Finding the 'chitrakar'

Finding the 'chitrakar'

Finding the 'chitrakar'

In the small settlement of Raghurajpur, Odisha, Ashis dutta interacts with a master painter or ‘pattachitrakar’, who brings to life the themes of Vaishnava traditions and lore, as also the legends of the Bhakti cult, like paintings of Lord Krishna and his exploits...

“Where can I meet Vishnupada?” I asked while holding up on my stretched hands a framed painting — a Pattachitra, the unique painting style practised in Odhisa. The shopkeeper in Bhubaneswar was not of much help. He pointed in the general direction of the crowded street in front and said, “Raghurajpur.”

Vishnupada is the master artist, the chitrakar, whose Pattachitra I was holding up. I had to find Raghurajpur.

“Raghurajpur is one of the centres of Pattachitra, along with Paralakhemundi, Chikiti and Sonepur,” said Pattanayak, the manager of the hotel. And when he stretched a map of Odhisa on his ample table and pointed out to the different places, I realised I was lucky. At least in round one. For, Raghurajpur is by far the nearest one to Bhubaneswar among all the others. “About 50 km from here,” said Pattanayak, “And I shall make arrangements for your car.”

The next morning, I hit the highway that heads grid south without much meandering all the way till it hits the Bay of Bengal at Puri. Half an hour on the highway Jaydeb, the driver, asked, “Do you want to visit Pipli, sir? Famous for handicrafts and applique.” I have seen Pipli works, as they are popularly called, bright and resplendent, hanging from shop-fronts in Bhubaneswar. But I resisted the temptation and stuck to finding Vishnupada, the pattachitrakar.

Where master lives

So we bypassed Pipli and continued on the highway. Giving Pipli a miss to try to find an artist wasn’t without a little flutter in the belly. What if? But, like a voodoo priest, I shooed away the dark demons of negative thoughts. In another half hour, we turned left from the highway to a narrower road to Raghurajpur. And looked forward to my round two.

Thankfully, Raghurajpur is still a quintessential small Indian settlement, larger than a village but not quite a full-blown town yet, where everyone still knows everyone else. And a master pattachitrakar is way up the top of its hierarchy of citizenry.

We stopped at the bend of a narrow lane in front of a modest two-storied whitewashed building. Vats of dyes were strewn around the short path from the road to the house. I found Vishnupada on the upper floor, which is his studio-cum-shop. Big and small canvases, framed and unframed paintings, half-finished works, pallettes, brushes.

A charpoy thrown in at one corner must have witnessed many light-long toils over the canvas. Vishnupada is a middle-aged man of lean, slightly stooping frame, whose sharp eyes and nimble fingers cannot go unnoticed even by casual observation. And he has the eagerness of a child.

“For several generations we are pattachitrakars,” he said. In this art form, the predominant themes are of Vaishnava traditions and lore. Lord Jagannath along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra feature in several of the paintings. But other legends of the Bhakti cult, like Krishna and his exploits — Raas Leela, Kalia Daman and others — are also popular subjects.

Family of painters

“Do you paint alone?” I asked. “Our whole family is involved in the paintings,” he said, “and my students and apprentices too.” The women usually make the dyes and prepare the canvas. “We do not buy colours, we make them,” said Vishnupada. White is prepared from conch-shells by powdering, boiling and filtering.

A process that demands hard labour, patience with a dice of risk thrown in too. But the brilliance and permanence that it delivers is unmatched. Hingula, a mineral, is processed to get red. Yellow is squeezed out of Haritala stone. Ramaraja, a variety of indigo for blue, and black is obtained either from lamp-black or from burning coconut shells.

Pattachitra derives its unique place among the different traditional schools of paintings because of its pictorial conception, technique of painting, line formation and colour scheme. Vishnupada took up the brush, dipped in black, and started making bold outlines on a large canvas that had just a few sketches in one corner. Usually such outline colours would be drawn over a light pencil or charcoal sketch. But there were none.

These master pattachittakars are so sure-handed that they go at the canvas with permanent colours without any sketch. Vishnupada might have guessed what was going on in my mind. After a few strokes on the canvas, he stopped and turned towards me.
“It takes years of learning, practice and introspection to become a chitrakar,” he said. What he meant was, to become a master chitrakar.

The master visualises the larger concept of the canvas. He then creates the individual parts, which are stand-alone picture-stories by themselves, and then integrate these parts into a seamless whole.

The master designs the canvas and creates the outlines, the way Vishnupada did right in front of my eyes. The other artists, and sometimes advanced apprentices, fill up the block colours as directed by the master. Thus the painting comes to life.

Canvas choices

Vishupada beckoned me at a glass-topped showcase at one side of the studio. From the showcase he took out a sheaf of narrow taal-patras — palm leaves — with ancient scriptures drawn on them, which have been their family legacy for generations. Apart from canvas, palm leaf is the other popular medium for Pattachitra.

But unlike on canvas, on palm leaves, it is mostly ink drawings, and certainly more intricate. He took out another taal-patra and said, “I am choosing this one for you. It is a composite piece of the 10 avataras of Vishnu I had drawn on taal-patras stitched together.”

“I see only five avataras,” I said, wondering. “Where are the rest?” Vishnupada smiled showing most of his paan-stained teeth. He flipped the first Krishna avatara. At the flip, another leaf appeared from behind, almost magically, to reveal the Kurma avatara. By the time I left Vishnupada, I was in a daze, and wanted to remain that way for the rest of the day, in the enchanting world of Pattachitras.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox