A walk through a village whose art was once selected by PM Narendra Modi for French Prez

A village in Odisha has kept the art of Pattachitra alive and one of these paintings was selected by Prime Minister Modi as a present for then French President, Francois Hollande

The eastern state of Odisha is a place for any art enthusiast and culture lover. The erstwhile state of Kalinga or Utkal is deeply rooted in its rich culture and tradition, that dates back to the 12th century AD, with the beginning of the Lord Jagannath Sanskriti or traditions. The traditions are so deep-rooted that they are found in the daily lives of the people, the food, the art, and so much more. 

Pattachitra is a beautiful art form that is in great demand today

One such tradition is that of an art form known as Pattachitra. The art form was born with the Jagannath sanskriti, where earlier, paintings were made on wooden boards with natural paints. It has made its way into every household, not just as paintings or home decor, but also as textiles. 

Artistic encounters

I decided to visit this village along with my family which is situated about 60 km away from the capital city of Bhubaneswar. This small artisan village in the district of Puri, known as Raghurajpur, is home to artists who continue to work on the art of Pattachitra, just like their ancestors used to do in the early days.  

I had seen these paintings in almost every household and was fascinated to know how 30 out of 80 families that reside in the village have kept their traditions alive. Tourists and buyers from all over the world come to this tiny village which is nestled in a region that is surrounded by coconut palms and paddy fields. The art form is very unique to the village and has remained within the caste of the artisan community.

One of many such artists, who I met, is Bhaskar Mahapatra, who took up Pattachitra drawing from his father. “Pattachitra is our family business. Our ancestors did it and now we are doing it. We have kept our traditions alive. The art is most relevant in the Lord Jagannath temple,” he told me.

The art form was originated during the world-famous Puri Rath Yatra, where the three deities come out from the main temple to go on a nine-day journey to their aunt’s place at one end of the city. An array of small events marks the beginning of the festival. During one of the events, the deities participate in a bathing ceremony and fall sick. While the gods are resting and recuperating before the Rath Yatra, the idols painted on canvas, famously known as Pati diyan’ are worshipped in the main temple. 

“The art began here in Raghurajpur by Maharana Jagannath Mahapatra. Earlier they used to make masks out of paper mâché or dolls, created out of cow dung and mud. They used to sell it in fairs and earned their income,” Bhaskar said. 

As I entered the small living room of Bhaskar, I saw piles of scrolls of varying size, stacked on top of one another. One of his walls adorned the paper mâché masks while a stand in the corner of the house, had more modern art work, such as painted glass bottles, wooden idols of the three gods, and a stack of palm leaf inscriptions and paintings.

Evolution of the art

Over the years, Pattachitra has transformed from paintings made with coarse lines to a more sophisticated style, which involves a lot of time and effort, Bhaskar said.

As he pulled out an unfinished painting of Buddha, he told me that it takes about two days or 10 man-hours per day to finish a painting of the size of 18 inches x 12 inches. It usually depends on the intricacies in the painting. The more intricacies, the more time it takes for an artist to finish it, he added. 

These paintings are made from natural products, which are locally sourced. The canvas is prepared from three-layers of cotton cloth, cured with the help of a paste made from the tamarind seeds. A layer of chalk powder paste is then applied and polished to give a shine to the canvas.  

“Stories related to Raas-Leela, Dashavatar, Ramayan, Jagannath, Ganesh, Buddha, are the most commonly painted scenes on the canvas. Pattachitra is restricted to mythological characters. However, with changing times and the growing demand for this art, we have also started making tribal paintings that feature our everyday lives,” Bhaskar continued. 

Bhaskar also showed us an unfinished painting of a scene from the great epic, Ramayan. The painting, still weeks away from getting finished had hues of orange, yellow, and red already which looked vibrant and beautiful. 

Changing canvas

At present, apart from the usual canvas, these artists have also started painting on Tussar Silk sarees, dried coconut shells, and glass bottles. Coconut shells are covered with a paper mâché layers that are dried and later, painted. 

The traditions of Pattachitra art are deeply rooted in the artisan village

“Other bases where paintings are made are the palm leaves. One of the earliest forms of the painting was made on these leaves with the help of an iron pen-like structure known as lekhani. When a baby is born in a family, people make the kundali or the birth-chart on these palm leaves,” Bhaskar explained.

The family business of selling art

While people belonging to other castes in the village have started taking up Pattachitra art, the number of artists still remains small. There are even a few artisan families who have left this line of work behind and taken up other jobs like farming or labouring in the fields. 

