Social anthropology and its inextricable link with communities and textiles heritage, it is this bond that Pankaja Sethi explores through weaving
By Asmita Aggarwal
Her father was in the paramilitary forces which took a young Pankaja Sethi on a trip from the length and breadth of the country, and when she was 16, she heard of NIFT, paving the way for her future trajectory. “I wanted to be an artist and like all middle-class parents, my father insisted I choose a course which had a future. So I thought of using my creative energy for the uplift of society and I still draw and take inspiration from nature, which I believe is mankind’s biggest teacher,” she says.
A textile artist and researcher working with weavers and Adivasi women in Odisha for more than a decade, she studied Textile Designing from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (2001). Then she went on to do a master’s in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
“I did my undergraduate degree in Botany honours from College of Basic Science & Humanities under Orissa University of Agriculture & Technology. But I have been disorganised so I launched my label in 2013, participating in exhibitions like Dastkar and Crafts Council, never the runway,” she laughs, adding, “I worked in home furnishing for a while, but hated the mass-scale production. I decided to travel to London to understand better what textiles entail and how they are linked to our tribal traditions through the medium of anthropology.”
Working with organic cotton, natural dyes and with Adivasis in rural sectors, Pankaja, believes in indigenous fabrics, which are rare in Orissa, which the Cuttack born says need preservation. “I wanted to be the artisans’ voice, and create a space for ethical fashion, that’s why I see only art critics, academicians, and intellectual celebrities as well as women working in the corporate sector wearing my clothes, it is not for red carpet aficionados,” she asserts.
Handloom plays a big role in our country and it is sustaining many families, who are feeding off the loom; Pankaja works with indigo from the Coromandel Coast and mostly tribal women who are highly skilled in weaving techniques, the true flagbearers of sustainability. “This is a slow process as each piece takes a month or maybe even three at times, the loom takes 45 days to set. We use only natural dyes, to support the environment and sometimes more than 1,000 threads are used for a single sari, it is a complicated and hand intensive procedure, and society must be sensitised towards this. As I grew up in Cuttack, I saw around me a lot of poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and infrastructure, with looms languishing, the idea was to work at the ground level,” she explains.
Her experimental textiles are woven in her studio in Bhubaneshwar, and she supports weaving clusters in Gopalpur, Nuapatna, Jagatsingpur, and Kotpad and also indulges in textural single ikats, using mulberry silk which has been her favourite. Blouses are recycled and upcycled using quilting and patchwork. “I went to the UK to get answers for my questions which were plaguing me seeing the condition of weavers community. Our textiles are linked to the socio-political environment; crafts must be understood in context and that has been my effort,” she concludes.