The Iconic Folk Art from Orissa

An annual ritual in the famous Jagannath Temple of Puri, a beach town in the East Indian State of Orissa, has given rise to one of India's most treasured folk art form, the 'Patachitra'. The origin of the Patachitra paintings can be traced back to the 8th century AD and it is considered as one of the earliest forms of indigenous paintings. This iconic art form of folk significance is unique in the history of Indian as well as European paintings.

The fantastic pictorial conceptions, the idiosyncratic conventions, the extra-ordinary system of line formations and vibrant use of colors make this art form stand by itself. It is assumed that the uniqueness of this school of painting was derived from some primitive forms of Aboriginal art from Orissa or its neighboring states.

The origin and development of Patachitra paintings are inextricably linked with the Jagannath Cult. Each year, the painted wooden images of Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Shubhadra in the Jagannath temple of Puri are ritually given the holy bath. This cleansing leads to the discoloration of the images. Hence, they are removed from the 'garbha griha' (the Seat in the Temple) for repainting. During this period, the temple images are substituted for three paintings, depicting the holy trio, on specially treated clothes or 'Patas' prepared by the temple painter. Thus the name 'Patachitra' (Sanskrit: Pata = cloth, Chitra = painting). Originating as a ritual, the Patachitra has evolved as a distinct school of painting and is regarded today as one of the most cherished collectors' items.

The devotional art of Patachitras is exclusive to the community of painters known as the 'Chitrakars'. The chitrakars live and practice their hereditary art in Puri and in two villages on its outskirts-Raghurajpur and Dandshahi. Each of the Chitrakar family owns a family sketchbook handed down from generation to generation. Gods and Goddesses, the Lilas (feats) of Lord Krishna, legends and animals, are all depicted in the sketchbooks. These books are the chitrakars' most valuable possessions and are worshipped along with the family gods.

The process of preparing the canvas (Pata) is onerous, usually taking at least five days. It involves the preparation of a tamarind seed paste, which is mixed with water in an earthen pot and subjected to further treatment.

It is known as the 'Niryas Kalpa'. The chitrakar then selects two pieces of cloth of equal size and sticks them together with this paste. Clay powder is then added to the mixture and two or three coatings of this mixture are applied on to the prepared canvas on both the surfaces. When the canvas is dry, it is polished, a process that takes several hours. Once it is dry, the paintings ('chitrakarita') begin.

Patachitras are typically painted in a regular series of steps. First, a border is drawn around the pata. Then the outlines of the figures are drawn in white pigment. Next the background between the border and the figure or figures is painted in a solid color, and the parts of the figures are painted in solid colors, using different colors for different areas, all done in bold rather than fine brushwork. Then, increasingly fine decorations are added to the picture. The painting is finished with a protective coating. The current practice is to apply a thick coat of lacquer with a cloth. After the lacquer dries, the Patachitra is trimmed down to the decorative border. The average painting is completed in a week. But there are intricate ones that take as long as a month.

Organic or natural colors are used in the Patachitras. 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 predominant gem like colors that are used are vermilion red derived from cinnabar, brick red from red ochre, yellow from orpiment, blue from indigo, green from green leaves, white from conch shell and black from lamp black. Once, the colors are extracted they are combined with gum resin and then used in painting. The brilliant play of these colors produce stunning effects on the cloth. The brushes used to apply the paint are prepared from plant fibers or animal hair. In recent years, these brushes are sometimes purchased from supply stores. The depiction of images in a Patachitra is not always uniform. It can vary from a single image painted on a circular Patachitra to depiction of several stages of a story on long rectangular 'Patis'

Traditionally, the folk art paintings of Patachitra centers on the worship of Lord Jagannath, but in recent times, other religious and secular themes are being used as well. The subject matter of Patachitras can be broadly divided into six categories:

  • Ppictures of the god Jagannath;
  • Episodes from the Hindu epics;
  • Themes from folklore;
  • Rritual themes related to the worship of various gods and goddesses;
  • Animal and bird themes; and
  • Erotic themes.

However, the religious motifs remain the core of the pictorial content of the Patachitras. Despite the use of liberal themes and modern techniques at times, traditional styles and processes continue to flourish and dominate conventions.

Along with cloth paintings, the Chitrakars also create delicately etched images on dried palm leaves, usually known as Talapatachitra. Large palm leaves (Talpata) are cut into rectangular pieces of the required size and dried. These flat rectangular palm leaves are then stitched together with thin black thread. The designs are engraved with a needle on the face of the palm leaves. Within the limited space, finely detailed human figures, birds, animals, trees, and ornate designs are etched out with perfect precision and beauty. This is, for obvious reasons, an extremely strenuous and time consuming process.

Although several centuries old, Patachitra continues to be a living art form practiced even today. The folk art tradition of Patachitra is not only living but is distinctly recognizable in terms of style, themes, content and execution. Beside the traditional fanfare that continues, Patachitras have also gained international repute as a treasured art form from an exotic land of life and colors.

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