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After some forty-five minutes of driving along the highway from Bhubhaneshwar to Puri, my car turns to the left at a place called Chandanpur. From here, a scenic drive of a kilometre or more brings me to the heritage crafts village of Raghurajpur, a major rural tourist destination of India’s eastern state of Odisha.

Raghurajpur is famed for Pattachitra, the traditional, cloth-based scroll paintings of the state of Odisha (previously known as Orissa). Although there are several centres of Pattachitra paintings in Odisha, Raghurajpur is the best among them. In 2000, it became the state’s first heritage village. It was developed as a crafts village by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), which is dedicated to conservation and protection of India’s natural and cultural heritage. It’s noteworthy that the entire village community is engaged in making handicrafts like Pattachitra, Palm leaf engravings, Tussar & Tribal Paintings, papier mâché toys and masks, wood and stone carvings, wooden toys and sculptures. And some of them are winners of National Awards.

Raghurajpur is a quiet hamlet located on the southern banks of river Bhargavi in an idyllic setting among groves of coconut, palm and other tropical trees, and paddy fields laced with betel vines. This coconut-palm shaded village has over 120 houses decorated with mural paintings, where families nurture the art legacy of their ancestors.

My car drives along the narrow village road lined by two neat rows of houses, facing each other. This is where the painters known as chitrakars, reside and work with their families. The sound of my car brings men rushing out of their houses. They gather around the car, inviting me to their studios. I accept the invitation of one, and the others leave, disappointed. Just to be on the safe side, I tell the artist that I’m not interested in buying anything. He doesn’t mind. He assures me that he just wants to introduce the village crafts and his painting work.

During the hot summer months, there’s a steep drop in tourist arrivals. So most probably, I’m the first tourist of the day. Following the artist, I step into his small studio displaying paintings of all sizes, wall hangings, painted balls, etc. The small balls are betel nuts and the large ones, coconuts. They all carry the image of Lord Jagannath of Puri.

Watch my video: A painting studio in Raghurajpur

It’s time to take a few photographs. But, much to my disappointment, I discover that my camera isn’t functioning well. All the pictures are coming out blurry.

Lord Jagannath of Puri painted on betel nuts…

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Colorful Pattachitras

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Pattachitra paintings are based on Hindu mythology and specially inspired by Vaishnavism (worship of Lord Vishnu and his avatars) which is associated with Lord Jagannath. Lord Jagannath (“Lord of the Universe”), inspires religion, life and activity of the people of Odisha. The three deities – Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra – are worshipped in every Hindu household in the state. Besides Lord Jagannath, most of the themes of traditional Pattachitra are devoted to Lord Krishna and folk tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

“Patta” literally means “cloth” and “Chitra” means “picture”. This style of painting is one of the oldest and most popular art forms of Odisha. Since paintings do not survive like sculptures, the earliest records of this art form date back to 12th century AD in the temple city of Puri, home to the ancient and highly revered Jagannath Mandir (temple). Even today, certain rituals at the Puri temple (around 14 km away from Raghurajpur) are incomplete without the Pattachitras.

Watch my video: Preparation of the canvas for Pattachitra

The process begins with a piece of cloth that has been washed and dried. A special gum is prepared by boiling ground tamarind seeds (soaked in hot water prior to grinding). This gummy paste is spread over the cloth. Another piece of cloth of the same size and dimensions is placed over it before the gum dries up. The tamarind gum is applied on this cloth. Once the gum dries, a mix of the tamarind gum and powdered white stone (made of conch shells) is applied on both sides of the cloth. It’s left to dry till it becomes hard. Then, it’s polished with a small pebble to give it a smooth leathery finish.

When the canvas is ready for painting, the outlines are sketched in light colour. A decorative border is drawn on all sides to give it a frame like look. Intricate pictures of various gods, goddesses, and mythological scenes with ornamentation of flowers, trees and animals are then painted. The artists are so expert in the line that they simply draw directly with the brush either in light red or yellow. Then the colours, prepared using natural ingredients, are filled in. These colours are primarily white, red, yellow, blue, green and black. The soot of burning lamps and coconut shells serves for black, white is prepared from powder of conch shell, while the shades and hues of red, yellow, blue and green are obtained from plant leaves, flower petals, fruits, ground rocks, etc.

