Aap hotel pahuch gaye (have you reached the hotel)? Good night madam," reads Devkishor Meher’s WhatsApp message with five zzzz emoticons. It’s 10pm and we are in Barpali, a village in Odisha’s Bargarh district.

Devkishor, 32, is the youngest in a family of Bhulia Mehers, an OBC, or Other Backward Class, known for its Sambalpuri Ikat weave. Dressed in an Ikat shirt and slim-fit jeans, he is constantly on his smartphone. He doesn’t look like the father of two boys or a recipient of the National Master Weaver Award—conferred on his brother Nabakishor and him in 2008, when he was just 24.

The awards were in keeping with the family tradition. His father, 60-year-old Dayalu, who started weaving when he was 12, is a National Awardee. So is his mother Swarnalata, married at the age of 16, taught to weave, but never sent to school. So was his late grandfather, a descendant of the 18th century weavers of Odisha’s Garhi village.

Bargarh, which had a population of nearly 1.5 million according to the 2011 census, has more than 12,000 looms, the most in any district in the state. Its weavers have received 45 National Awards, 52 State Awards, two Sant Kabir Awards and two Padma Shri honours—all for their work on the Sambalpuri Ikat. This is the only weaving cluster in the country with so many awards to its credit.

Ikat means yarn-resist. Single Ikat is a weft-resist textile; in double Ikat, both the warp and weft are tie-dyed. Odisha’s rich weaving tradition includes the tribal Bomkai and the striped or chequered Santhali saris, but the weft-resist “Sambalpuri", woven in silk or cotton, is its most recognizable product. All the dyes used are chemical.

Its motifs include floral garlands, fish, the lion, peacock, lotus, conch and deer, as well as patterns from Odisha temples. The colours range from orange-red, dull pinks, red and black to muted yellows and browns. Some Ikats have geometric designs, resembling Andhra Pradesh’s square Telia Rumal. Sambalpuris have elaborate borders with rows of tiny flowers.

Dayalu says the award-winning Kalashiromani saris, traditional but exceptional Sambalpuris created by his father and ancestors, were inspired by the stone carvings at Konark’s Sun Temple and Puri’s Jagannath Temple. Their store gets its name from these saris. Most decorative or bridal saris have local cultural symbols, like animal and floral patterns or mythological stories like the Mahalaxmi Purana. Swarnalata’s oldest possession, her wedding sari, a double Ikat woven by her father-in-law, is a dull pink, with motifs of a deity worshipping the sun god with a lotus in her hands.

The Sambalpuri is a matter of local pride; the state is also its largest consumer. All the village women we met wore self-woven saris. The older women drape them without a blouse. Interestingly, the fabric is also used for local school uniforms. Yet, despite the honours and the ubiquity, the Sambalpuri has been unable to carve out a place for itself outside the state.

Weavers themselves acknowledge a general unwillingness to change. The fabric remains thick and stiff, the preference is for simpler patterns that take less time to weave. And most Sambalpuris find a market in the state itself; there is little incentive to innovate.

Odisha Ikat—primarily the Sambalpuri—was the flag-bearer of the craft-revival movement in the 1980s led by cultural activist and writer Pupul Jayakar. Thereafter, cotton and silk Ikats, including the Chitrapaar saris with their large red and black checks, became associated with jholawallas, activists or elite society women who invest pride in India’s handloom heritage. For years now, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has been the most admired ambassador of Ikats.

Dayalu describes the mid-1990s as the commercial peak for Sambalpuris; that was the time he began showing at the Surajkund or Dastkari Haat fairs in and around New Delhi. Demand has seen a steep decline since, particularly in the last decade.

