The new-age saga of Odisha patachitra: Folk art for the social media generation
The storytelling art of Odisha patachitra dates back to the 13th CE, the same time as the building of the Sun Temple at Konark. Even now, as it was back then, the drawings are all made freehand. All that is used to achieve the exquisite levels of intricacy are a few simple brushes made with fine squirrel hair, fastened tightly with cotton thread to a straight twig — and wielded by rock-steady hands.
The outlines and drawings are made with lampblack (pigment made from soot) bound with natural gum. A number of mineral and vegetable homemade dyes, including blues and greens extracted from seaweed, are used to fill in the colours.
Odisha is the land of the Hindu deity, Vishnu. He is represented widely in patachitra and poetry as the mighty Jagannatha, lord of the world; through his 10 incarnations referred to as the Dasavatar – which interestingly includes one avatar as the brother of Krishna, Balarama, in place of Rama elsewhere in India; as the endearing child Krishna himself in Krishna Leela; and as the flute-playing divine lover of the enchanted Radha, immortalised in Jayadev’s romantic Gita Govinda.
Then there are recollections of the Sun Temple and of its sensuous themes such as Ras-leela (‘dalliance of the divine lovers’), Shringar-ras (a woman’s elaborate adornment rituals) and the romance of the seasons; of idyllic village life and lusty folk ballads.
All the patachitra works that will be presented at the exhibition Jagannatha in Chennai this week, have been specially commissioned for the show. The 11 artists who created the masterpieces are mostly National Award or Lalit Kala Akademi winners. The few that are not are young talent, and well on their way there...
Who are these artists?
The popular image of an artist is of a person working in the privacy of an atelier, standing before an easel, brush in one hand, and a palette balanced in the other.
The traditional artists of Raghurajpur, Odisha, home of patachitra, could not be more removed from this stereotype. Not for them the luxury of an easel or the quietude of a studio. They live in simple two-room village homes, usually without the luxury of natural light, and often in a joint family.
They sit cross-legged on the floor, bent forward over the pata spread before them, and paint exquisitely intricate mythological and folk themes. No stencils, no measuring tapes or rulers, no magnifying glasses are in evidence. Legends from long ago are spun in authentic detail from memory.
Sometimes, they sing stories as they paint. Children dart around, visitors stop by. The intent geniuses that the patachitra masters are, they continue unperturbed.
Why is this art commissioned?
The superior patachitra that is requested for Jagannatha, now in its second edition, is not readily found even in the Raghurajpur region. It takes time and money to achieve this finesse and the artists’ income is too meagre to invest in them.
Cheap-and-cheerful small patas are both easier to make and sell. Not that the artists make much money from them either. Touts and commission agents take the pieces on consignment and pay the artists months later, at much lower prices than the art deserves.
Five years ago, during a trip to Odisha as a part of my volunteer work with the Crafts Council of India, I came across some outstanding patachitra languishing in a dusty loft in an award winning artist’s home.
Like his peers, he had been reduced to making commonplace patas, much below his capabilities. Back in Chennai, I posted photos of the extraordinary paintings on Facebook. I was pleasantly surprised to receive offers to buy them.
An art collector friend, Ashwin Subramaniam, paid the asking price immediately by bank transfer. The artists were overjoyed. As for me, I could hardly contain my elation.
The backstory of Jagannatha
Over the following months, Ashwin and I decided to commission the finest patachitra Raghurajpur could produce, raise it the status of fine art which it merited, and exhibit it at an art gallery.
The artists placed their full trust in us — 13 of them sent 47 pieces of work. No advance payments were requested or given. My heart was in my mouth the day the show opened, my mind jittery with many ‘What ifs?’ I need not have feared.
The show was a sell out. The artists’ payment, with no deductions, was credited immediately. And many of them received new orders. They could not believe their good fortune.
On my next trip to Odisha, one of them told me shyly that he was adding an extra room to his house. Another had taken his family to Kolkata on a holiday. A third was able to afford much-needed medical treatment for his wife.
That was in 2015. The patachitra masters have since been asking for another exhibition. So are many art connoisseurs in Chennai. Ashwin is supportive and the Forum Art Gallery is sponsoring this show.
Tailpiece — the ripple effect
The Crafts Council of India runs a programme named Educate to Sustain (EtoS) for the children of artisans in several states. It supports young students from the sixth class through high school. Concurrently, it runs craft workshops to train young talent.
The student stipends are understandably well-received, but there is less enthusiasm for the workshops. Across craft communities, the younger generation of artists, even the talented ones, who watch their parents toil in hardship to bring home paltry incomes, do not see a future for themselves in traditional arts and crafts.
Raghurajpur is no different. To many high school students, becoming a mobile phone salesman or pizza delivery boy dressed in a pant and shirt, and riding a motorbike in Bhubaneswar or Puri seems more glamorous.
After Jagannatha, there has been a surge in the applications for the workshops, from both girl as well as boy students. A palpable new pride in their art heritage and the livelihood it promises is emerging. They are also using their education to do their own marketing, via email, WhatsApp and Instagram. Middlemen are being rapidly elbowed out.
An unforeseen consequence of the Jagannatha initiative, and a happy one.
The second edition of Jagannatha will be on display until January 14 at Forum Art Gallery, Adyar.