Visiting the Pattachitra artists at Raghurajpur was on top of my wishlist for Odisha. Traditional art or Artisan villages are a delight to visit. To me, they signify the centers of excellence as they used to exist in the past. Everyone in the village is involved in working on the same thing, a healthy competition must be pushing the quality of work produced. The sourcing of raw material, the supply of finished artworks to clients would have been easier for the whole supply chain.
As a traveler, it is a learning experience to not just buy art. But also see how much time, effort, skill, and knowledge goes into making these traditional artworks.
I have earlier visited artisan villages in UP, Gujarat, Andhra, Chhattisgarh & Bengal. So, this time in Odisha, I decided to spend some time with the artists of Raghurajpur.
It is a small village, 14 km from the popular pilgrimage town of Puri. It has only about 150 homes that are arranged in a single row on either side of the 12 temples that stand in the middle. I was surprised to see the temple to the family’s ratio here. They are small temples. But nonetheless, they are like the spinal cord of the village around which the body works.
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Visiting the village is like being in an open-air museum. The houses are all decorated with lovely colorful paintings. Every house makes you stop and admire the work. The people of Raghurajpur have made sure that different kinds of work are displayed on their walls. Artists are sitting in their balconies doing their work. A small walk around the village will completely take you into the world of art and craft traditions of Odisha.
Traditional Art of painting on Palm Leaves
Raghurajpur is best known for making Pattachitra – the ancient art of painting on the palm leaves. The artist here though works on various mediums now including cotton & silk cloth, coconut shells, areca nutshells, glass bottles, stone, wood, etc. They even make masks & toys.
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Sahu, Swain, Maharana, Goldsmith are the primary communities engaged in this activity. There is only one Brahmin in the village.
When we visited the tree trunks stood bare, without any leaves or even branches. We were told that the cyclone played havoc and the treetops were blown away by it. Almost nostalgically, the villagers said, if you had visited before the cyclone, you would have seen our village full of all kinds of fruit trees.
Pattachitra Paintings at Raghurajpur
These paintings are an integral part of the culture of Puri. These paintings in gold of the trinity at Jagannath temple in Puri are worshipped during the time when the temple throne is vacant. This happens when Sri Jagannath goes for his 108-pot bath to Snan Mandapa and gets sick. Generations of artists from this village have been doing this ritual painting.
Pattachitra paintings are traditionally done on narrow strips of palm leaves joined together. The paintings are typically done in black color by engraving the palm leaf surface and then filling it with the black color.
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A more recent version of Pattachitra is done on cloth. I would say these are more popular paintings with tourists as they have vibrant colors and come in various themes. Contemporary versions come on silk cloth that makes the paintings look delicate. These paintings can be worn both by humans and the walls of their homes.
Meeting the Pattachitra Painters
We sat with Alok Ranjan Sahu Ji in his small one-room workshop. Some of his young apprentices were busy painting. He took out his best pieces to show us the diversity of painting styles and themes.
He explained how the layers of used cotton cloth, usually old worn out Saris, pasted together with gum paste made from tamarind seeds. That is then dried in the sun for days. Once dried, it almost looks like a thick sheet of paper but is much stronger. Chalk powder is used to remove stains of color from the cloth and make the surface white for painting. It is further polished by scrubbing on a marble slab. The better-polished surface of the two sides of the canvas is painted upon.
Watch the video of the artisan’s village
This video was recorded during my visit to the village. Do watch, you will get a better perspective of the art form.
Natural Colors used for the painting
5 natural colors are used to paint these artworks. All other colors come from the combination of these colors. Natural gum is used for binding the colors.
White Color – Sea Shell powder
Red Color – Stone
Blue Color – Khandneel stone
Yellow Color – from a Hingul stone that can be ground only in winters when the temperature is low as it is combustible at high temperature
Black Color – Soot of oil lamps
All colors are made by the artists themselves in the village itself. Brushes are made using the hair of dead rats. Villagers used to make brushes themselves but are now buying them from the market.
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Pattachitra or Palm Leave Paintings
Palm leaves are also picked up by the villagers from the palm tree. They are boiled with turmeric and neem leaves and then dried in sun for at least 20 days. Then they are further dried in a prolonged process by keeping it next to the stoves at home. This ensures that the palm leaves are never damaged by termites etc. Do we even realize the thought, knowledge, and effort that goes behind making these masterpieces?
Palm leaves are engraved using a sharp iron pen with freehand by the artists. The depth of the incision shows up as the strength of the line. This incision is then filled with black color. Once it sets in, it is impossible to remove this color.
