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Traipsing Through a Technicolour Town
By Thomas King
1 March 2011

I’m walking through a kaleidoscope of colour, a tunnel of Technicolour. Everywhere I turn as I tramp through Pipli in the eastern Indian state of Orissa there are shades of brilliant blue, radiant red and ornamental orange. Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking of Pipli as an apex of art of a cauldron of culture.   It’s far from having such an exalted title.


In fact on many maps of India this village is omitted entirely. I’m under an hour east of the state capital of Bhubaneswar and midway through a journey of discovery in a lesser trammelled part of the Indian Republic between THAI gateways of Kolkata to the north and southerly Chennai, the former Madras. 


The state of Orissa is a hotbed of handicrafts but nowhere in the country is anything being produced that’s more colourful than the appliqué work of Pipli. Excellence in this traditional art of embroidery has well and truly stitched this otherwise unassuming village onto the handicraft map of India.


The work being done at Pipli – the name denotes the village as well as the artwork – is not rocket science though sales of this specialised handicraft are rocketing as visitors and locals alike descend upon the community to purchase appliquéd table mats, garden umbrellas, wall hangings, lamp shades and even bed sheets and handbags.


The secret to the success of a Pipli artist is colour .... lots of colour. The principles of appliqué work as one shopkeeper shows me are quite simple. Coloured swatches of fabric are cut into various designs and sizes.   The shapes of animals and flowers as well as geometric designs for example are then cut from other fabrics of contrasting colour and may be folded to present a 3-D appearance. Then the two pieces are stitched together.


The colourful patches are then sewn onto a much larger piece of fabric that may well become a cushion cover or a far larger canopy. There are several different types of stitches that can be used though the more intricate the work the higher the price of the finished article, the shopkeeper tells me.


It appears that if something can be made from fabric then a Pipli artist will be able to suitably accent it. And in Pipli, a village between Bhubaneswar and the famed coastal temple town of Puri there’s no shortage of innovative ideas. Pipli craftsmen have been called upon to make the most of a rather simple artistic material since the 16th century.


In times long gone there was no such thing as day tripping leisure tourists. Pipli people used their skills to make much coveted items for elaborate Hindu festivals. Pilgrims from far and wide would converge on nearby Puri during these special times. The popularity of the colourful craft produced by Pipli artisans – actually entire families are involved in the various processes of this specialised cottage industry – began to spread. It wasn’t long before pilgrims could buy small decorative items to take home. And the rest as they say, is history.


But it’s not the end of the story because Pipli artisans are responding to modern trends with mirrors, metal wire and beads being used to further embellish appliqué masterworks which now even include pouches for mobile phones. And even other types of fabrics are nowadays being cut for patchwork pieces. While cotton is still commonly used, velvet and satin are helping to ensure that Pipli artisans are kept busy producing one of the most colourful but perhaps lesser known handicrafts of India. 

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