The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

Where every villager is an artist
Tina Solanki

Patachitras have become collectors’ items.
Patachitras have become collectors’ items.

ABOUT 20 minutes by road from the temple town of Puri, in Orissa, lies a unique village surrounded by thick groves of coconut palm and betel-nut trees. Rows of houses run parallel to the banks of the Bhargabi river, overlooking four tiny temples dedicated to Lord Krishna and one to the village deity, Bhuasini. Welcome to Raghurajpur, India’s only village where everybody is an artist.

You may not find it on the map, but every art collector and foreign tourist travelling to Puri, is aware of its location. For unlike other state-run crafts’ villages across the country, Raghurajpur has been a natural haven for artists over centuries. Here, art is not just a profession or passion. It is a way of life.

Raghurajpur’s biggest contribution to India’s cultural heritage is the patachitra an ancient style of painting that is seen nowhere else. The subject for such figurative works is drawn from folktales and mythological legends, but what distinguishes it from other indigenous traditions is the method of painting.

Says Nilotpal Satpathy, a 70-year-old artist: "Patachitras belong to the tradition of temple paintings. They were used as decorative artifacts to adorn the sanctum sanctorum of temples — as colourful backdrops, on the seat of deities, over curtains and pillars, at the threshold... It is a very specialised art."


The process begins with creating a canvas, or the surface on which the painting is to be executed. A gummy paste of boiled tamarind seeds and soft granite powder is plastered on a stretched piece of cloth, twice over, so that it becomes stone hard and does not crack.

Once dry, the bare outlines of the painting are sketched with charcoal or limestone (chalk) by a master painter. This is usually done free-hand and from memory, though decorative motifs like borders and certain geometric forms are copied from pre-cut stencils in order to save time.

"Some artists, who are into mass production for commercial purposes, also employ stencils," Satpathy points out. "But that does not affect the quality of work as the use of chemical-based dyes and paints, which go against our tradition. Patachitras are supposed to be painted with organic or natural colours."

So the soot of oil lamps serves for black and diluted lime for white. The leaves of plants, flower petals, fruits (like mango, for yellow), ground rocks and even the urine of domesticated animals contribute to the production of a variety of shades and hues. The paintings are polished and mounted before sale.

"The patachitra style of painting is as old as the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri," says Nemai Panda, another artist. "Apart from its decorative appeal, the art was associated with temple rituals. The religious sentiments of pilgrims have kept this tradition alive as everybody tends to take back a painting of the Lord as a sacred memento."

There is one person though, who deserves credit for drawing international attention to Raghurajpur: an American social activist, Helina Zealey. In the early fifties, she accompanied her husband, Philip, the then director of the American Friends’ Society, stationed at Puri.

During her stay, Helina discovered this magnificent, but marginalised, art form and its impoverished painters, probed into their roots, encouraged them to return to their avocation and most significantly, developed a marketing strategy to support and sustain their creativity.

Patachitras soon became’ collectors’ items. And assisting her in this promotional campaign was the well-known master craftsman and community leader, Jagannath Mohapatra. With Helina’s help, he set up a Gurukul Ashram for training youngsters in the art and, furthermore, established a cooperative society, which takes care of sales, including exports to Russia, Japan and Indonesia.

Today, in addition to patachitra, Raghurajpur can claim to producing some of the finest works in palm-leaf painting and etching, wood carving, papier mache sculptures and stone carving. Significantly, Odissi wizard Kelucharana Mohapatra hails from this village.

Of late, neighbouring villages like Nayakapatna and Khasposak have begun absorbing some of the artistic skills from Raghurajpur and are producing artists, who have been winning national awards. But ultimately, it is the Raghurajpur address that bears the stamp of authenticity, particularly for a patachitra painting. MF

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