At The Ethnic Soul, we always strive to bring you interesting stories of Indian art forms that have survived the ravages of time, to tell the tales of a glorious past, and Odisha’s Pattachitra art is one such gem from the treasure trove of Indian arts. On our journey to trace the roots of this fascinating art form, a meeting with National Award-winning (2011) Pattachitra artist Akshaya Kumar Bariki opened up the captivating world of Pattachitra art.
Simple and unassuming at first glance, this young artist is one of the few stalwarts of Odisha’s traditional art. Having grown up in a family that has practised this art for generations, Akshaya was destined to take the legacy forward, and it only seems fitting considering the fact that he hails from Raghurajpur, the world famous heritage village.
Proud of his roots, Akshaya says, “Raghurajpur is a small village on the banks of the river Bhargabi near Puri. Our village is one of a kind as every single family is associated with some traditional art form from the region. Our village practises many art forms such as papier mache, cow dung art, Tussar painting, palm leaf engraving, stone and wooden carving, etc. With at least one member from almost every family involved in some traditional art form, the economic, social and cultural life of our village revolves around traditional arts and crafts from Odisha.”
Probe him more about Pattachitra art and you can’t miss the glow on his face as he speaks, “Pattachitra has been in our family since the time of the Jagannath Temple and our community is known as chitrakars. We are sevaks of Lord Jagannath, and it’s a must for at least one member from our family to carry forward the legacy of this ancient art form. The name Pattachitra has evolved from the Sanskrit words patta, meaning canvas, and chitra, meaning picture. Hence, Pattachitra is essentially painting on a piece of cloth.
“These paintings have an uncanny resemblance to the old murals and paintings done on the walls of religious centres in ancient Odisha. Legend has it that on the Debasnana Purnima day (full moon day of Jyestha month), the deities of Jagannath Temple go for a ritualistic bath to beat the summer heat. As a result, the deities become unwell for fifteen days (the first fortnight of Asadha month), and the temple at the Ratnavedi is closed for the devotees during this period, which is known as Anasar. During this period, the devotees get a darshan of the paintings of their revered deities — Lord Jagannath (Krishna), Lord Balabhadra and Maa Subhadra. These paintings are made in the colours black, white and yellow respectively. Known as Anasar Patti, they are made by traditional chitrakars of Odisha, and are said to be the origin of the Pattachitra art that has transcended ages.”
While Pattachitra paintings require immense patience, intense hard work and skilled craftsmanship, the entire process of preparing these paintings is just as fascinating.
“The patta or the canvas is made of two layers of cotton fabric, which are bound together by a gum made from tamarind seeds. This base is then coated with a white paste made of powdered limestone and tamarind seeds. Once dry, the canvas is polished to make it suitable for painting. Generally, Pattachitra art is practised by the entire family of chitrakars. While the women prepare the glue, the canvas and help out in filling the borders, the master painter, usually a male, draws the initial sketch and gives the final touches to the painting.
“What’s interesting about this art form is that every stage has a unique feature or a story to tell. For example, the brushes we use to paint a Pattachitra are made of animal hair. We use buffalo hair to make brushes for the thick lines, while squirrel hair is used for making brushes meant for finer line work,” Akshaya, a fine arts student, says.
Surrounded by some his most beautiful works, it’s hard to keep the eye from wandering around. Sensing our awe and curiosity, Akshaya decides to take us through some of his works. “A traditional Pattachitra painting can be identified by some distinguishing features that the figures display. The figures in an original Pattachitra would be characterised by long beak-like noses, prominent chins and elongated eyes. Each figure can be distinguished from the other by facial features, hairstyles, clothing, etc. The main themes of Pattachitra paintings have always been inspired by Lord Jagannath and the Vaishnava sect. Many Pattachitra paintings are amazing representations of stories of Lord Jagannath and Radha-Krishna, the ten incarnations of Vishnu, episodes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Krishna Lila, Jain and Buddhist scriptures. Another distinguishing feature of this disciplined form of art is the must-have floral border. This creates a distinct look and feel that is typical to Pattachitra and cannot be replicated.”
Ask him how long it takes to complete a piece of art, and Akshaya breaks into a smile. “A single Pattachitra painting takes at least five to 15 days, while some even take months to complete. The time it takes to complete one Pattachitra painting depends upon the level of intricacy and size of the paintings. Pattachitra paintings can fetch anywhere between Rs.10,000 and Rs.100,000 and above.”
Interestingly, the creativity of Pattachitra artists is not just limited to canvas and cloth. They celebrate the art form by painting murals on the outer walls of their houses too.
Shedding some light on the philosophy behind the use of colours in Pattachitra paintings, he says, “These paintings are brought to life by the use of strong natural colours. We use six main colours, namely, white, red (geru), yellow, blue, green and black (hingula), to paint a Pattachitra, and all the colours are extracted from natural ingredients. While white is prepared from conch shell powder, red is extracted from geru (red oxide stone), black from soot, blue from indigo, yellow from haritala (a kind of stone) and green from leaves. While painting, we use wood apple gum (kaitha) along with water to ensure that the colours don’t bleed and to give them a lustre.
The colours represent certain aspects of the Gods. While white is used to express the ‘sattvika’ side, red is used to portray the ‘rajasika’ side and ‘tamasika’ is depicted with black. The characters too are painted in colours that express their mood or rasa. For example, “Hasya” or laughter is portrayed in white, “Raudra” or furious in red and “Adbhuta” or strange in yellow.
While we were marvelling at the masterpieces created by Akshaya, a quaint little painting caught our eye. When asked, Akshaya pulled out the painting and introduced it to us as Talpatra, better known as, palm leaf engraving. Yet another fascinating art with a mesmerising tale, palm leaf engravings have their roots in the ancient era when manuscripts, scriptures and horoscopes were engraved on palm leaves with the help of an inscriber. Palm leaf engravings use the same technique, and are beautiful specimens of needle calligraphy.
“Palm leaf engraving is one of the most popular art forms that are practised in our village. We first carve out the painting on the palm leaf with an inscriber. This painting is then smeared with kajal. This kajal is then washed off with soap and water. This process washes off the extra kajal, while the rest settles in the carvings and creates the outlines. Once this process is over, we cut out the edges of the palm leaf and fold it like a scroll. That’s how a palm leaf engraving is done.”
Ask him if his career as an artist has been rewarding, and he promptly replies, “I gave up a career in the Railways to carry forward my family’s legacy, but it has been a fulfilling experience. Today, we train young children in this art form at our gurukul. Besides, tourists from all over the world come to our village to buy these works of art. There can’t be better recognition an artist can hope for.”
So, will his children follow suit? “I am not married yet, but when I have kids, I am sure that they too will carry this age-old legacy forward,” Akshaya says with a confident smile.