan which closely guard the secret of weaving Patan Patolas. The truth is that despite the GI tag, it is a dwindling art tradition, which needs more experts and practitioners. Watch the weaving of a Patola saree here:

There was no way I could have afforded a Patan Patola, so of course, my saree is not the real thing. This is a semi-Patola which is 8 ply, which makes it as thick as the Patan Patola. And it tries to replicate the traditional design. This saree has a Nari Kunjar Popat Phul Bhat. Bhat means pattern. Nari means dancing woman, kunjar means elephant, popat means parrot and phul refers to flower.

Being a Kanjeevaram lover, I didn’t think much of Patolas before I wore it this morning. But now that I have experienced the grace of wearing one, I am tempted to save up. Who knows whether I can wear a real Patan Patola once in this lifetime? What stops one from weaving castles in the air anyway?!

Catch up with my previous saree stories, if you haven’t done so already.

My saree stories: Part 1
My saree stories: Part 2
My saree stories: Part 3
My saree stories: Part 4
My saree stories: Part 5
My saree stories: Part 6
My saree stories: Part 7
My saree stories: Part 8
My saree stories: Part 9 Navratri special
My saree stories: Part 10
My saree stories: Part 11
My saree stories: Part 12
My saree stories: Part 13 Odisha weaves
My saree stories: Part 14
My saree stories: Part 15
My saree stories: Part 16
My saree stories: Part 17 Odisha weaves
My saree stories: Part 18 (Ode to the Laal Paar)

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