For generations, the inhabitants of Raghurajpur village are narrating mythological stories through their world-famous paintings — pattachitra — and palm leaf engravings. Gaon Connection travelled to this heritage village in Puri district of Odisha and caught up with the artisans
Avakash Nayak was 12 or 13 years old when his father, a pattachitra artisan from Raghurajpur village in Puri district, started to teach Nayak the ancient artform their ancestors had been practising for generations. Now, at 53, Nayak is a well-known pattachitra artist.
“I am making pattachitra and palm leaf engravings for the past 35 years. It is my hereditary work, which I have also taught my children. They may not be as fine artisans as the older generation, but will hopefully keep our traditional art form alive,” Nayak told Gaon Connection.
Nayak’s heritage village — Raghurajpur, about 14 kilometres from Puri city — has 140 houses, which double up as workshops, all belonging to pattachitra artisans known as chitrakars. Each house is colourfully decorated with various art works and mural walls. Tourists come from all over India and other parts of the world to learn and buy pattachitra paintings and palm leaf engraving.
Pattachitra is an ancient form of painting made on a ‘treated’ piece of cotton cloth using natural colours. Palm leaf engraving, another famous art form of Raghurajpur, is made using needles or iron stylus on dried palm leaves, which are delicately strung together with threads to narrate a story.
“Ours is a heritage village, as old as the Lord Jagannath temple of Puri. Our pattachitra are used in the Puri temple and we are serving the Lord for many generations. Right from children to women and men in this village, everyone practices this ancient art form,” said Bamdin Das, an artisan and resident of Raghurajpur.
“Apart from pattachitra and palm leaf engraving, we have seven other art forms in the village, such as stone carving, tussar (type of silk) painting, papier mache works, coconut shell carving, cow dung painting, bottle painting, etc,” he added.
Pattachitra is derived from two words — patta (cotton cloth canvas) and chitra (meaning painting). Some references claim this art form dates back to 5th century, whereas others claim it originated in 8th century or 12th century.
In Raghurajpur village, all the chitrakars live in an area dedicated to them called the Chitrakar Sahe. It is about 52 kilometres from the state capital Bhubaneswar.
Every year, during Debasnana Purnima, which marks the onset of one of the biggest festivals in Odisha — the Ratha Jatra — the trinity deities Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra take a bath with 108 pots of cold water to fight the heat of summer. After this, the deities supposedly fall sick for a period of 15 days known as ‘anasara’. During this 15-day period, the deities are absent from public view and pattachitra of the deities made by chitrakars of Raghurajpur is placed in the Puri Jagannath Temple for the people to pay obeisance. These paintings are called ‘Anasar Patti’.
Explaining the process of pattachitra making, Bamdin Das said: “We take two to three reject cotton sarees to make one patta. Tamarind seeds are soaked overnight, boiled and made into glue. This glue is used to stick the layers of cotton sarees/cloth, which is then polished with special white chalkstone. On this patta, a painting is made.”
A pattachitra artisan uses five main natural colours to make the painting. These include red, black, yellow, white, and gerua (red-ochre) colours. “We use conch shell to make white colour. Hingulal stone from the hills in Odisha is used to make red colour. Diya kajal makes black colour. Geru stone gives us gerua colour. Yellow is derived from yellow stone called hartal. These basic colours are mixed to make other colours. Artificial colours are banned in our village,” added Bamdin Das.
All these colours are mixed in dried coconut shells. The colours are mixed with kaitha (wood apple) gum which acts as a fixative and prevents the painting from decaying. The finer brushes used by the chitrakars are made of mouse hair with wooden handles.
Chitrakars claim their art takes care of nature and environment. “We only use natural products to make our paintings. For instance, discarded cotton sarees are used to make patta, which is treated with natural glue and chalkstone. All our colours are naturally sourced from the environment,” said Sanju Swayam, who works with her husband to make pattachitra.
According to Nayak, women artisans have a crucial role to play in the making of pattachitra. “Without women artisans, we men artisans are nothing,” he said. They are the ones who prepare glue from tamarind seeds and treat the patta with chalk and limestone and sun-dry it. Only after that we men can create chitra on the patta, he explained.
In the case of palm leaf engraving, palm leaves (commonly known as talapatra), sourced locally, are used and carved with needles or iron stylus to narrate a story. Pothichitra is a type of palm leaf engraving, which is in shape of a pothi (book) and has both chitra and words written on it to narrate a story.
“We are all traditional artisans who narrate stories of Mahabharata, Ramayana, Krishna Leela, folktales, etc. Depending on the size of pattachitra and intricate artwork involved, it takes eight to ten days to make one 18*12 inches size pattachitra,” informed Raghunath Das, another artisan and resident of Raghurajpur. “Depending on the nature of the painting, the price of 18*12 inches pattachitra varies between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000. By the time it reaches the market, the price triples,” he added.
There is no fixed income of artisans of Raghurajpur. “It all depends on the tourist flow. Some days we sell many products and sometimes there is no sale. On an average, one family earns about Rs 10,000 a month,” said Swayam, an artisan from the heritage village. Some artisans from the heritage village go to other cities to attend handicrafts fair and sell their artworks.
In the month of May last year, cyclone Fani made a landfall at Puri and caused massive destruction. Raghurajpur, too, faced its wrath.
“I have faced the super cyclone of 1999, but Fani was much stronger. The wind speed was very high accompanied with heavy rainfall. Water entered our house and spoilt all the raw materials. All my unique artwork, stored in a tin-shed house, got completely destroyed as the roof blew away and the house collapsed,” narrated Nayak. He claimed to have suffered a loss of at least Rs 1 lakh in the Cyclone Fani. “Art ka kya daam batayein ab [How do I put a price on my unique art work]?” he wondered.
Nayak is not the only chitrakar to have suffered losses in the cyclone. “We were aware Fani was making a landfall on May 3. But, never thought it will be such a strong storm. It uprooted all the coconut and palm trees, flattened mud houses and blew away asbestos and thatched roofs,” said Bamdin Das. “Not only is our artwork destroyed, we have no raw materials to make a fresh beginning. There are no palm leaves left,” he added.
Bamdin Das has a loan of Rs 3 lakh on his head, which he had borrowed as ‘artisan loan’ from the bank. “We chitrakars do not have enough savings. So, to further our artwork and buy raw materials, we have to take a loan. I do not know how I will repay the loan as all my artworks are destroyed,” he lamented.
During Fani, two coconut trees fell on Raghunath Das’s house, which was inundated with knee-deep rainwater. “I lost my pattachitras, which I later tried drying in the sun. But, to no avail. No one will buy those paintings,” he said.
In order to help the artisans of Fani-hit Raghurajpur, Rapid Response, an agency for disaster response, launched ‘Rebuilding Raghurajpur’ project to provide relief and long-term recovery assistance to its artisan community. As long-term support, it also launched a livelihood recovery project called ‘Kalamitra’ (meaning friend of an artist) in June last year to provide the affected artisan community with opportunities to learn new skills and rebuild their lives.
The road to recovery is long and Raghurajpur’s chitrakars are not sure about the future of their ancestral art form. “Times have changed now and it is a modern world. Everyone wants to get educated and find a job. Some of our children are still learning the pattachitra art along with studies. But, will that be enough?” wonders Raghunath Das.