The living rooms of these artists becomes their showrooms, where they display their work, and tourists and buyers come to examine the art and buy them.

I travelled to Raghurajpur during the peak of the monsoon in June. It hadn’t been even a month since the state had suffered from Cyclone Fani and Puri was the worst affected. There was no electricity in the village and it looked like a ghost town. However, this did not stop these artists from welcoming customers to their homes.

These artists have also adapted tribal painting in their work.

I discovered that the artists were both generous and hospitable. They invite you into their homes and diligently show you their work. Even if you are not interested in buying their art, they are still happy to show you everything and stop to chat too.

“We sell most of our artwork from our home. We also sell in various exhibitions in Bhubaneswar, Mumbai, and Delhi. Some are even exported outside the country. We also get orders from past customers,” Bhaskar said, adding,

“The best experience of buying Pattachitra lies in visiting an artisan’s house where a buyer can see and choose different varieties of paintings.”

Price factor

The price of these paintings depends on the painting itself. Bhaskar said, “We do not bargain with the customers. An artist has spent his time, money, and talent on these paintings and bargaining does not do justice to the art. While the paintings cost less in the village, it gets expensive when sold outside because of logistical reasons,” he explained.

Bhaskar added that he sometimes earns Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 depending on the artwork.

The painting techniques have undergone many changes since Bhaskar’s grandfather’s days. He said, “They never did such fine and intricate work but nowadays, we spent many days bringing out the details in the paintings. There is a huge demand for detailed art work, especially with the motifs of idols.” 

Changing times

Bhaskar told me that it’s up to the new generation if they want to continue this family business. With changing times, this generation sees Pattachitra as a way to generate income.

There are various government-run and private organisations that have opened up in the past several years, and students who graduate, set-up their own business and do not stay with their gurus, like in the old days. 

New artists have resorted to artificial colours such as acrylic and poster colours that are available in stationery shops. “These colours do not do justice to the paintings and they do not last for long,” Bhaskar said. 

The painting techniques of Pattachitra have undergone many changes over the years

I saw various shapes and sizes of coconut shells placed in a corner at the foot of a table which had colours in them. Another artist Rabindra Maharana who accompanied on my journey, said that natural colours keep the art’s dignity intact.

These colours are prepared from various stones which undergo a rigorous transformation from grinding of the stones to mixing with natural gum, drying, and finally using it to fill colours in the painting. It takes several weeks to prepare these colours and these stones are not available easily. 

Scrolls of paintings and the natural colours used in drawing the Pattachitra

Bhaskar told me how he makes the black colour which he uses to give an outline of his painting. It is difficult to make the black colour. He collects black soot from a lamp or diya and mixes with a natural gum. It takes about 30 minutes for a person to continuously mix the powder and gum into a fine paste-like consistency. 

Selected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi

When I met Bhaskar, I had little knowledge that his work had been selected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When he spoke about his feat, all of us were in awe. He proudly shared his cherished memories.

In 2015, a customer had ordered a few paintings from him and had asked Bhaskar to make a Pattachitra painting that was unique and different from the usual ones. Since it was the time of Nabakalebara in Puri in 2014, he decided to paint it on canvas.

Tree of Life

The ‘Tree of Life’ painting was in a library in Germany. Bhaskar explained me why and how it was thus named. The ‘Tree of Life’ painting represents the events that lead to the Nabakalebara, an event that marks the birth and death of Lord Jagannath.

While Prime Minister Modi was on a diplomatic tour of France and Germany in 2015, he decided to present the painting to the then French President Francois Hollande. He even called up the Lalit Kala Akademi, India's national academy of fine arts that promotes and propagates understanding of Indian art, in and outside the country, to present an award to Bhaskar.  

The Artisan village

While I took a walk around the village, two things fascinated me the most. In the late afternoon, post-lunch, I found artists sitting on their porch and painting. The outer walls of their houses were painted with different motifs of everyday lives or the gods.

I approached a house which Rabindra told me is the ancestral home of the famous Odissi dancer, Padma Vibhushan Kelucharan Mohapatra, which now lies in a dilapidated state. Right across the house, I met an 89-year-old man, who along with his wife decided to show us their masterpieces. 

The excitement in the eyes of the old man was that of a boy, who was eager to show his work and find some appreciation in it.

As the old man showed various dolls made out of cow dung, mud, paper mâché, and wood, it was fascinating to discover how art has been an intrinsic part of the lives of the residents of this artisan village.