Odisha Artist Behind Vidya Balan’s Viral ‘Mathematical’ Saree Shares Its Story

In 2015, Bhagabata Meher from Tikirapada, a small hamlet in Odisha’s Sonepur district, was devastated after he was not selected for the State Handloom Award.

The weaver, who has over 20 years of experience in the craft, had tirelessly worked round the clock to hand weave a Sambalpuri Bandha (tie and dye) saree with mathematical equations on it. No, he did not print the complex formulas and symbols. He intricately wove the threads by hand and created a masterpiece. He hoped this piece would bag him the award, and the recognition that came with it. 

But that didn’t happen. As he practically lived a hand-to-mouth existence, he had no choice but to quickly get over his loss and continue with his bapta weaving, an indigenous method that combines silk and cotton. 

Little did he know that a copy of his stunning creation, called ‘Shri Ganeet’, would end up in Vidya Balan’s house five years later. 

“I used to feel sad about not being selected for the award, but when I saw the actress wearing it, I was pleasantly stunned. It was very rewarding for me,” Bhagabata tells The Better India. Which is slightly complicated, since the saree she wore was not the one made by Bhagabata, though he is undoubtedly the designer behind the idea. 

So here is the interesting tale behind how the saree ended up with Vidya. And yes, there is even a happy ending. 

400 Hand Woven Sarees in 20 Yrs

Bhagabata is a class eight dropout who has been weaving sarees since he was 19. He acquired the skills and passion from his grandfathers and father, who were also weavers. When he started working on the Shri Ganeet sari, he had already made over a hundred sarees and mastered the traditional motifs of Sambalpuri ikat.

Bhagabata has made over 400 sarees in his two-decade-old career, and for each of his exceptionally patterned sarees, the process is labour-intensive and time-consuming. 

“I spend nearly 80 hours per saree, and in a month I am able to churn out at least three of them. Though it takes a lot of time, I have developed the right amount of patience as this is my livelihood. I can work for eight hours straight at this point in my career,” informs Bhagabata. 

Bhagabata Meher

Though he puts in an immense amount of hard work and sincerity in his production, his monthly income is barely Rs 15,000. To make things worse, the lockdown has affected his sales further.

But that does not deter him from coming with unique decorative styles and patterns. He says there is no design in the world that he cannot replicate on his saree. 

Coming back to 2015 and the State Handloom Award, Bhagabata certainly had a unique idea for his submission –  a replica of mathematical symbols written with chalk on a black background, which he would make on a black Sambalpuri saree. 

Having absolutely no knowledge of mathematics, Bhagabata had approached Prafulla Meher, a technical assistant of the Textile and Handloom department, to make a graphical design infused with mathematical symbols, formulae and equations. Prafulla obliged him, and Bhagabata got to work.  

However, after 63 days of rigorous hard work, Bhagabata mixed up the patterns and ended up incorrectly weaving them. So he was left with just three days to make it right, and submit it for the award. 

Thankfully, he had tied and dyed four pieces. So when the first one failed, he worked on the second one. 

“The square root signs and numbers were very challenging to weave. I knew if I did not weave them sharply, it would look untidy,” he says. Bhagabata patiently worked on each symbol for three days straight and then submitted the prototype. 

But, as we mentioned, he did not win, and life moved on. 

Getting The Saree

Five years later, Vidya Balan had finished up her new biopic ‘Shakuntala Devi’, based on the life of the ‘human computer’, Shakuntala. For the e-promotions of the film, Vidya sourced a unique saree from Utkalamrita, a premium sari label run by Sabat Exports Pvt Ltd in Bhubaneswar. In keeping with the theme, she wanted one that was ‘mathematical’. 

What she got was a copy of Bhagabata’s design, though few knew about that at the time. An artisan had copied Bhagabata’s design and sold it to the label. 

The saree was a smash hit, and as is the case in such situations, several weavers came forward to claim the work as their own.  

View this post on Instagram

#Nuakhai #Juhar! We are happy that starting from Vidya Balan @balanvidya wearing our this special #ShriGaneet #Sambalpuri #Bandha #Silk #Saree, to conducting online auction of it successfully, the saree’s story has come a full circle culminating in the original weaver Sri Bhagabata Meher getting due credits in all media worldwide for having first woven this saree in 2015-16! Our aim of Online Auction was not just to bring due credit, name, fame and financial help to encourage original weaver to produce more Bandha masterpieces, but also to spread pre Nuakhai cheer in Sri Meher’s family by transferring all proceeds (Rs 55,000) we got from the winner of E-Auction – the 20 year old talented #Odia #IIT #mathsloving girl Debanshi Mishra @d_ebanshi from #Bhadrak – to Sri Bhagabata Meher on 21 Aug morning itself! An artist works all life for recognition and it is very important that they get due credits for their work! ☺️❤️ Once again, #NuakhaiJuhar to all! We thank Team Vidya Balan & all our well-wishers for being with us in this journey! May #MaaSamalei bless all! May there be cheer, love, prosperity, due recognition & happiness in everyone’s life! . . #iwearhandloom #iwearodishahandloom #sambalpurisaree #Sambalpuriikat #sambalpuribandha @creativedignity #creativedignity #fairtrade #auction #onlineauction #eauctions #nuakhaibhetghat #nuakhaispecial #nuakhai_juhar #ShakuntalaDeviPromotions #epromotions #vidyabalansaree #vidyabalan

A post shared by Utkalamrita (@utkalamrita) on Aug 23, 2020 at 6:34am PDT

However, Utkalamrita’s founder, Amrita Sabat confirmed to The Better India that the design was Bhagabata’s. They made the connection thanks to Prafulla, who confirmed the design. 

Realising that credit was not being given to the original maker, Amrita e-auctioned the same saree and all the proceeds (Rs 55,000) were given to Bhagabata. 

“It would have been very unethical on our part to take all the credit. These weavers tirelessly work to produce some of the finest sarees and sometimes they don’t even get the right price. The e-auction was also to highlight the plight of Bhagabata who has been severely affected due to the lockdown and showcase Odisha’s sarees. We were glad to help him,” Amrita tells The Better India

So there you have it. Bhagabata may not have won the award, but at least five years later he did get a decent payment for his work, and fame across India. So this tale of a dark saree has a silver lining after all.  

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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