The survival story of patchwork artisans of Pipoli

Applique work

And these days, you get them as pillowcases, cushion covers, decorative hand fans, table-linen and upholstery material as well.

They come from Pipoli — a backward village in Orissa, 20 km from the state capital of Bhubaneshwar. Applique work is more of a cottage industry here — a way of life that has sustained 50-odd families over centuries.

“Tailored applique is getting cheaper here,” informs 80-year-old Ucchab Maharana, a master craftsman in the village. “Only a few foreigners are prepared to search and pay for the original hand-crafted pieces. But that is rare.” Maharana is a seventh generation artisan, honoured by a state government award for his craft. The prize money has already been spent in paying up loans and the rusty memento stares at him vacantly from a mantle piece in his two-roomed tenement.
Though his craft does not earn him more than Rs 100 a day, he is among the few in his village who believe that traditional applique, or patchwork retains its value in this machine age. He has ensured that his children and grandchildren do not give up the craft, come what may. “It is a question of family pride,” says the bearded old man. “A Maharana applique work bears our signature of quality. We cannot squander it away for the sake of a few extra rupees.”

But many in the village do not share his commitment towards the art. A friend, Dibakar Mahapatra, has given up the profession after 25 years and is reconciled to running the stationery shop he opened at Pipoli recently. “Dibakar is a fine artist,” says Lalit Maharana, Ucchab’s son. “His family has grown, the children are jobless and they have run into heavy debts. They cannot depend upon an uncertain income from applique work just for the love of it.”
Ironically enough, Dibakar’s disciple, Jabar Khan is a success story. He has been quite a globetrotter and executes bulk export orders from his tin-roofed workshop. He does not conceal the fact that more than 70 percent of the pieces that leave his workshop are machine-made. “You have to be realistic in this business,” he argues. “I cannot take months and years to execute big orders on the pretext of preserving an art tradition. I need to engage tailors and maintain my goodwill in the market. Also, the workers have to be paid.” Khan adds that even “the world’s biggest connoisseurs of art” cannot make the difference between machine-made and hand-made applique. “People are more interested in the chabi (the picture) than in the intricacies of stitching and cutting.”

According to Ucchab Maharana, Khan is the last of artisans trained under the guru-shishya parampara at Pipoli. “The genesis of applique can be traced back to the 12th century when Lord Jagannath’s temple was constructed in Puri,” narrates Maharana. “It had a limited use as decorative pieces in temple festivities — to adorn the walls, dress up the horses and elephants, preparing hand fans…In those days, the kings patronised the art as the common man could not afford it. The artisans used seven colours, representing the seven cults which Lord Jagannath represents. There was a religious connotation towards them. Today, nobody could be bothered!”
Another disturbing fact for the Pipoli artisans is that “sub-standard copies” of their work are surfacing in distant towns of Gujarat and Rajasthan where the influx of foreign tourists is high. On its part, the Orissa Handicrafts Development Corporation has initiated several schemes of self-employment so that the art can be preserved.

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