Kotpad Handlooms: Tribal Heritage, Market Potential, and Sustainability
What is interesting about the Kotpad Handlooms?
Listed under the ‘One District One Product’ (ODOP) initiative, the Kotpad Handloom is a textile tradition from Odisha. Its name comes from ‘Kotpad’, a small weaving village in Odisha’s Koraput district. The Kotpad handloom’s uniqueness and elegance exemplify tribal heritage, culture, and art. It is also Odisha’s first Geographical Indication (GI) tagged product.
Handwoven in the tribal regions of southern Odisha and Chattisgarh by the Mirgan community, the Kotpad fabric is characterised by nature-sprung cotton fabrics, natural dyes of red, brown, and black as well as unique motifs drawn from nature. Typically, they indicate the wearer’s identity and mark the rites of passage in a woman’s life.
One of the unique aspects of the Kotpad handlooms is the eco-friendly, non-toxic, and completely non-chemical nature of the fabrics. The earthy flavour of the natural dyes could be attributed to their extraction from the root of the Aul tree, lending red, maroon, and brown shades to the fabric. Each cotton yarn is treated with dung, wood ash, and castor oil in an elaborate process lasting nearly a month. Weaving itself is also a complex process – three shuttle pit looms with extra weft patterning for the more complicated motifs are used. Interestingly, men of the community are the weavers, while the women take care of the dyeing process.
This dyeing and weaving process, rooted in the tribal reverence of nature, is an attractive feature of the handlooms as the textile industry struggles to look for organic and eco-friendly options. Folk tradition around the natural dye even claims that the fabric prevents the wearer from getting skin diseases. These aspects of the Kotpad handloom story present it as a unique selling proposition, thereby providing a crucial market opportunity for the product.
Where are we on the sustainability question?
It may, however, be noted that there exists a dilemma in the handloom’s relationship with sustainability in two ways – the sustainability of the product as well as the sustainability of the process. First, the product itself is sustainable in the sense that increasing market trends towards organic, eco-friendly, and vegan products give it an excellent potential. Yet, there exists the issue of raw material sourcing. A field visit to Koraput by the ODOP team at Invest India revealed that the tribals were sourcing the dyes from areas about 80-100 kilometres away from the centre of production. Along with increased transportation costs and logistics issues in sourcing from remote forest areas, the handloom weavers are also vulnerable to the danger of wild, man-eating tigers.
The second dilemma of sustainability presents an even more complex and interesting case. As it is a natural product with no chemical dyes, the Kotpad handloom is exempt from common dye pollution allegations against the textile industry. Thus, it does not pollute water with chemicals, which otherwise results in the death of aquatic life, soil degradation and water poisoning. Further, it has an overall smaller carbon footprint in contrast to other textile industries. However, the State Forest Department in Koraput restricts plucking of the roots of Aul tree (needed for the natural dye) on the grounds that it affects the life of the aul tree. Thus, it begs the question as to whether the process of dye extraction for Kotpad handlooms is an environmentally sustainable one.
This issue has led to a fall in supply of natural dyes, thereby also contributing to the first dilemma. In response to this, an aul tree plantation in an approximate area of 2 acre has been planted in the Thenguda Village of the Kotpad Block in the Koraput District by the Government of Odisha in 2019. However, this remains only a temporary solution. Nonetheless, it may also be noted that the Mirgan community of weavers claim that the harvesting the root-ends of Aul tree is not harmful to the tree. This claim is rooted in their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) arising from generations of intimate engagement with their environment. Thus, it is a claim one cannot simply ignore. It may be noted that research validating Forest Department claims is minimal or non-existent.
Apart from the above, the Kotpad handloom industry also commands one’s attention to a few other issues. Through stakeholder consultations at the ground level, the ODOP team has noted a lack of awareness among consumers about the laborious process of making the Kotpad Handlooms and the fact that only shades of red and black can be obtained naturally. There has also been a decline in the number of artisans as the years have passed.
Is there something we could do?
While we work towards taking the local to the global, the solutions lie in finding a niche space for Kotpad handlooms in the textile market. This includes targeted marketing for consumers, not only interested in organic, eco-friendly, and sustainable fashion, but also have the purchasing power to pay the premium price for it. This shall be a marker of just compensation for all the diligent weavers who dedicate tireless months of labour into preserving the artform.
Perhaps, with an increasing shift towards veganism and other such lifestyle changes, markets in Western Europe and North America could be explored for the Kotpad handloom. This may be paired with upgradation of packaging and marketing for e-commerce platforms. An organic certification for the Kotpad Handloom Weavers' Association could also facilitate the sale of their handloom products in relevant domestic and international fabric markets.
On the more pressing question of the Kotpad handloom’s sustainability dilemma, however, the answer lies in research and development. Claims emerging from indigenous knowledge need to be verified and validated through scientific research. This will ensure sourcing and supply of the essential raw material for the natural dye; and, put a spotlight on the conservation of Odisha’s aul tree.