Ikat weaving is one of the oldest craft traditions of India with a very distinctive weaving technique.
Shefali Vaidya is a writer, photographer, newspaper columnist and mum to triplets, who loves to travel.
He gazes upon the world with half-closed eyes, compassion radiating from his face. His long fingers are closed around a fully blossomed Padma or a lotus. This Padmapani Bodhisattva painting at the Ajanta caves has been enthralling visitors for more than 1500 years.
I am drawn to the chessboard pattern depicted on his kativastra, the cloth tied around his waist. The same chessboard pattern is replicated on the kurta of a young visitor who is staring at the painting with awe, unaware that the Padmapani Bodhisattva and she are bound together in an unbroken living tradition called Ikat weaving, one that has survived intact for centuries in India.
Ikat, one of India's oldest craft traditions, is the art of tying and dyeing the yarn before it is woven. The word Ikat itself is derived from ‘mengikat’, a Malay-Indonesian word that means ‘to bind’.
Ikat is a resist dye technique, where a pattern is created in plain yarn by first blocking certain specific areas as per the desired motif and then dyeing the yarn so that the blocked areas resist colour. The process is repeated multiple times, depending upon the complexity of the pattern and the number of colours used. The dyeing is always done from lighter shades to the darkest ones.
(Tying the yarn - National Award-winning weaver Kalabati Meher of Odisha)
No one knows where the art of Ikat weaving originated, but India is one of the oldest centers practicing the art. The word ‘Patolika’ describing the Patola Ikat weaving can be found in a text called Brahmanjala Sutra that dates back to the 4th century. The cave paintings from Ajanta that date from the 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE feature several examples of Ikat textiles worn by different characters depicted in the paintings.
Ikat can be broadly classified into two categories:
1. Single Ikat, where either the warp - that is the long horizontal yarn is tie-n-dyed or weft - where there shorter vertical yarn is tie-n-dyed. Weft Ikat is more complicated of the two, as the pattern starts to emerge slowly only after each line of the fabric is woven.
2. Double Ikat, where both the warp and the weft are tie-n-dyed separately and then woven together so that the precise pattern emerges, is the most prized kind of Ikat. India is one of the only three countries, apart from Japan and Indonesia, where double Ikat weaving is still a living craft tradition.
Ikat weaving styles across India
In Gujarat, double Ikat fabrics are woven in Patan, and are known as ‘Patola’. Patan Patolas are extremely complicated to weave, as each thread in its undyed state needs to be counted and arranged in bundles. Each bundle is then tied-n-dyed as per the desired patterns. Patolas use multiple colours, to weave traditional patterns known as ‘bhats’ like ‘naari-kunjar’ (woman and elephant) or ‘bagh-kunjar’ (tiger and elephant). Naturally, the tie and dye process takes a long time.
(Tie and dye)
The dyed yarn is then placed on the loom and carefully aligned while weaving, so that both the warp and the weft intersect at the precise, desired point. Both, the tying of the Patola yarn as well as the weaving is a time-consuming and back-breaking process requiring a tremendous amount of skill and hand-eye coordination.
Weaving a Patola sari requires an immense amount of precision and patience. Every colour in every square inch of the yarn has its own unique place in the final fabric and it has to be carefully aligned with the pattern while weaving. After every few inches of weaving, the design is adjusted using pointed wooden needles. A skilled Patola weaver can only produce 8-10 lines of the fabric per day! As a result, Patola fabrics are hugely expensive and are prized by textile lovers. Unfortunately, because of the long hours and efforts involved in Patola weaving, the Patan Patola art is near extinction. There are only two families of traditional Salvi weavers practicing this craft left in Patan now, though, in another city of Gujarat, Rajkot, weavers are attempting to replicate the Patan Patola patterns in single Ikat.
The coastal state of Odisha has had a long tradition of seafaring and the particular style of Ikat weaving practiced in Odisha has marked south-east Asian influences. Odisha weavers practice both single Ikat as well as double Ikat weaving. Locally, the technique is called ‘bandha’, meaning tieing.
(Single Ikat from Odisha with curvi-linear delicate lines)
Odisha Ikat is very different from the Patola Ikat of Gujarat, as the yarn is tied in smaller bundles and dyed accordingly. Skilled weavers of Barpalli near Sambalpur and Nuapatna, near Bhubaneshwar, can even tie the yarn two threads at a time, resulting in very fine, delicate lines and greater precision in designs. Odisha Ikat textiles can look like delicate pencil sketches, such is the command of the weavers over their art. Odisha Ikat is famous for its fine curvilinear lines, giving the artisan greater control over the motif to be woven.
Odisha Ikat is famous for motifs inspired from nature with animals and trees as well as motifs that are associated with Lord Jagannath, a form of Shri Vishnu, the patron deity of Odisha. Odisha Ikats have Vaishnava religious motifs like shankha, chakra, padma, rudraksha, kalasha and tulsi plant rendered beautifully onto the fabric. The pasapalli or ‘chessboard’ Ikat of Odisha has been much coveted over thousands of years. It is this same design that one can see on the waistcloth of the Padmapani Buddha in the Ajanta caves. So prodigious are the skills of Odisha Ikat weavers that they can even transfer texts onto the fabric using fine tie-n-dye techniques.
Andhra and Telangana
(Telia Rumaal weave)
Ikat weaving is equally popular in the Telugu speaking states of Andhra and Telangana. The Telugu word for tie-n-dye is ‘chitki’. The oldest place in the region famous for its Ikat weaving is Chirala, a place famous for its distinctive double Ikat weave called ‘telia rumaal’. Telia Rumaal literally means ‘oily handkerchief’. These were square handkerchiefs consisting of mainly geometric patterns woven for the local Muslim market. Now, these same patterns are woven into sarees, where mainly only three colours: red, white and black are used. Andhra and Telegana Ikat fabrics are known chiefly for their intricate geometric patterns. These days, the Ikat weavers of Andhra have included several design innovations into their repertoire and are creating textiles of stunning beauty which are much prized the world over.
What Lies Ahead
Ikat fabrics are woven in cotton, silk as well in silk-cotton yarn as Ikat requires natural yarn for the colours to bind properly. Originally, even the dyes used were of vegetable and mineral origins, prepared from indigo, turmeric, catechu, myrobalan, iron rust and other natural sources. In recent years, the vegetable dyes have been largely replaced by chemical dyes, as they are cheaper and easier to obtain and offer the weaver a larger range of colours, to begin with.
Ikat weaving in India has undergone many changes, like many hand-made crafts. It is the original ‘make-in-India’ craft, which is under threat from textiles woven on a power loom using man-made yarn. Such textiles are screen-printed to look like Ikat, but as they are far cheaper to produce, they are sold for a song. This has affected the demand for genuine tie-and-dyed Ikat sarees. For the uninformed consumer, it is not easy to distinguish between hand-woven Ikat and screen printed Ikat. However, there is an easy way to do that.
As the Ikat yarn is dyed before it is woven, the motifs look exactly the same on both sides of the fabric. In fact, weavers of Odisha, leave loose yarns on the reverse side of the border to let consumers know that it is a genuine, hand-woven Ikat. However, if it is screen printed Ikat, you will observe that the fabric looks different on the reverse side.
Ikat weaving is an important living craft tradition of India. Beauty, innovation, sustainability and elegance are the qualities that characterise Indian Ikat fabrics and it will be a sad loss to humanity if this craft has to die out for lack of patronage.