The art form, Pattachitra which arises from the land of Orissa is closely knit and related to the popularly celebrated and worshipped, Lord Jagannath of Puri, an avatar of Lord Krishna. On the birthday of Lord Jagannath, the idols of the Jagannath Temple are taken for a ceremonial bath to beat the summer heat. Lakhs of devotees visit Puri to witness this magnanimously extravagant event, the ‘procession of bathing’, when the idol of Jagannath, his sister Subhadra and brother Balarama are taken in a procession for the ritualistic bath.
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Tradition has it that owing to the bath, the deities are unfortunately struck with fever for a 15-day long period. During this period, the devotees cannot seek the sight of their beloved deities. As a substitute for the deities, the Pattachitra paintings came into picture so as to enable the worship of the gods even when the idols are concealed from the public post the ritualistic bath. ‘Patta’ in Sanskrit means ‘cloth’ whereas ‘chitra’ translates to ‘painting’. As the name indicates, Pattachitra is a form of scroll painting, customarily done on cloth.
The popular Jagannath Temple in Puri was constructed by the rulers of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, which ruled in Eastern India from the 5th CE to 15th CE. These rulers were pronounced patrons of religion and art. Architecture and craft primarily associated with the temples, prospered remarkably during the period of ruling of this thriving kingdom in Odisha. Raghurajpur is a small town, about 15 kilometres from Puri which is home to the Pattachitra artists. This town is known to be established by the ruler, Narasingha Deva I, a prominent monarch and warrior of the Eastern Ganga dynasty of the 13th CE. The artists in this region are basically related to the Savar tribe and are popular painters.
The process of crafting the base to paint on, that is the Patta, is tedious. It involves the usage of old cotton saris. These starch-free cotton saris are arranged in layers, stacked on top of each other. Every layer is stuck to the other with the help of a paste made with tamarind seeds. The seeds are soaked in water for a period of 2-3 days and then ground to get a gummy paste known as ‘Niryaskalpa’. In order to paste more layers of cloth, ‘Kaitha’, which is wood apple gum, is mixed with the tamarind paste. Once the required thickness is obtained, the cloth is sun dried, thus marking the completion of the process of making Patta. Soft clay stone is crushed and mixed with tamarind paste and then applied over the formerly made patta. The surface of patta is then rubbed with a rounded stone or a block of wood to smoothen the surface.
The colours used in the art of Pattachitra are completely natural. To obtain the colour white, sea-shells are ground, soaked and heated to obtain a milky paste. Green is made using green leaves and stones, black is prepared by placing an earthen plate over the smoke of a burning wick which is thickened and collected. Red is made by powdering ‘Hingula’, a local stone found in Odisha. Another local stone ‘Harital’ is used for obtaining the colour yellow. ‘Khandaneela’ is another stone used to make the colour blue. The five main colours have immense significance in the main painting of Jagannath. This is called ‘Pancha tatwa’. The colours signify the Rasa or emotion of each character in a story. Hasya, or laughter, is portrayed in white; Adbhuta, or astonishment in yellow and Raudra, or fury conveyed using red. Correspondingly, Krishna is depicted using blue and Lord Rama is illustrated using green. A wide range of about 120 colours are obtained by mixing the primary colours in specific ratios. In order to blend these colours, wooden bowls made of coconut shells are used. Brushes are made using mouse hair that imparts a fine touch to the paintings. For making coarse brushes, buffalo hair and keya root is used.
Talapatra Chitra, is a special style of Pattachitra made engraving motifs and figures on palm leaves. The palm leaves are sun-dried for about three months, and then soaked in water and cured with a solution of turmeric. This imparts longevity to the palm leaves. Segments of leaf in the necessary sizes are then tied together and converted into a scroll.
An antique tool, a distinct sharp, piercing, iron needle is used to engrave the drawings onto the palm leaves. Pure lamp-black is later rubbed onto the palm leaves which is used to fill in the grooves where the illustration is etched. The additional black powder is then washed off with soap and water.
The main theme of Pattachitra paintings is the local deity Lord Jagannath, and this art is essentially associated with rituals and worship. Lord Jagannath is represented in a totem-like appearance, along with his sister Subhadra and brother Balarama. These god figures are represented using the colours black, tallow and white respectively. The face of Jagannath is full of imagery. The two large eyes represent the sun and the moon. Jagannath is associated with the universe, with no beginning or end.
Pattachitra covers many facets of Vishnu as Jagannath is supposed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It portrays the ‘Dashavatar’ – the 10 incarnations of Vishnu artistically yet with a great deal of devotion. A well-known literary creation on Radha and Krishna’s romance, the ‘Gita-Govinda’, is wonderfully crafted through the palm-leaf scripts and Pattachitras in numerous villages in Orissa. Episodes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and The Bhagavad Gita are also adorned and painted.
Fascinatingly, like elsewhere in India, there lies a close linkage between art and sculpture here too. Pattachitra also depicts the mythological stories, the incarnations of Vishnu as Varaha, and the sacrificial boar seen in the rock-cut caves of and Khandagiri and Udayagiri, in Odisha.
Some of the Pattachitras derive their inspiration from nature related entities too. Prodigiously depicted birds, trees and flowers are used to adorn the meticulously crafted paintings. The Kandarpa Rath and the Kama Kunjara wonderfully depict illustrations of damsels organized in the form of an elephant and a chariot.
In addition to Odisha, this art form is also cultivated and practised in West Bengal. The town of Raghurajpur, where the artisans created their masterpieces, was declared a ‘Heritage Village’ by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage in the year 2000.
Unforunately, the cyclone Fani which caused a large scale destruction in Odisha, has left its mark on this art form too. It washed away many irreplaceable pieces of the Pattachitra art in Raghurajpur. A couple of organisations have come together to help the Pattachitra painters evolve and preserve this priceless art form.
In the modern times, it is imperative to understand and appreciate the handicrafts within our country. This endangered artwork is not only the source of livelihood for the painting community, but it also forms the backbone of our socio-cultural integrity. The folk and traditional art forms of India must be celebrated and promoted not only to cater to ones’ artistic palette, but also to support the local artisans. Once extinct, this unique art form will just be another page in history and will never be fully known to the upcoming generations.
Learn more about most famous Indian art forms.