Pattachitra – The “Living art” from Raghurajpur (Odisha)

For someone visiting the state for the first time; the unanimous picture of Odisha remains a place rich in temples, art, craft and heritage. The identity of the state primarily lies in its rich religious and cultural legacy which reflects in all aspects of people and their lives. While the state houses many districts and interior places nurturing some unique art forms; some of them are concealed under their geographical remoteness from the mainland. Only a few see light of the day, yet with limited exposure.

One such place is the renowned heritage village of Raghurajpur – no stranger to national and international fame nurturing its “living art forms” on a day to day basis. The place is a must visit tourist attraction as part of Odisha itinerary. It is home to the much acclaimed master artisans of “Pattachitra” with every family engaged in this art form; pride and reflection of our Odiya culture. In the year 2000, Raghurajpur was granted as Odisha’s first heritage craft village. The village also holds the honor of housing Gotipua dance troupes, precursor to the state’s classical dance form of Odissi.

Good to know information to plan your visit to Raghurajpur:

  • Location of Raghurajpur, OdishaThe crafts village lies in Puri district of Odisha. It lies at a distance of about 10 km from Puri and 50 km from Bhubaneswar.
  • How to reach Raghurajpur – There is no direct public transport till Raghurajpur. The nearest bus stand being a small place named Chandanpur; from where one can easily get an auto till the crafts village. Buses ply from both Bhubaneswar and Puri at regular intervals till Chandanpur. Alternatively, one might hire a direct taxi/cab from either Puri or Bhubaneswar for a day visit.

Visiting the crafts village was on my list since years which never materialized partly due to procrastination and partly due to the fact that I did not consider myself suitable to understand the art. I didn’t want to be a spectator and merely browse through. So, when the opportunity came to visit Raghurajpur as part of my project with Mr Ajit Swain (from Dedicated to People); I couldn’t let it go.

Raghurajpur houses 150 artisan families – their homes are a window to their personal and professional lives. On a second thought, there is literally no demarcation between these two as they live and breathe the art which has visual imprints all over. I am invited to the humble abode of one such artist family headed by Mr. Abakash Nayak. Like many houses in the village, the entrance is adorned with mural paintings and the lush greenery acts as the perfect picturesque backdrop. Before we begin our main subject, talks around the pandemic becomes an obvious ice breaker. In no time, their simplicity wins me over which is as charming as their work. Meanwhile, I can’t take my eyes off the various displays in the living area and wondering how the stories would unfold.

With my hosts for the day, Mr Abakash Nayak and his wife (Captured and shared with due permission)

History and Evolution of “Pattachitra”

Over the next few hours, our discussion begins from the origin of this art form and gradually moves to the evolution and the current form which is a result of many factors.

In essence, most popularly known as Pattachitra; these traditional Odia art paintings date back to around 5th -12th century BC. The word has evolved from the Sanskrit words ‘patta’ (canvas/cloth) and ‘chitra’ (picture). One of the oldest and most famous living art forms (still in practice); the depictions in these paintings are based on Hindu mythology especially inspired by worship of Lord Jagananth and stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata as the central themes. This art style initially shaped up when the painters of the region (Odisha) began making the “Chitra” on a “Patta” as religious offering to temples especially to Lord Jagannath in Puri.

The earlier predominant form was primarily referred as Talapatrachitras; what is now popular as “palm leaf paintings”.  As my host explains; the palm leaf paintings were an integral part of the documentation process during the ancient Gurukul system. For centuries, the students tried to preserve the teachings from their masters in a more creative and indestructible form. It was essentially depicting the sacred learning from ancient texts and scriptures in a visual format of art. Since it involves a unique technique; the painter would patiently work on a single art for days, weeks, months to years. It depends on the level of detailing and complexity involved in the painting. The process remains the same without any shortcuts.

Another unique aspect of “palm leaf paintings” is the absence of any colours except black and usage of rounded tools to provide the right balance to the art. It later made way to a limited set of colours: red, yellow, indigo, black and white. A common feature which can be noticed in these designs is that the outline is more defined and darker to enhance the appeal.