“I was the first weaver to be selected by Fabindia in the 1990s but now they haven’t placed a single order for the last five years," says Dayalu. He doesn’t smile easily, unlike his wife, who beams as she serves us small cups of heavily sugared tea. “We barely sell 20 saris in the 15-day annual Dastkari Haat Samiti fair at Dilli Haat, whereas in the local Friday market in Bargarh, more than 1,000 weavers make profits," says Dayalu. “Ninety per cent of my stock is sold at Bhubaneswar; I can’t even sell 5% in Mumbai and Delhi," he says.

Kalashiromani, his wholesale store in Barpali, stocks some fine Sambalpuris, kept locked in steel almirahs. It is a humble set-up, with framed and dust-covered Sambalpuri designs hung on walls.

When we arrive after a 5-hour drive down a dusty and deserted highway, a training session is in progress. Such workshops, where selected trainees are mentored by a National Awardee, are organized periodically by the state’s development commissioner for handlooms and handicrafts. Devkishor, for instance, supervises a four-month training stint for weavers aged 18-35, who get a daily stipend of 100. He is paid 20,000 a month.

Married women, some of them mothers of adolescents, also take part in these workshops. “When we were young, looms ran from 4 in the morning to 10 at night. Now there is no passion among locals," says Swarnalata. Today’s weavers are interested in “business", not hand-skills or weaving.

Devkishor and Dayalu take us to the Koira Tikra and Gavli villages, where almost every house has a pit loom, and the weavers range from teenage girls to veterans. The homes are tidy, with basics like plastic chairs, curtains, steel utensils and large baskets filled with potatoes and onions. English words like “success", “new", “minimum" and “single count" pepper their Hindi. Most of the girls are only sent to village schools, and while weaving is encouraged, higher education is not.

Typically, a weaver family earns 10,000-12,000 a month. “I used to get 30 for one sari when I started, now I get 1,000, but I only manage to weave three Sambalpuris a month. I used to live in a mud house, now I have a pucca house. We didn’t even have electricity for 40 years after I started weaving," says 66-year-old Kherodra Meher of Gavli, who has been weaving for 45 years.

It is easy to connect the saris woven on village looms to those sold in Sambalpur, a town teeming with stores selling Ikats. But when you look closely, you begin to understand what Dayalu means when he says today’s master craftsmen are being controlled by weavers who would rather focus on simpler patterns. Most of the cottons on sale are thick, the silks too stiff for a fluid drape—certainly not the kind of textiles that would interest contemporary admirers of handlooms.

In New Delhi, Anuradha Kumra, the creative director of Fabindia’s women’s and kidswear business, agrees with Dayalu and confirms that Fabindia has stopped ordering Sambalpuris. “There is no evolution in the weaving or in the quality of yarn. We even sent out designers to work there locally but the products didn’t find too many takers. The colour palette remains dull, with muted beiges and broad black borders, and one can buy only so many of these saris," says Kumra.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the fashion industry doesn’t favour Sambalpuris. Even those who did, like Bengaluru-based designer Deepika Govind, who owns the Neel Sutra stores in New Delhi and nearby Gurgaon and experiments with regional variations of Ikat, has given up. “I worked with Odisha’s double Ikats, including making a collection for the ramp, but we were stuck with stock for years," says Govind.

“Bargarh’s local weavers take pride in their Ikat but don’t want to innovate or soften the yarn. It is unlike the Andhra Pochampalli, where Ikat has been interestingly evolved by local weavers," she adds.

Sambalpur’s reluctance to innovate is difficult to rationalize. Especially as Upendra Kumar Devata, the state handloom department’s Bargarh assistant textile director, tells us that the weavers regularly get technological and skill inputs: They are sent on “exposure visits" to other states, given grants for new looms, are covered by social security and self-employment schemes, and all health insurance premiums are paid by the state. Their children are eligible for educational stipends of up to 100 a month.

It doesn’t seem to be enough to propel change.

Dayalu himself is in the process of weaving a sari that will tell “the story of Odisha". “Only 30% of it is complete; I need two more years," says the master craftsman. Will it be able to change the fortunes of the Sambalpuri—or will it live on as a museum piece?

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