Raghurajpur, near Puri in Odisha, is a village that was developed as the states first heritage crafts village in 2000. The name came up while i was reading up about places to visit near Puri, as we were planning a road trip of the state of Odisha last winter. It’s description as a place where “quaint huts and palm groves shelter microcosms of unrivalled artistic heritage” was enough to make us select it as one of the things to do while we were there. Our driver and guide seemed vaguely aware of it as just another village which generally ‘foreigners’ go to and tried to convince us that it really wouldn’t be worth a visit. Nevertheless when we persisted they worked out the route and afterwards like us came away totally overawed by the assemblage of artworks we had the privilege of witnessing.
The village itself is a conglomeration of some 120 families, each engaged in nurturing the legacy of their ancestors. There is an array of craft items from papier-mache, murals, palm leaf inscriptions, tasser paintings to wooden toys; but the one that stands out is undoubtedly the “pattachitra” painting. And so we sat down with a master craftsperson in his small ’thatched-hut-studio’ to learn a little more of this ancient art form and these were some of the wonderful insights he shared with us.
Like everything else in Odisha the pattachitra too is inextricably linked with the cult of worship of Lord Jagannath. The traditions of pattachitra paintings are more than thousand years old and these were originally substitutes for worship on days when the temple doors were shut for the ‘ritual bath’ of the deity. A typical ritual in the temple, clearly speaks of its link with Lord Jagannath. On the Debasnana Purnima day (Full moon day of the lunar month of Jyestha) the Gods have a ritualistic bath to fight the heat of summer. As a result the deities become sick for fifteen days. i.e. the first fortnight of the lunar month of Asadha. This period is known as Anasar and the devotees don’t have darshan of their beloved Lord at the Puri temple. During that period three paintings of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Maa Subhadra are worshipped. As part of this painting tradition, paintings on the triad known as Yatri pati were prepared in large number and were sold to the pilgrims coming to Puri. For all practical purposes it served as a souvenir for their visit to Puri Dham. There was a strong belief that a journey to Puri was incomplete unless the pilgrim took back with him some patis of Lord Jagannath, some beads, some cane sticks and Nirmalya. To cater to this demand for Yatri Patis, the chitrakars adopted it as a source of maintaining their livelihood and prepared Yatri Patis in large numbers for commercial sale. Descendants of these original chitrakars have continued this traditional craft in Raghurajpur village till date.
The name Pattachitra has evolved from the Sanskrit words patta, meaning canvas, and chitra, meaning picture. Pattachitra is thus simply put a painting done on canvas! It remains one of the oldest and most popular art forms of Odisha. The process of preparing the painting requires careful craftsmanship, stretching the preparation time of the patta alone to around five days. For the ‘patta’ or canvas the ‘chitrakar’ first makes a paste by soaking tamarind seeds in water for three days. The seeds are later pounded with a crusher, mixed with water, and heated in an earthen pot to form the paste that is then used to hold two pieces of cloth together. The thick cloth so prepared is coated with a powder of soft clay stone a couple of times till it becomes firm. Once it dries the final touch is given by polishing it with a rough stone and then a smooth stone or wood until the surface gets a leathery finish on which the artist paints with vegetable, earth and stone colours.
The colours used in the Patta paintings are primarily bright colours, limited to red, yellow, indigo, black and white.The gum of the kaitha tree is the chief ingredient, and is used as a base for making different pigments. The artists prepare their own colours using vegetable dyes and minerals sourced locally. White is made from powdered conch-shells; ‘Hingula’, a mineral colour, is used for red; ‘Haritala’, king of stone provides the ingredient for yellow; ‘Ramaraja’ a sort of indigo is used for blue, and lamp soot is used for a black pigment. The root of the keya plant is usually used for making the common brush, while a single mouse hair brush is used for making the finer outlines.
Traditionally the themes represented through this art form are Thia Badhia – depiction of the temple of Jagannath; Krishna Lila – enactment of Jagannath as Lord Krishna displaying his powers as a child; Dasabatara Patti – the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu; Panchamukhi – depiction of Lord Ganesh as a five-headed deity.
With the passage of time, the art of Pattachitra has gone through a lot of transition and the chitrakars now paint on tussar silk and palm leaves, and even create wall hangings and showpieces. However, this kind of innovativeness has not proved a hindrance in their customary depiction of figures and the use of colours, which has remained intact throughout generations.
As for themes, the chitrakaras are ready to produce these paintings on any fanciful composition that a customer asks for and may include subjects as varied as stories from the life and philosophy of Lord Buddha, pictures on Jainism, Jesus Christ or even important historical events.