The art of the gods

Bhagyasri Sahoo |autora

Número 02, 2021


India’s artistic heritage is rich and diverse with almost every region of the country steeped in its own distinct style of creative expression – from Bihar’s Madhubani painting and Maharashtra’s Warli art to Rajasthan’s miniature painting. But one of the most ancient, indigenous and vibrant among them is Odisha’s art form of pattachitra (patachitra) that found mention in one of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent radio addresses to the nation, Mann Ki Baat.

Pattachitra has its roots in the small village of Raghurajpur in Odisha’s Puri district. Such is the passion of the villagers about this art form that they live by what they claim – “Painting nahi to kuch nahi (there is nothing more to life other than painting).” In fact, Raghurajpur is one of the few art pockets in the country where every village member is engaged in this traditional craft. Almost every house in the village is an art studio where artisans not only offer visitors a chance to see the work but also sell their craft. No wonder that the facade of every home in Raghurajpur appears like a mural displaying episodes from Hindu folklores. What sets the art of pattachitra apart is the immaculate depiction, attention to detail, vivid hues and a century-old heritage. Legend has it that the tradition of pattachitra art began with the establishment of the revered Jagannath Temple in Puri, a reason why one of the recurring themes in pattachitra painting is the portrayal of the Jagannath Temple or Thia Badhia. Brightly-coloured episodes from Hindu mythology and epics have always been the dominant themes of this art form – Lord Ganesha depicted as a five-headed God (Panchamukhi), scenes from the life of Lord Krishna (Krishna Leela), Goddess Kali and the ten avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu (Dasabatara Patti) being some of the most popular ones.

Almost every house in Raghurajpur village is an art studio with nearly all members of the family are engaged in the craft. And not just on the patta, chitrakars also paint on papier mache masks called kagaja mukha
Almost every house in Raghurajpur village is an art studio with nearly all members of the family are engaged in the craft. And not just on the patta, chitrakars also paint on papier mache masks called kagaja mukha

This native art, which derives its name from the Sanskrit words ‘patta’, meaning cloth or canvas, and ‘chitra’, meaning painting, is a labour-intensive process and requires the unflinching focus of a chitrakar (as pattachitra artists are called). It begins with the making of the patta for which water-soaked tamarind seeds are pounded, blended with water and boiled in an earthen pot till the mixture reduces to a paste-like consistency. Chitrakars use this paste to bind two pieces of cotton cloth together and coat it with clay powder several times till it becomes stiff. The treated cloth is then given a final polish, first with a hard stone and then a soft one or wood, to render it smooth and ready to be painted upon. Depending upon the size of the patta and the narrative that a chitrakar has in mind, the entire process — right from the making of the patta to the completion of the painting — can take anywhere between a few days and a couple of months.

For chitrakars, it is imperative to stay true to the roots, which is why they try, as much as possible, to use colours derived from natural sources. White pigment is sourced from conch shell powder, black is obtained from the soot of a diya (earthen lamp), red is extracted from either hingula (a mineral) or geru (earth) and yellow from harital (a kind of stone). Even the brushes are made by the artisans. The root of the keya (screw pine) plant is used to make the brush and bristles are made of buffalo hair (for thick broad strokes) and mouse hair (for finer and minute lines).

Raghurajpur is also famous for the art of talapatachitra where intricate patterns and designs are delicately carved on dried palm leaves;
(Left): Raghurajpur is also famous for the art of talapatachitra where intricate patterns and designs are delicately carved on dried palm leaves; (Right): Paintings are also made on coconuts that are used for decorative purposes

As is with every style of painting, pattachitra’s defining traits are prominent figures. According to an article titled “Patta Chitra – It’s Past and Present” published by the Government of Odisha, “The human figures are generally presented frontally, and although the faces and legs are shown side-wise, the elongated eyes are drawn from the front. Sharp noses and round chins are prominently depicted. Typical hairstyle, clothing, ornamentation, beards and moustaches are used for different characters so that they are easily identifiable as either a king, a minister, a sage, a royal priest, a common man or deities of the Hindu pantheon.” Attention is also paid to the expressions and appearances of the characters. The ornate and intricate patterns that are drawn along the borders of the patta are another distinct feature of the craft.