Check out the Ragurajpur Pattachitra Online Store
Most amazing palm leaf paintings are the ones that have folds on them. You need to open and close the flaps to either see a long story or see two different stories at two different levels.
Themes of Pattachitra
Stories from Indian scriptures remain the most popular themes for these paintings.
Jaganath, Subhadra and Balbhadra is the most popular theme. Pilgrims, since time immemorial, have been taking them home, as a souvenir, to worship in their personal temples back home. For the 4 Purnima or full moon nights during the year, a gold Shringar or gold look is given to the deities in the temple. This golden avatar is a favorite among the painters of Raghurajpur. At the temple, this is done when Rath Yatra begins, Paush Purnima, Kartik Purnima, and Dola Purnima.
Another popular theme from the Puri temple is Rath Yatra. Why not it is the best-known festival around the world. In an almost life-like depiction, every detail of the three Rathas is captured, right from the kind of flags the 3 chariots carry. The crowd is shown doing various activities. Some doing darshan of the lord, some doing their kirtan or singing bhajans, some pulling the chariot. Kings are shown moving on a palanquin.
My favorite theme of this form of artwork is Jatri-Pati. This traditional painting depicts the journey of a pilgrim to Jagannath Puri Temple. It shows you the path that the pilgrims walk on like ancient Athara Nala Bridge, or the 22 steps they take at the temple, or the doors like Simha Dwar. In an elaborate painting, it would be shown in the form of a Shankha or Conch Shell with main sculptures of the temple also depicted. Such a painting is called Shankh Nabhi Pattachitra. It is rare to see this. I only found a few online. At Raghurajpur, you do get a simplified version of this, and they are beautiful too.
Life of Lord Krishna
The life of Krishna is another popular theme. I saw many paintings that depict the life of Krishna from his Anant Narayan avatar to childhood stories in Braj to his living in Dwarka. Stories from Ramayana and Buddhism are also painted but not as popular. Dashavatar or 10 avatars of Vishnu are painted in different mandala formations. Rasa Lila is also popular.
Odisha is the land of Devi too. So, you find many paintings depicting Devi in her various forms, the most popular one being that of Mahishasurmardini.
These days popular themes include a bit more secular looking ‘Tree of Life’. Tribal paintings in geometric patterns are also gaining popularity.
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Sometimes the artists get creative and they merge paintings. For example, I saw one painting of Dashavatar made inside the face of Jagannath.
Lesser-known paintings include the painting of Jagannath, Subhadra, and Balbhadra on the empty shells of coconut which are very popular among the tourists. These are probably the most affordable souvenirs from Puri. In a miniature version of the same, Supari or Areca nuts are also painted in a similar pattern. I was told that people hang these on their doors for good luck.
Masks of different deities are also made here in this village. Although I would not say it is their specialty per se.
Birthplace of Kelucharan Mahapatra
If you know about the 8 classical dances of India, you would know Odissi is one of them. One of the best-known names in Odissi is Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. Raghurajpur was his birthplace, though he later moved to Bhubaneshwar. He did set up a temple at his birth village. His house in the village though lies in absolute ruins. Villagers want a memorial built at the place but his family would need to take a call on that. His statue is there at a small complex just outside the village.
Gotipua is an Odissi dance performed by young boys dressed as girls. It demands extreme flexibility of the body along with the practice of dance. I have seen this dance many times at Lokotsav in Goa and even at the hotel in Puri, where we were staying. The ease with which they twist and turn their bodies is amazing.
This small village has three Padma Awardees.
Dr. Jaganath Mohapatra – Guru of Pattachitra Paintings who started the art village of Raghurajpur for the palm leaf paintings in 1965. I could not verify this one. But this is what the villagers told me.
Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra received Padma Vibhushan for Odissi.
Guru Maguni Charan Das received Padmashree for establishing Gotipua Gurukul.
- The village is located close to Chandanpur, which is a town. You will start seeing painted walls right in the market of Chandanpur. Stop by if you like, but do not leave before visiting the village of the artisans.
- Paintings on Tussar silk are cheaper than traditional Palm leaf ones, as they use acrylic colors and designs are less intricate.
- Every house has paintings in the village. You can stop by and visit any of them. Most artists welcome tourists in their workshops.
- You can also learn to paint on the palm leaves at the village or invite the artist to your cities for workshops.
- Depending on your interest, you can spend the amount of time here.
- There is no food or any other facilities in the village. But the artist would help you with anything you require.