I really cannot pinpoint when I fell in love with ikat textiles, but I know it has been a rather long affair. I think most of the world is in love with ikat, and probably does not even know it.
Ikat on home textiles and saris is a timeless trend. Its peaks and valleys, almost always in pretty pastels, are found in the most luxurious homes and, thanks to its easy availability, in humbler homes, too. It can be vivid and decorative, or subtle and sophisticated, and thus has an unending demand.
Ikat—which means ‘to tie’, ‘to bundle’, or ‘to knot’ in multiple languages such as Indonesian and even Urdu (‘ikattha’, to gather)—is probably our most ancient example of globalisation. It is probably 6,000 years old (literally the Stone Age). It is accepted to have originated in mainland Asia and travelled westward to Central Asia, to countries like Uzbekistan and Iran, and even to Guatemala, Mexico and Argentina.
There are three countries where it still thrives—India, Indonesia and Japan.
For its ancient origin, ikat is actually a rather complex way of dyeing cloth. It is unlike other textiles, where either the yarn is dyed in a single colour before weaving into cloth, or first woven into cloth and then dyed. Ikat involves dyeing the yarn in multiple, pre-decided colours, so that they may form a pattern when woven into cloth. A bunch of threads is tied together with a rubber strip, to function as a resist, and then dipped in a dye to get the desired colour. The bands are relocated constantly for each colour dye. The result is a complex, geometric grid or multiple colours dancing on the cloth.
In India, ikat is the speciality of three areas. Gujarat’s Patan village, near Surat, is renowned for a double ikat called the ‘Patan Patola’. The double ikat is where the warp and the weft of the cloth are dyed separately to form the pattern (a single ikat sees only the weft, or the horizontal weave, being dyed). The double ikat is also found in a cluster of villages in and around Pochampally, now in Telangana. Sonia Gandhi’s favourite textile is the double ikat—the oil-dipped ‘telia rumal’—from this region. Odisha is famous for the single ikat. Odia ikats, according to textile researcher and curator Savitha Suri, are more curvilinear “thanks to the influence of Jagannath styles of Hinduism”. “Ikats were first made in Chirala, then Andhra, and the Nizam of Hyderabad brought them closer to the Pochampally cluster. Here you can see the Islamic influences, no parrots and elephants, but just pointy, geometric shapes,” she explains.
The Aditya Birla Group’s Aadyam Handwoven has taken up Pochampally ikat as one of its pet projects. Their stores in Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad celebrate contemporary colours in the Pochampally ikat. “We started with Pochampally for its complex geometrical design language that makes it region-agnostic and has a global appeal,” Manish Saksena, lead advisor at Aadyam, tells me. He has invited me to visit the villages where his artisans laboriously make these magical, dancing tie-dyes. “Their varying thread counts lend to furnishings as well as saris,” he says. Aadyam encourages weavers to learn the economics of the business, teaching them to price their work according to suitable markups. “This way they are encouraged to be entrepreneurs, not just producers,” he says.
This is key, as despite the international allure and reach of ikat, the artisan still lives a meagre life.