From being an art form traditionally done on treated cloth, pattachitra has come a long way. Today, this style of art finds application on such decorative objects as bottles, kettles, stones and light bulbs as well as on tusser silk fabric. Pattachitra, in the truest sense, has stood the test of time, and Raghurajpur continues to serve as not just the custodian of the art but also its propagator. The Indian art community’s new-found interest towards the nation’s indigenous artworks is encouraging pattachitra artists to expand their expertise and cater to both the domestic and international markets, which, in turn, is furthering PM Modi’s missions of Vocal for Local and Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

 Raghurajpur
Almost all houses in Raghurajpur boast murals depicting scenes from Hindu mythology and epics, giving the village the appearance of an open art studio. Here, a man engages in worship with a largerthan- life mural of Lord Jagannatha in the backdrop

India’s artistic heritage is rich and diverse with almost every region of the country steeped in its own distinct style of creative expression – from Bihar’s Madhubani painting and Maharashtra’s Warli art to Rajasthan’s miniature painting. But one of the most ancient, indigenous and vibrant among them is Odisha’s art form of pattachitra (patachitra) that found mention in one of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent radio addresses to the nation, Mann Ki Baat. Pattachitra has its roots in the small village of Raghurajpur in Odisha’s Puri district. Such is the passion of the villagers about this art form that they live by what they claim – “Painting nahi to kuch nahi (there is nothing more to life other than painting).” In fact, Raghurajpur is one of the few art pockets in the country where every village member is engaged in this traditional craft. Almost every house in the village is an art studio where artisans not only offer visitors a chance to see the work but also sell their craft. No wonder that the facade of every home in Raghurajpur appears like a mural displaying episodes from Hindu folklores. What sets the art of pattachitra apart is the immaculate depiction, attention to detail, vivid hues and a century-old heritage.

Legend has it that the tradition of pattachitra art began with the establishment of the revered Jagannath Temple in Puri, a reason why one of the recurring themes in pattachitra painting is the portrayal of the Jagannath Temple or Thia Badhia. Brightly-coloured episodes from Hindu mythology and epics have always been the dominant themes of this art form – Lord Ganesha depicted as a five-headed God (Panchamukhi), scenes from the life of Lord Krishna (Krishna Leela), Goddess Kali and the ten avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu (Dasabatara Patti) being some of the most popular ones. This native art, which derives its name from the Sanskrit words ‘patta’, meaning cloth or canvas, and ‘chitra’, meaning painting, is a labour-intensive process and requires the unflinching focus of a chitrakar (as pattachitra artists are called). It begins with the making of the patta for which water-soaked tamarind seeds are pounded, blended with water and boiled in an earthen pot till the mixture reduces to a paste-like consistency. Chitrakars use this paste to bind two pieces of cotton cloth together and coat it with clay powder several times till it becomes stiff. The treated cloth is then given a final polish, first with a hard stone and then a soft one or wood, to render it smooth and ready to be painted upon. Depending upon the size of the patta and the narrative that a chitrakar has in mind, the entire process — right from the making of the patta to the completion of the painting — can take anywhere between a few days and a couple of months.

For chitrakars, it is imperative to stay true to the roots, which is why they try, as much as possible, to use colours derived from natural sources. White pigment is sourced from conch shell powder, black is obtained from the soot of a diya (earthen lamp), red is extracted from either hingula (a mineral) or geru (earth) and yellow from harital (a kind of stone). Even the brushes are made by the artisans. The root of the keya (screw pine) plant is used to make the brush and bristles are made of buffalo hair (for thick broad strokes) and mouse hair (for finer and minute lines). As is with every style of painting, pattachitra’s defining traits are prominent figures. According to an article titled “Patta Chitra – It’s Past and Present” published by the Government of Odisha, “The human figures are generally presented frontally, and although the faces and legs are shown side-wise, the elongated eyes are drawn from the front. Sharp noses and round chins are prominently depicted. Typical hairstyle, clothing, ornamentation, beards and moustaches are used for different characters so that they are easily identifiable as either a king, a minister, a sage, a royal priest, a common man or deities of the Hindu pantheon.” Attention is also paid to the expressions and appearances of the characters. The ornate and intricate patterns that are drawn along the borders of the patta are another distinct feature of the craft.

From being an art form traditionally done on treated cloth, pattachitra has come a long way. Today, this style of art finds application on such decorative objects as bottles, kettles, stones and light bulbs as well as on tusser silk fabric.

Pattachitra, in the truest sense, has stood the test of time, and Raghurajpur continues to serve as not just the custodian of the art but also its propagator. The Indian art community’s new-found interest towards the nation’s indigenous artworks is encouraging pattachitra artists to expand their expertise and cater to both the domestic and international markets, which, in turn, is furthering PM Modi’s missions of Vocal for Local and Aatmanirbhar Bharat.