Sometime last year, when Ayodhya was being decked out for the Ram temple inauguration, almost 900 km away in Odisha’s remote Katapali village in Bargah district, Ishwar Meher worked on a sari depicting Ram Setu (bridge). A 2015 National Award-winning master craftsperson, Mr. Ishwar Meher worked with handwoven cotton yarn for five months, using natural dyes extracted from flowers, jaggery, gram flour, iron rust, and indigo.
The sari will now be showcased at the Jagannath Temple in Delhi on January 22, since Hindus believe Ram is one of the 10 avatars of Jagannath. “The temple is receiving lots of gifts from devotees across the country at the moment and we do not want the importance of our exquisite sari to be lost in the mega event. It is our heirloom,” said Dushyant Meher, whose father, Kailash Meher was one of Mr. Ishwar Meher’s five gurus. Mr. Dushyant Meher, who promotes the craft, has brought the sari for display to Delhi, and has sought permission to do so in Rashtrapati Bhavan as well.
“Artists often rely on religion, because their work depicts scenes from mythology. Sambalpur is part of Odisha’s Koshal region, believed to be the land of Kausalya, Ram’s mother. Sambalpur weavers regard Ram as their nephew and he is an integral part of our collective spiritual consciousness,” said Mr. Ishwar Meher.
With inputs and support from his wife Reboti and son Manas, Mr. Ishwar Meher conceived of and designed the piece in Sambalpuri baandhakala ikat, a technique where the warp and the weft are tied and dyed before weaving.
The master craftsperson, who in 2019 won the Sant Kabir Handloom Award, conferred on “outstanding handloom weavers” as per a Central government website, said the time and labour invested in the crafted piece determines the price of the sari. This one costs ₹1.10 lakh. Each sari takes a minimum of two months to weave. He hopes the exhibit will boost sales, so that the skill is kept alive.
The demand for these saris is low because of poor market linkages, leading to middlemen often buying the craft with less margins for craftspeople. Power loom products and even prints that mimic the ikat weave are far less expensive for buyers, says Mr. Dushyant Meher. He adds that master craftspeople invest a great deal of time and money in developing new products, which ultimately does not pay off. “Over the past decade or so, the cost of raw materials has doubled over the last 10 years,” he says.
The bridge on the Ram Setu sari is woven entirely in black, and runs down the middle of the blue body, depicting the sea between Sri Lanka and India. It is patterned with full-length rows of stones that according to legend, formed the original setu. ‘Shri Ram’ is written on each stone. There is a mix of motifs associated with religious rituals: rice stalks, rudraksha beads, betel nut flowers. The pallu tells the story of the construction of the bridge with the vanar sena (monkey army) and squirrels, Ram, Hanuman, and other characters from the Ramayana. The borders have motifs of conch shells, fish, tortoises, and other marine creatures.