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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Odissa Sarees: a Photo Essay

by Jaina Mishra

Orissa is one of the 28 states in India.  It is among the poorer states and lies on the East coast and is often in the news on account of the natural calamities.  

It has been said that the states of India are more diverse than the countries in Europe.  Each state expresses its own identity in terms of its art forms of music, dance and textile.  At this salon, we will focus on the sarees of Orissa which have a rich and unique identity.  To create a reasonably complete picture, I have presented the various dimensions of a saree and then highlighted the specialties of the Oriya saree.

Seven ways in which a sari can be worn are shown here - each one emanating from a different state. Sarees are usually 5 yards in length (except for those from the state of Maharashtra [where Bombay is] and perhaps also Tamil Nadu - where a 9 yard saree is worn - see pictures 2 and 3).  The 5 yard saree is worn over a long skirt, and a blouse, and has a long strip of matching fabric sewn along its lower edge on the inner side.  This weighs it down, and makes the saree fall well. The 9 yard saree does not need a skirt.

Another easier to wear dress is the long shirt with matching drawstring pants, which is commonly worn in the northern parts of India.  The highlight of that dress is the dupatta also called the chunni or odhini.   This is a small 2.25 metre fabric which is draped over the shoulders on the front, over the long shirt.  The dimensions are those of a shawl, but shawls are more functional while these are decorative.

Ethnic textiles from some states that were earlier available only as sarees. Since the eighties, ethnic textiles have also been adapted to include the dupatta format and Odissi dupattas are now also available to mix and match with other dresses.

Odissi sarees are available in the 5 yard format as well as the ‘dupatta’ format which is 2.25 metre.The most typical way of wearing it is the fourth picture from the left. Materials are also available by the metre, so that even shirts and other dresses could be designed using these.

This is a Sambhalpuri dance with the saree worn in the tribal way of Orissa. This method is not adopted in non-rural areas or communities.

In the past century several self dependence measures were introduced in the fight for independence from British rule.  One of them was to spin one’s own yarn and make all the clothes required at home.  Since the dresses of preference in those days were sarees for women and dhotis for men, a long woven fabric was all that was needed.  That was the birth of Khadi fabrics (pronounced "khaadee").  The cotton was coarse and it was easy to see the slubs and other irregularities.  At the time of introduction it was a symbol of national pride, but after independence (1947) the popularity dipped in favor of cheaper, longer lasting and better finished synthetics.

Through a confluence of two factors, the eighties saw a revival in handloom textiles.  In the early eighties, a large number of women joined the workforce, and although many ideas were borrowed from the west, the dress of preference continued to be the saree.  These women had both the buying power and the opportunities to access information and supplies from a wider geographical area.  At the same time the efforts of the government to market handlooms and handicrafts of each state were beginning to bear fruit.   The output of cooperatives were now beginning to trickle in to the large metro markets, where the buying power lay.  The quality had improved and finer raw materials were being employed in creating ethnic textile art.  So these two factors fed off each other and we saw the beginning of the ethnic revolution in textiles in India.  Today, handlooms command a price premium and while printed machine made cottons can be cheap, handloom cottons compete with mid range silks on price.   On the other end of the spectrum there is another kind of cotton which also commands a huge premium: Mul Mul, which is extremely soft, and barely there.  It can be fine enough for a large scarf to be passed through a finger ring. These are used in a different state for another manifestation of Islamic art – the embroidery of Lucknow – which we will not address here.

Odissi cottons are thick with a high thread count as well as thicker yarn and are available in varying degrees of fineness. Cottons are usually starched stiff for maximum effect prior to draping.

There are several kinds of silk available – broadly classified into artificial silk and pure silk which may or may not be handloom.  Within pure silk there are a large number of possibilities, e.g. Benarasi silk, Kanjeevarum silk, Tasser silk, raw silk and these are the materials of preference for festive dressing.  It is worth noting that festivals dot the Hindu calendar at regular intervals and most of these entail mingling with the large families and communities.   This warrants heavy investments in fine dressing.  Brides carry away with them an auspicious number - 11, 21 or 51 - of sets of fine silks or fine dresses which last them a lifetime.  And heirloom sarees are passed on from mother to daughter.  I’ve bought most of my recent ones on that pretext!

Tussar silk originated from Orissa and is one of the lighter, more delicate and stiffer silks available.  The silks shown here are not Tussar, but other variants.

The traditional sarees have undergone vast changes as weavers try to adapt the designs to popular taste.  But the ethnic elements that are peculiar to the state remain.  The temples in the state at Puri have a pyramidical structure and are by the Bay of Bengal.  The influence on textile art is seen through the presence of motifs such as the temple borders, lotus, conches and wheels, that signify the affinity with the reigning deity or goddess.

The state of Orissa makes 4 distinct types of sarees.

a. The Bomkai saree is a recent adaptation from tribal sarees and is named after a tribal village in southern Orissa.  It has an embroidery-like work on the border and pallo (the broad band at the end).


b. Sambhalpuri sarees, with their richly woven borders and pallus are among the most popular Odissi sarees.



The above are examples of the ‘Bandha’ or tie-and-dye or double ikat from Sambhalpur and is one of the several variations of Sambhalpuris. The one on the lower left, showing work in progress, is reproduced from SariSafari.com, with the kind permission of the owner.


The two sarees below have a coarser cotton and also have more ethnic elements – e.g.  multiple borders and the elements within the borders.


The next two textiles below are example of the ‘Pasa-palli’.   Pasa is the word for the chequer board and it is a very popular game almost exactly like ludo.  Pasa palli is therefore the saree full of chequers – maybe they played on their sarees?  This element is usually found all over the saree and is not restricted to one area of the piece.  The first is a saree, while the second is a dupatta, which I am using as a cover for the shoe cupboard outside the home. 



The third type is the Behrampuri silk, which are usually heavy, with narrow borders, that are slightly plain, without the intricate designs generally found on the Sambhalpuri sarees.  The last is the Khandua pata, which is cheaper than the Sambhalpuri because the yarn used is less expensive.  No examples of these types are available to me.

Proceed to Part 2      Discussion