Berhampur, Odisha: A tradition Boyanika doesn't give a damn about

Though Odisha is not Kerala, I was here at the beginning of the quarter, and after spending last quarter studying handlooms here, I thought it worthwhile to at least take a look at what exactly is going on in Berhampur.

Odisha, like many states in India, has a wealth of weaving traditions.  Everyone in the state is proud of the Sambalpuri bandha textiles, warp-weft ikat sarees and bedsheets mostly.  I went to Bargarh (where the “Sambalpuri” designs are actually woven, their name coming from what is now a neighbouring district) in November, and wrote about that for my contract with Gail Tremblay, so I won’t talk much about such here.  Anyway, Odisha’s weaving traditions are many: bandha from Bargarh, Sonepur, Nuapatna, and Jagatsinghpur; extra-weft designs from Kotapad, Khurda, Ganjam (both Berhampur and the traditional Bomkai designs), Mayurbhanj, and a few that I’ve probably forgotten after writing about them a few months ago.  Berhampur is one of the better known places for weaving in the state, maybe not so famous as Sonepur or Bargarh, but it was once known for its silk sarees (supposedly, but the issue is that I know several people from that city, so it may be just that I got used to hearing about it).  That being said, no one in Bhubaneswar seems to care much about the traditional Berhampuri designs, and they aren’t commonly seen in shops, a contrast to those from Sonepur, Bargarh, and Nuapatna.

Boyanika, the trade name for Orissa State Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society, is the the main organisation for handloom marketing and promotion in the state.  In fact, it seems to be the only weaving co-operative society in Odisha which has statewide jurisdiction (in contrast to many other states which have multiple organisations).  There are, of course, regional co-operatives which serve the same purpose on a local level, but these basically are limited to a local level, as well as selling textiles to larger organisations.  And Boyanika doesn’t seem to care about weaving in Berhampur, given any visible indications.

There was a handloom products exhibition in Bhubaneswar back in January, and in this there were weaving co-operative societies from several places in the state, as well as a couple of other states (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar,West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir - in other words, the usual festival participants).  Those from Odisha were mostly from Sonepur, which has appropriated a traditional lace-weaving technique (for extra-weft designs) found in Ganjam district, applied it to jhala mechanisms (basically, jacquard), and is more than likely now claiming it for themselves (Odisha’s Directorate of Handlooms and Textiles seems too disorganised to bother with GI states, otherwise they’d try for that, I’m sure), along with a few from Nuapatna, Bargarh, (and somewhat surprisingly) Khurda, and Jagatsinghpur. Nothing from Berhampur.  This event was largely sponsored by Boyanika, with some support from the local Weavers Service Centre.  In the Boyanika shops, there is nothing from anywhere in Ganjam district, and they seem to regard weaving there as an extinct tradition.

I went to Berhampur not long after this, knowing fully well that there are still weavers there who follow traditional styles.  True, some of them have picked up bandha weaving in a style reminiscent of other districts in the eastern part of the state, such as Nuapatna or Khurda, but the traditional style is still woven.  There are, if you go to the right part of town, about five shops focusing solely on Berhampuri patta, which is the traditional silk sari woven there.  Typically, there is dobby work in the border and pallu, but it’s usually a rather simple design.  Why this is overlooked is a mystery to me, as Kanjivaram in Tamil Nadu has a very similar style of weaving, which is celebrated throughout India.  I think that if designers in Kolkata or Mumbai picked up on this (or even Fabindia, for that matter), they would have no trouble marketing this type of thing in the metros.  Anyway, three of these are co-operative societies, with sponsorship from the Government of India, the other two being private enterprises.  One of them, in response to the Sonepuri ‘Bomkai’ weaving, has adapted the traditional variant (from Bomkai village, about fifty kilometres north of Behrampur city) to finer silk saris.  While they would have been traditionally khadi cotton, it’s good to see that a traditional style is still garnering interest after its appropriation from weavers elsewhere.

I didn’t have time to see any weaving being done (it took me too long to find these shops, and I had to go back to Bhubaneswar that evening), but I now know who to contact the next time I end up in Berhampur.  The point is this: while weaving in Berhampur is on the decline, it is still done in a traditional style, and therefore, there is time for the state government in Odisha to aid the weavers here, as they have in Bargarh, Sonepur, and Nuapatna.  I just hope that they do so.

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