Most fashion school graduates in India begin their work life in the export industry, moving from one apparel company to another. Delhi-bred Gunjan Jain too began this way, joining an apparel company in her home town and then moving down south to the IT hub of Bengaluru. However, watching the industrial process of cloth making up close, she was soon disillusioned with the way things were commodified as a result. “The process of creating clothing in a factory and assembly-line set up lacked the sort of collective union that I wanted to be part of.” This essentially triggered her move to the textile rich eastern state of Odisha in 2007 where she set up her design studio ‘Vriksh’ in the capital Bhubaneshwar one year later.
Odisha is one of the few remaining centers of traditional weaving techniques and offered a young designer like Gunjan a deep dive experience of the handmade. The model she adopted at her studio involved working with weavers in an egalitarian partnership, rather than an instruction based one where sheets of paper are handed to weavers to simply replicate the design. “The weavers have been the guide for the studio in terms of understanding handloom, the techniques, the culturally significant motifs and colors used by them. Their experience and knowledge have been the core strength of all the collections we have presented so far,” says Gunjan. The studio has created sarees, dupattas and other textiles that borrow designs from the various textile traditions of the region, including fine tussar silk from the coastal belt, ikat from the west, as well as tribal weaves and those created by using natural dyes (such as that from the ‘aal’ tree) from the southern portion of the state.
Through her studio Vriksh, Gunjan has been on a journey to revive some Odisha weaves that are being threatened by current market forces. These include the Bomkai and the Dhalapathar, named after the villages they originate from. Bomkai, which is among the original weaves that Odisha was once famous for, is woven on a pitloom, with the designs and colors borrowed from the weavers’ environment. They dance in the annual Thakurani jatra, which begins on the last Tuesday of the month Chaitra (around mid-March). The male dancer wears a red bomkai saree and represents Goddess Durga, while the one in black is Goddess Kalika. The Thakurani icon represents both the deities with a headdress that has seven snakes. Today there are only three weavers in Bomkai village who create thick cotton extra-weft patterns in the traditional form depicting peacocks, flowers, fish, etc.
The Dhalapathar weave was displayed proudly in homes across Odisha two decades ago. Today only two weavers in the entire state retain the knowledge of this weave. Most weavers have either migrated to nearby states to work on power-looms or have abandoned weaving altogether. “The story of weavers migrating out of the age-old textile rich regions to become unskilled labor has played out in many regions of the state, and even across India,” says Gunjan. But the hope remains through some who wear their heritage with pride and do not wish to forgo it for menial labor. One of the three surviving Bomkai weavers, Kabiraj Naik, told Gunjan that he prefers weaving in his house with his family rather than breaking stones or working on machines the whole day. All he wishes for is fair wages for his effort.
During her work Gunjan found many weavers had lost confidence in their own creativity, marred by the mindless mass production as laborers. Through her endeavor she ensures fair wages for their work, offering them not only a better marketing platform but also finding new ways to bring back their belief in the value of their work. Her motto of ‘creativity through conservation’ is achieved by contemporizing traditional aesthetics while retaining the inherent motifs and essence of the original weaves.