Traditionally, the three types of brushes – broad, medium and fine – were prepared out of animal hairs. The typical face style makes the Pattachitra painting of Raghurajpur different from other school of paintings.

The final lines are drawn and the patta is given a lacquer coating to protect it from weather. The painting is held over a fireplace so that the back of the painting is exposed to heat. On the surface of the painting fine lacquer is applied. This process gives the painting a glossy look. The Pattachitra is mounted and placed for its sale.

Traditionally, the master artist draws the initial lines and gives the final finish to the paintings, while the womenfolk in their families prepare the canvas, fill in colours and give the final lacquer coating. Another old tradition that has continued to this day is that of student-teacher relationship, where the Guru (master or teacher) not only creates art but also passes it on to the next generation.

In this video,  Demonstration of Pattachitra , you can see the chitrakar drawing a female face in two different styles with the same brush. The first one has thick lines because he is relaxed. The second one is drawn while holding his breath, so the lines are finer.

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Radha Krishna Paintings…

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Rasa Leela dance of Lord Krishna with Radha and her friends…

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Lord Jagannath…

 

 

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Originally used as a part of religious worship, Patta Chitras have slowly moved on to grace the walls of homes, hotels, restaurants, etc.

Raghurajpur is also famous for Palm Leaf Engraving art, which in Oriya language is called Tala Pattachitra.

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In this, paintings are done on palm leaf strips. For a rectangular or square canvas, rows of same-size panels of palm leaves are sewn together lengthwise with a thread passing through the middle of each of them. These panels can be folded into a compact form.

Images are etched on hardened palm leaves. It maybe of gods and goddesses or decorative motifs with animals. Kohl paste, made with the soot from burning wick, is rubbed over the etched design, one strip at a time. It’s spread evenly with some water. The excess colour is washed off and the palm leaf is wiped dry. The chitrakar demonstrates the process. I’m fascinated, and this is just black-and-white painting. I can only imagine how much time and effort goes into the making of the beautiful coloured palm leaf paintings.

A black-and-white palm leaf painting…

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A coloured palm leaf painting…

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With the passage of time, the paintings become yellowish-gold like these which are around 20-25 years old…

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Some palm leaf paintings are more elaborate. Layers are pasted together with the exception of some areas which open like small windows to reveal a second image under the first layer like the circled areas in this painting…

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Each time, I’m about to take my leave, he shows me some new painting. So I end up spending almost 45 minutes in the studio. Given that the chitrakar has put in so much time, effort and enthusiasm into describing the art, I think it unfair not to purchase anything. But almost all the paintings are priced above 500 rupees. The ones that catch my eye are expensive, between 2000 to 5000 rupees. Paintings made by his students are a bit cheaper than those made by him and his father. He suggests this black and white palm leaf engraving of Jagannath, Balabhadra & Subhadra, made by him. After a little bit of bargaining, I get it for 400 rupees…

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And along with it, I get three bookmarks and a betel nut painting of Jagannath free of cost! The painting folds into a compact form like this…

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I’m sure that it would probably cost twice the amount at handicraft exhibitions and cultural fairs regularly held across the country. The chitrakar tells me that he and many others from the village have been to Mumbai and other cities many times to exhibit and sell their work. So, these artists are good salesmen too. I thank him for his time and art lesson, and leave.

To escape the sweltering heat outside, the driver has taken shelter in the studio of another chitrakar. He’s under the impression that having spent forty-five minutes, I must have purchased something very expensive. When I tell him I bought a small for 400 bucks, he’s surprised. So I think I have done quite well.

Besides producing artisans skilled in painting on treated cloth and dried palm leaves, this village is also the birthplace of one of the finest exponents of the Indian classical dance form of Odissi, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. The driver points out the Gotipua Gurukul Academy, where dancers receive training in the traditional dance form of Gotipua, which is the precursor of Odissi dance.

The Gotipua dance from Odisha…

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Image courtesy: http://konarknatyamandap.org/gallery.html

The trainees of this dance academy have presented performances at numerous cultural events in India and abroad.

Having gained new-found knowledge about the arts of this region, I’m very happy with my visit to this unique village, where every family is an artist. It’s now time to discover the world-renowned pilgrimage town of Puri, which is less than half an hour away…

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