Sketching Legends – Pattachitra from Odisha

Sketching legends

Thanks to a delayed luncheon meeting, the sudden availability of an hour’s leisure on a hectic day found me wandering into the craft shop in the hotel. The display on the store window caught my eye – a rectangular piece of cloth, about a metre long. With the most intricate border and the vivid, monochromatic depiction of Lord Ganesha’s life painted on it. And thus began my interest in studying Pattachitra, as the salesman called it.

In The Lord’s Shadow

Pattachitra, a traditional painting style unique to Odisha, traces its roots to the 12th century AD and the establishment of the Jagannath Temple at Puri, from where it evolved. The literal meaning of pattachitra is painting on cloth (patta means cloth and chitra meaning painting). Under the patronage of the Temple and the Royals, the chitrakars (painters) and their works of art thrived, capturing iconic images from mythology and epics, religion and folklore on canvas.

The place of honour in all pattachitra art, however, belongs to Lord Jagannath and his siblings, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra. So much so, that three pattachitras, known as Anasar Patti, in black, white and yellow respectively, replace the idols of the Gods for fifteen days during the holy Debasnana Poornima at the Puri Jagannath Temple. While the Gods recover from the after effects of cold water baths from 108 vessels in seclusion, the paintings are worshipped in their place.

Gorgeous, Vibrant, Natural

Raghurajpur, a village near Puri on the banks of river Bhargabi is the centre of this beautiful art form, and the whole village is engaged in it. Be it the grinding of the natural pigments used to colour the paintings, the preparation of the canvas or the boiling of the gum for which tamarind seeds are used, every member of the village is engaged in the creation of this wonderful imagery.

Coating the canvas with a special mixture of soft chalk and gum from tamarind seeds and then polishing it makes the cloth strong, smooth and ready for the colours. Using only materials provided by nature (earth, minerals, plants) for colour, which are hand ground and mixed with gum from the ‘kaitha’ fruit for fastness, the chitrakar creates masterpieces on the specially prepared canvas with brushes made of animal hair. The red is taken from red oxide or ‘Geru’ as it is known, black from lamp soot, blue from indigo, green from leaves, yellow from ‘haritali’ stone and white from powdered conch shells.

Inside the artist’s studio

Making Magic

The elaborately drawn border is traditionally finished first. With only the barest of outlines in place, main colours go on next, and then fine brushes are wielded artistically and with precision, to complete the intricate picture, which until then, existed only in the artist’s mind. Heat over charcoal fire, apply a lacquer finish and the product is ‘ready’ for the market.

Vibrant colours that convey emotions and expressions such as joy (white) or anger (red), pictures in profiles or side views, images with elongated eyes and sharp features – that’s a pattachitra for you. Beauty on canvas as you have never seen before. Clothes, hairstyles, facial hair and expressions distinguish the various characters in the picture, a deft stroke of black ink being enough to transform a king into a demon. Making each piece a unique work of art, a rare collectible that cannot be owned, only treasured. Showing you a different facet every time you see it.

From Temples to Toystores

Pattachitra today has moved beyond temple walls to adorning the walls of beautiful homes and of 5-star hotels. From canvas, the art has journeyed to materials such as silk, handmade paper and even palm leaf. Artefacts in wood such as boxes, doorways, bowls, even toys are used to showcase the art. And Pattachitra taash (painted playing cards) are hot selling collectors’ items.

While the mediums may have changed, and the themes modified to suit the requirements of our modern age, the basics, including the unique style with borders, the use of natural materials, the bright colours, and the exquisite craftsmanship have all ensured worldwide appreciation and demand for the one of its kind, captivating Pattachitra painting. Experience the magic of this divine art and make it a part of your life today.

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