A young boy sat on the porch of his home with a pencil in hand. He bent over a small sheet of paper placed over a cardboard. I could neither see his face nor his sketch. He was so engrossed in his art that he barely noticed me or his father standing behind, watching over him.
He veered to his right to pick up another pencil and looked at us, surprised. “This is my son,” said Mohapatra, a craftsman from Raghurajpur in Odisha. “He is just learning to sketch,” he added, inviting me inside his home.
The humble abode turned into a veritable art gallery. I saw paintings scattered everywhere — on the centre table, hung on the walls, stacked in every corner of the room, depicting various gods and goddesses. But the Lord of the Universe, Jagannath, presided over them along with his siblings, Balabhadra and Subhadra. You see them everywhere — on the walls, on coconut shells, on earthen pots, on cow dung toys, on palm leaves and on a beautiful canvas called the patachitra.
I stumbled upon Raghurajpur, an arts and crafts village, located 15 km from Puri, by sheer serendipity about five years ago. After my spiritual tryst with the larger-than-life triad deities of Jagannath and his siblings at the temple in Puri, the Panda told me that the deities would go on an annual sabbatical for a ritual and the wooden carved idols would then be replaced by a patachitra — a ‘painting on a cloth’, depicting them.
Curiosity leads the way
Driven by curiosity, I found my way to this colourful nondescript village where I found myself in a world of artists, dancers, toymakers and sculptors.
Almost every home in Raghurajpur was a studio, and every man, woman and child living here was an artist or chitrakar, creating and preserving the traditional art form called patachitra that had evolved from the traditional murals of Odisha, dating back to the 4th century. A cluster of over 100 homes, housing 300 craftsmen and women, this artistic village, located close to Puri, is now recognised as a heritage crafts village in the state.
I was lost in a riot of colours that adorned the walls of these homes.
The paintings depicted various snippets from Krishna’s life. There was Krishna with gopikas, Krishna with Radha, Krishna on the flute, Krishna lifting the Govardhanagiri mountains. But he was always the Lord of the Universe, Jagannath, here. The triad had inspired the artists as they graced almost every painting here.
As I pottered around the village, the artists flocked around me vying with each other as they invited me home. The facade of their colourful homes were painted as well. Tribal and folk motifs came alive in bold strokes.
Deities and demons jostled for space. And they were all wrapped in a world of nature. Birds flew out of the canvas; trees swayed with glee. Flowers bloomed. Seasons changed on these walls. “We painted the scenes the way we see them,” said another artist Sahoo. But the reigning theme was the portrait of the three faces as they filled up every space on the walls — the triad deities of Puri were omnipresent.
Painted on pata or cloth, these scroll paintings were actually pictograms of the living traditions of the people. There were no landscapes or monuments painted — just portraits of gods and goddesses, and stories from Indian mythology.
Motifs of birds, animals, trees and flowers were used to decorate borders and embellish the paintings that had a distinct folk flavour.
As Sahoo showcased his work, he patiently explained the process of creating a patachitra. A strip of cotton cloth was soaked in water filled with tamarind seeds and was then coated with chalk and gum. Another layer of cotton was then stuck to it with gum and rubbed with stones to give it a smooth and glossy finish.
The canvas was now ready for the artist. They prepared a palette of vegetable and mineral colours and they used fine, delicate brushes, made out of mice hair. No pencil or charcoal was used. Once the painting was ready, a lacquer coating was given to protect it.
I was, however, fascinated by the tala patachitra, paintings done on palm leaves, which is nothing but art on nature. I saw a sketch of Radha-Krishna painted on tiny strips of dried and hardened palm leaves stitched together to form a canvas.
My eyes drifted towards a little strip where these palm leaves had been hemmed together, depicting Dasavathara — the 10 avatars or forms of Vishnu. It seemed like the images were superimposed on different layers.
As I opened small circular sections, they seemed like tiny windows to another painting as they revealed a different avatar of Vishnu from the first.
“Leaves of art,” Sahoo said to me, explaining, “We create a script and then narrate the stories through our paintings.” I was so mesmerised that I purchased my first (and not my last) patachitra from Raghurajpur.
Walking around the village, I saw art and artists everywhere. Besides patachitra, the artists created tusser paintings, palm-leaf engravings, papier mache toys and masks, wood carvings and cow dung toys besides painting on coconut shells and bottles. Families worked as a unit, creating art out of any material and there are several women artists as well, some of them who have even won awards.
As the sun faded away behind the clouds, silence filled Raghurajpur.
The children were returning from a school close by. A few tourists were speaking to the artists. A temple stood right in the centre of the lane, while a guest house was around the corner. The village was an ode to art and a celebration of colours.
Each street was well-laid-out as houses with tiled roofs and spacious verandas were built adjacent to each other. Dappled with sunlight, the walls came alive with murals, some narrating stories from the puranas, while others from the Panchatantra.
Artists leaned on the walls of the veranda and added a dash of colour to their works. The stories of Ram and Krishna came alive on the painted canvas. It seemed like the chitrakars were lost in a world of their own as they stepped into the world of mythology and painted the gods as they saw them in their mind’s eye.
But it is not just the patachitra that has put this little hamlet, located on the banks of River Bhargavi, on the tourist map. The home of the famous Odissi exponent, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Raghurajpur also has artistes specialising in traditional and folk music and dance.
On my second trip to Raghurajpur, I was treated to a mesmerising performance of Gotipua dance by a group of young boys.
The traditional dance, which is believed to be a precursor to the Odissi dance form, is a homage to the triad deities. From time immemorial, it had always been performed by young boys.
Dressed as girls, they wore colourful costumes, tied their hair with flowers and applied elaborate make-up with kajal and bindi, and even adorned themselves with jewellery. However, once they took centre stage, I was overwhelmed by their acrobatic performances, while the dance depicted scenes from the lives of Radha and Krishna.
Training in a gurukul, most boys start learning when they are barely five years old, and they perform until adolescence. I learnt that even the maestro Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra was a Gotipua dancer in his childhood.
Raghurajpur has slowly emerged in the tourist map as several travellers who visit Puri and Konark ensure that it is on their itinerary. For the artists, it is their window to the world as they proudly display their traditions and crafts.
However, with the recent cyclone Fani, which had literally destroyed their homes, Raghurajpur’s artists are a devastated lot. Several beautiful and valuable patachitras have been lost in the mayhem. For the artists, they are not just works of art, but a part of their lives and their precious legacy, which have taken years in making.
Odisha is home to several crafts and craftsmen — from painters to puppeteers, dancers and weavers to sculptors. They can make art out of sand as their fingers have sheer magic in them. And yet, they depend on tourists and connoisseurs of art to survive. Their hope, as they rebuild their life after the cyclone is on Lord Jagannath. As the artists told me, their entire art is dedicated to him.