'Chitrakar' supremos

Odisha art

Patachitra of Orissa, known for its vibrant colours and distinctive lines, is one of our oldest forms of indigenous art. The word patachitra is derived from the Sanskrit words patta, meaning canvas, and chitra, meaning picture. It means pictures depicted on cloth canvas. It is a distinct form of painting, beautiful and iconic. Patachitra paintings were traditionally drawn by the mahapatras or maharanas, believed to be the original artist caste in Orissa. 

The same style of art has been discovered in the cave paintings of Udaygiri, Khandagiri and Sitabhinji. Patachitra as an art form became popular after the shrine of Lord Jagannath (An incarnation of Lord Vishnu) was built in Puri by Choda-Ganga Deva. The patachitras play an important role in the rituals of this temple because they are temporarily installed in place of the deities whenever the idols are taken out of the temple for processions.

Artist supremo 

The artists, known as chitrakars, are mostly from in and around Puri, especially the village of Raghurajpur. They have their own special locality known as Chitrakar Sahe.Originally the chitrakars were the temple functionaries who lived in and around the temple. The art, passed on from father to son in the form of sketchbooks, special to each family, was kept alive for centuries for devotees who visited the shrine every year and wanted to take away patachitras after their visit to the temple.

Preparing canvas

The making of the patta or canvas (from silk or cotton) is quite an elaborate process and could take an artist around a week to complete. To start with, a special glue is prepared by soaking tamarind seeds in water for three-four days. The soaked seeds are made into a paste of jelly-like consistency by grinding them thoroughly. The ground pulp is then mixed with water in an earthen pot and heated to form nirvas kalpa. 

This is spread between two layers of cloth and stuck together to form a canvas. Then soft clay-stone is powdered and mixed with the glue paste. The clay-stone, white in colour and chalk-like in consistency, found in Nilgiri hills, is now freely available at Puri shops. Two or sometimes three coatings of this mixture are applied on both sides of the canvas and left to dry. This could take an entire day or more. Then the canvas is cut into the required size and polished with a rough burnishing stone followed with a smooth stone or a piece of wood. Only then the patta is ready for painting.

The traditional colours used in patachitra are red, yellow, green, blue, black and white. These are all obtained from natural resources — white from conch shells, black from lamp soot, yellow from hartala stones, red from hingulal stones, green from various plants and blue from indigo. These extracts are boiled with the sap from kaintha (elephant apple) tree to make them smooth and easy to work with. The colours are usually mixed in dried coconut shells. The normal paint-brushes are made from the root of keya tree. But the finer brushes that have needle-sharp tips once they are dipped into the paint are made from mice hair or mongoose hair. Coarser brushes are made with buffalo hair.


Patachitra themes can be broadly divided into six categories — pictures of Lord Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra and episodes related to them; episodes from other Hindu epics; folklore; legends of birds and animals; rituals of various worships and erotic themes. Most paintings take the form of a scroll.

Traditionally, a chitrakar starts by painting the border. The borders vary from thick lines to geometrical patterns and floral depictions, with intricate detailing. The common motifs painted on these borders are called dahaniya macchi, kangura, lahara macchi, goolai, sapa and chauk. Main figures are outlined next, and colours are filled in. The figures are outlined with a fine black brush that gives the effect of pen drawing. The completed painting is held over a charcoal fire and lacquer is applied to make it durable and water-resistant, also for giving it an added glow. This process is called jaulasa.

Patachitra chitrakars also paint the same themes on wooden boxes, bowls, coconut shells, doors and other objects such as Ganjifa playing cards. And also the unique chitra-pothi — a collection of painted palm leaves stacked on top of each other and held together between painted wood covers through strings to form books. Palm leaf engraving, also known as talapatrachitra, is an ancient form of folk art. Another exquisite creation is the bitti chitra or wall mural. Most important art and craft shops stock patachitras in their varied forms. Also, they make excellent gifts.

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