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The Extraordinary Intricacy Of IKAT
Text by Shernaaz Engineer and Photograph by Nileh Archarekar
Published: Volume 15, Issue 5, May, 2007
As one of India's master craftsmen, Padmashri Awardee, Chaturbhuj Meher, of Orissa, leads a unique movement to revitalise and reinvent the antique tie-and-dye techniques, which are both unique and crucial to the crafts legacy of the country, writes Shernaaz Engineer

Sometimes, the grief of adversity and circumstances too baffling to be understood or endured brings upon the blessing of deep creative insight and expression. Great artists have often sublimated the dross of a very difficult destiny by becoming inspired channels for an aesthetic idiom that has redefined the realm of their art. Subsequent acclaim leaves them largely unmoved and untouched, perhaps because they know that the price they have paid for their success has been an enormous one and the dark hour of the soul still casts its shadow.

Master weaver Chaturbhuj Meher, a modest septuagenarian whose rustic simplicity belies his exalted status as a Padma Shri Awardee (2005), and a living legend in the art of tie-and-dye handloom weaving (mainly ikat), has virtually lived his entire life out on a limb and a loom.
Born to a poor weaver's family in Sonepur, Orissa, in 1935, he was orphaned at the age of nine. "What do I tell you about my life," he begins with a sad smile. "The early years were very tough and I was troubled by way too many difficulties." As a young boy, as he struggled for his existence, he took on the ancestral profession of ikat weaving to eke out a living. There was no question of continuing with his education, so he learnt all his lessons at the loom. Passionate about what he was doing, like a sponge, he soaked in the teachings and techniques of the master weavers in his vicinity.

Later, he joined the Utkal Purdah Agency of Sambalpur (Orissa), where he met his guru, Radhashyam Meher, the legendary tie-and-dye exponent whom he exalts even up to this day.
As his artistry and creative finesse evolved, he branched out on his own and was soon appointed President of the Ramjee Weavers Co-operative Society of Sonepur. The Central Government then recognised his talent and appointed him Master Weaver at the Calcutta Weavers Service Centre. For the next 25 years he served the Weavers Centres in Calcutta, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Imphal and Bhubhaneshwar and created some of the most exquisite saris, bedspreads, wall hangings and fabric, all in ikat. Many of these are now in museum collections all over the world or owned by private connoisseurs in India and abroad.
At some point Meher decided to return to his native Orissa, where he held training camps and workshops for local ikat artisans and weavers. In the 1980s, with the widespread proliferation of textile mills, which had, sadly, started printing ikat saris and fabric and selling them at rock bottom prices, the economic plight of the genuine ikat weavers of Orissa became pathetic. It was then that Meher decided to start an organisation in his native Sonepur for weaving ikat, applying new techniques and styles.

In Mumbai, to host one of his annual exhibition's at Chhaya Arya's Chetana Art Gallery (she has been his loyal supporter for years together), the Shilpguru, as Meher is now called, explains that the ikat or 'bandha' of Orissa, is woven with gem-coloured, slightly-blurred motifs. The most dominant motifs include animals and birds, with traditional designs including fish, conch shells, flowers, lions, the lotus, rudraksh beads, trees and vines.
"More modern elements like 'rangoli' art have begun to creep in and we are always adding innovations," he stresses. Ikat is a very intricate process that involves tie-and-dye. First, the design is drawn out on paper to convey the pattern to the weavers. The weavers then lay out the warp or weft threads to be patterned in proper length to achieve a repeated pattern. The threads are tied up and dyed, sometimes in multiple colours, one colour at a time. The weft threads are wound onto spools for later weaving and the warp threads, which are mostly seen in border designs, are tied onto the loom and wound around the warp beams.
Says Meher, "Originally, one person did all the work, right from setting the pattern, to weaving the fabric, doing the tie-and-dye of colours (prepared by him), and the final finishing of the sari. Today, we have departmentalised the process and different people are put on different jobs according to their skill. Earlier, blouse pieces were never part of the sari but today they are. So we keep making adjustments to the traditional process."