Some of the tools and natural colors used in the traditional art:

For Pattachitra paintings, the first step begins with the preparation of canvas (or patta). Cotton canvas is being used for traditional paintings; however,the modern ones use silk as well. Both the canvas and colors are prepared by the artists themselves from natural sources such as fruits, vegetables, minerals and grounded sea shells (used in modern forms to impart white color).

Initial stages of a painting in progress

With growing recognition worldwide, Pattachitra paintings are not limited to the traditional forms any longer. It is evident as the markets are flooded with new products as wall hangings, bookmarks, greeting cards, small photo frames inspired from these paintings. It is not uncommon to find these in small craft outlets, emporiums and local exhibitions. Moreover, there is an increasing demand in the handloom industry especially cotton or silk portraying these paintings.

Today, many more items can be bought from Raghurajpur as a souvenir apart from these traditional paintings – stone carvings, wooden toys & carvings, art on coconut shells and so on.

Sharing some of the art work on display for tourists ( most of them made by lady of the house):

Challenges faced by artists of Raghurajpur

Like most industries, ever since consumerism and commercialization has seeped in; the artists face many challenges.

  • Loss of essence in traditional designs –  What originally started as religious paintings and mythological stories have also seen a new trend of non-religious themes in their painting to keep up with the market. The contemporary forms see more of flower motifs, plants, geometrical shapes and animals on demand.
  • Lesser use of traditional tools – The technology used for the paintings is still same as it was before. With bulk orders in a lesser time span, alternate varieties have introduced paint brushes too.
  • Recent work might miss the minuteness and detailing as existed before.
  • Duplication of work quality – Cheap quality is also being produced for the market at a lesser price. They have a fair resemblance but not the authentic work.

**On reaching Chandanpur, I found there are some surrounding villages which bear the sign of a heritage village as well. However, their authenticity is yet to be confirmed (no personal opinion) as Raghurajpur is the only one amongst these to be identified as Heritage crafts village by the Government**

I try to understand the pricing structure to decipher the reason that these paintings can’t be afforded by many. We do a small experiment. Mr Nayak displays few art pieces (all similar on surface) and asks me to draw the difference between the paintings. It takes me some time to realise that some of them are much more detailed in terms of intricacy which naturally adds to the overall price owing to the hard work and time spent.

Let me know if you can draw out the difference (based on art) in the samples shared below:

Another round of refreshments and he shows me some of his best work. There are pieces he has been preserving from the earlier generations with great care. I’m strictly not allowed to photograph or capture them as they hold many secrets to their art. But there is no limit on how long these can be admired in person and the gesture naturally earns my gratitude. Interestingly, I got to know that since generations; the art form is made only by male artists. The father passes on the teachings and secrets of the trade to his son; while every budding artist brings their own flavor and creativity to the work.

Our discussion ends with the conclusion that somewhere or the other; these art forms heavily draw inspiration from the intricacies and artistic brilliance displayed in the temples of Odisha. Finally, Mr Nayak shows the painting of a mythical creature asking me to consider it as a reference while visiting some temples and let him know if I find it carved anywhere.

Much as I would have loved to own a few possessions from his collection, my limited budget allows me to opt for few palm leaf bookmarks. Nonetheless, they are priceless and shows the simple devotion of an artist to his art.

On my way to Chandanpur
Painting based on tribal art form
A modern form adorned with beautiful colors
As I couldn’t resist, I take a closer look through my camera lens
Needless to say, the fine detailing leaves me speechless..

Watching an artist at work and an art in progress is a blessing in itself. However; the constant struggle for recognition from its own people is the worst nightmare for an artist. The pandemic is acting like a fuel to aggravate the woes. The artisans are conserving such unique art forms and somewhere; we need to play our roles too by giving them a voice. 

NOTE: This write-up is based on my visit to Raghurajpur, Odisha. It is intended as a personal effort to promote and spread a word for these artisans of Odisha in association with “Dedicated To People“. These paintings can be made on advance order and shipped across. If you would like to be a part of enhancing their lives in any possible way, please reach out to me through comments or email. I will revert at the earliest.

Online research (for technical terms, details and historical facts) has been done to build the final story.

On my way back, I got the opportunity to visit another village. Read the story here Unknown artisans of India – Janakadeipur (Odisha).

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