It was late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who became the first brand ambassador of Sambalpuri sarees by flaunting it at public functions. Soon followed the women newscasters of Doordarshan.
And in the eighties and nineties, Sambalpur, the westernmost district of Orissa and about 250 km from capital Bhubaneswar, became the toast of the upper crust for its sarees.
But less than a quarter century later, the hands that used to weave grace and charm are leaving the trade to pull rickshaws.
The uniqueness of Sambalpuri sarees lies in its tie-and-dye method of weaving that protects the glaze even after a decade. Though market studies indicate a steady demand for Sambalpuri sarees, the weavers are suffering.
“It’s a peculiar case where the product is in demand, but the creator is struggling,” says handloom researcher Tulsi Ballav Das.
“We weave five sarees a month. Seven years ago, we used to get Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,300 per saree. Now, it is barely Rs 500,” says Narayan Meher, 46, an artisan in Sagarpalli village of Sonepur district, a major hub of Sambalpuri sarees, about 300 km west of Bhubaneswar.
The Sambalpuri saree trade is still caught in a time warp, as weaver-members of cooperatives have gone back to work for the middleman, who market the sarees.
Earlier, they got the thread and dye from the cooperatives, which then marketed their finished products. But the cooperatives collapsed due to financial irregularities after the entry of politicians and bureaucrats. And by the mid 1990s, the vacuum was quickly filled by middlemen.
Sagarpalli village and its 500 inhabitants, belonging to the Bhulia (weaver) caste, typify the problem. Every weaver’s home is a small-scale unit. The centerpiece of the unit is called a monga, which is actually a hand-made wooden handloom.
Over the years, they have remained busy and churned out those 6-yards (18 feet) of wonder. But today many mongas have been idle for quite some time.
The cooperative movement, initiated mainly in Bargarh, 59 km from Sambalpur, and Sonepur by visionaries like Krutartha Acharya, freedom fighter and cooperative activist, fizzled out even after Sambalpuri Bastralaya Cooperative Society (SBCS) of Bargarh had emerged as India’s biggest weavers’ cooperative with more than 16,000 members.
The Orissa government has taken a few steps to revive the trade, but they seem to be inadequate. L.N. Nayak, director, textiles and handloom, said, “The cooperatives were offered one-time settlement of their loans and some weavers have been trained to meet new demands.”
He also mentioned a special package of Rs 40 crore to grant Rs 25,000 to each weaver for constructing his work shed.
Under the government scheme, SBCS has got a loan waiver and some investment. It has opted for diversification to stay alive and earned a profit of Rs.1.28 crore in 2008-09. The target is to reduce its dependence on the Sambalpuri saree.
An SBCS official, who refused to be identified, said, “We have diversified to dress materials, furnishing, bed cover and towels to cater for the needs of customers across the country.”
The bottom line, however, is clear: The rescue strategy has reduced focus on the Sambalpuri saree, although the demand is still high.