The word, “ikat,” has its origins in the Malay-Indonesian word, “mengikat,” which means to “tie.” Originally an East-Asian textile dyeing process, since the 7th century, ikat has made its way West to India, North to Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, and South to Madagascar. Every region’s craftsmen fell in love with and appropriated the art of ikat and developed a unique tradition of it. The distinct tradition of ‘Odisha Ikat’ or “bandha” can be found in the Sambalpur, Bargarh, Sonepur, and Boudh districts of Orissa. Other Indian traditions of ikat include Patola (from Patan, Gujarat) and Pochampally (from Andhra Pradesh). According to some historical sources, ikat was introduced to Orissa by Patan artisans who migrated to the region in the 12th century.

Ikat print from Uzbekistan

Antique ikat print on silk from Uzbekistan

What makes ikat a unique form of “resist dyeing” is that instead of printing dyes on fabric, the warp and weft threads of the loom are dyed in order to create a hazy pattern. This is where it gets its name: “poetry on the loom” because the dyeing is a kind of artistry conducted on the loom itself as weavers delicately thread dyed yarn through fabric. In Odisha, the Lord Jagannath cult is closely associated with the textile art of ikat. Motifs and designs resemble rudraksh beads and temple towers, and some craftsmen draw and dye Gitagovinda hymns on fabrics, which are then used to dress up the idols in the Jagannath Temple. A sect of artists in Western Orissa known as the Bhullas, employ a design style called the double-ikat, which is distinct in pattern, tradition, and style from the ikat designs of Eastern Orissa. The two predominant artisan casts are the Bhulla (or Bhulia Meher caste) and the Gandia-Patra caste.

Sambhalpuri ikat saree from Orissa

Sambhalpuri ikat saree – design and style unique to the Sambhalpur region of Orissa (Source: Wikimedia Commons; photograph by Sujith Kumar) 

In order to dye the warp and weft threads, ikat yarn is first bundled using rubber bands and strips of cloth in very specific manner to impress specific patterns on the yarn when the strips are dyed. These cloths are dyed with vegetable dyes enabling the yarn to soak up the colour in a specific pattern. Finally, the cloth is untied and the process is repeated with new strips of cloth tied and dyed in alternative bundles to create more vibrant and variegated patterns. Depending on the shade, pattern, and intricacy of the design, ikat dyeing can be completed in anywhere from three to fourteen stages. Furthermore, ikat styles – namely, single (or warp ikat), double (or weft ikat), or combined (both warp and weft) – differ in how the warp and weft threads of the loom are bundled, tied, and dyed together, and the more complex the tied mesh, the longer it takes for artisans to complete a single pattern.

Orissa weaver making a Sambhalpuri ikat saree

Orissa Weaver assiduously weaving ikat-dyed threads on the handloom (Source: Journalist, Shefali Vaidya)

When the ikat threads are woven onto the final fabric, both sides of the fabric are patterned and dyed because the entire strand of yarn has been dyed instead of printing on one side of cloth. Since the handicraftsman cannot use any predesigned template or print to produce an ikat pattern, the thread has to be dyed carefully and slowly and woven onto the loom assiduously. Consequently, a multi-coloured ikat saree can take two craftsmen up to seven months to make. Combined ikat is rare and expensive, which is why it is done primarily for Patola sarees (in Patan, Gujarat), which are among the most expensive sarees in India.

Patola ikat saree from Patan, Gujarat

A Patola saree from Patan, Gujarat; Patola handloom sarees are among the most expensive and coveted sarees in India

Sihasn’s Odisha ikat is of feathery, curvilinear patterns that are hazy in appearance dye to the bleeding of the dyes across the warp and weft yarns. The Uzbeks refer to this aesthetic unique to ikat as “abra” or “cloud.” Under the Geographical Indicator Act of 1999, Odisha Ikat can only be produced in certain villages of Orissa (specifically Mankedia, Barapalli, Remunda, Jhiliminda, Mahalakata, Singhapali, Sonepur, Patabhdi, Sagarpali, Tarabha, Biramaharajpur, Subalaya, Kendupali, Jaganathpali, Kamalpur, Badamba, Nuapatna, Maniabadha, Narashinpur, and Tigiria).