When it comes to traditional textiles of Odisha, Sambalpuri ikat perhaps grabs most of the attention.
Richa Maheshwari, the founder of design label Boito, wants the world to know about other weaves and textiles from the state as well. For over a year, she’s been working with weaver communities spread across the state, aiming to make indigenous textiles popular while empowering the creators. Some of communities she works with are the Dongria Kondh tribe, who make the Kapadagandha shawl; the Gadaba and Bonda tribes, who weave textiles using the fibres of the Kerang tree; and Kotpad’s Mirigan community that uses the Aal tree to create a type of heavyweight cotton that helps in designing structured yet flowy garments.
As part of the initiative, Maheshwari presented some of the weavers’ works at Mumbai’s Gallery 47A earlier this month. On display were trench coats made from Kotpad weaves, jackets created using Kapadaganda shawl, and other garments designed with Kerang textiles, among others.
In an interview, Maheshwari talks about Boito, the inspiration behind it and why she’s in no rush to expand the brand offerings. Edited excerpts:
What’s the meaning of Boito?
It literally means “boat”, and is derived from the ancient maritime festival of Boito Bandana (Worship of the Boats) that commemorates the voyage of the sadhabas (Odia mariner merchants). They would travel to distant land for trade and cultural exchange. The boats used for these journeys would carry cargo, including woven textiles, which helped the sadhabas earn money. The women from the families of travelling sailors would perform rituals to ensure their safe return. Today, the festival is celebrated with the floating of decorated miniature boats as a symbolic gesture.
From Boito’s show at Gallery 47A earlier this month
What prompted you to start Boito?
Odisha is home to 10% of the country’s tribal population. There are 62 tribal communities here, of which 17 are weaver communities. I work with smaller communities in the state. For instance, the Bonda community, which came here from Africa thousands of years ago, wear only one piece of cloth, called ringa. It is a rectangular piece of loin cloth, like a short skirt; every other part of their body is covered in beads, which they make in-house. To make the ringa, they use the bark of a tree (Kerang) that grows locally. They crush the bark, make yarn out of it, and then they weave it in vegetable colours to get different colours. This ringa is very sturdy, since it’s made out of jungle fibres it’s made out of the bark. Similarly, in Kotpad, the weavers use roots of a tree. They dig a little far away from the trunk into the ground, and cut a small portion of the root, which doesn’t hurt the tree in any way. They then mix this with things available in nature… for example, the fruit of the Peepal tree or the kumkum seeds. They get exactly three or four colours with this organic process.
A weaver from the Bonda community in one of the creations
I discovered these ways of living, and the textile knowledge few years ago while I was on a break. I was working as a product manager at SAP for 16 years and after the pandemic, I decided to take a sabbatical and explore my hometown (Odisha). That’s when I was introduced to these indigenous textiles, and that’s how Boito happened. I was like, I make PPTs in my corporate jobs and present them to make things look good. Why can’t I use those skills to present these stunning creations to the outside world? And honestly, these design are already aesthetically pleasing. They are very modern in the current form, just need some design tweak, which we do. Like we make trench coats, bomber jackets, trousers.
How many artisans do you work with?
About 15. They are mostly from the farming communities. I think such initiatives help them earn extra money and make them feel more proud of their creativity. But I am in no rush; I don’t want to push them to produce more. They are following the same pace they were following earlier.
The whole process of creating the garment is a complicated math. It starts with the making of the thread. You will see a woman sitting with silkworm cocoons, boiling them and pulling the thread out of it. So that’s how Kosa silk is made. Then it’s refined using multiple steps, each of which is happened by a different person. It’s not like one person will do the pulling of the thread, the tying of the yarn, its spinning and then dyeing. All are handled by different skilled people, who are artists in their own way.
Even when it comes to the motifs, they depend on the region they are in. Like if they are in a landlocked forested area, then you will see motives of elephants, peacocks. If they live near the coast, then you will see shrimp, fish.
How challenging is it to marry traditional and contemporary designs?
We are not trying to mess with what they make. Like they are making motifs of fish for generations. I will not tell them to not do that; that’s their legacy, culture. What I will do is that I will tell them to make a four-inch fish, instead of a two-inch one, and make a kimono.
The challenge is more in terms of like… they can only dye 15 meters of yarn at a time, which means we can make only five garments. But that’s okay I think. They have their own set ways. They like to lead unhurried lives and they are very happy with it. We can learn a lot from them.