The art of Pattachitra in Odisha is steeped in legend and closely connected to the much-loved Lord Jagannath of Puri, an avatar of Lord Krishna. On the full-moon day of the Jyestha month (May-June), which is also considered the birthday of Lord Jagannath, the deities of the Jagannath Temple are taken for a ritualistic bath to stave off the summer heat. This is a time when thousands of devotees witness the Snana Yatra, or the ‘procession of bathing’, when the idol of Jagannath, his sister Subhadra and brother Bhalabhadra are taken in a procession for the ceremonial bath.
The story goes that due to the bath, the deities fall sick and develop a fever for 15 days, a period known as ‘Anasar’, i.e the first fortnight of Ashada (June-July), and during this time devotees cannot have darshan of their beloved god.
Pattachitra paintings of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra originated as a substitute for the deities, so that devotees could worship these gods even when the idols were kept away from the public after their ritual bath. Traditionally, Pattachitra is painted by the artists of Raghurajpur, a heritage village in Odisha. Paralakhemundi, Chikiti, Dana Sahi and Sonepur are other centres where the art is practiced. Initially named 'Anasar Patti', to reflect the 15-day period when the idols are secluded, the art form is now known as 'Pattachitra' – 'Patta' in Sanskrit means 'cloth' while 'chitra' means 'painting'. As the name suggests, Pattachitra is a type of scroll painting, traditionally done on cloth.
The Jagannath Temple in Puri was built by the rulers of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, which reigned in Eastern India from the 5th CE to 15th CE. These rulers were great patrons of art and religion. Art, craft and architecture mainly associated with temples flourished during the reign of this prosperous kingdom in Odisha.
About 14 km from Puri, Raghurajpur is a town where Pattachitra artists live and work on their masterpieces. It is believed that the town was established by King Narasingha Deva I, a powerful monarch and warrior of the Eastern Ganga dynasty of the 13th CE. The artists here trace their origin to the Savar tribe, and are known to be 'Chitrakaras' (painters). Maharana, Mahapatra and Subudhi are common surnames of the Chitrakaras.
Universe Maharana, a Pattachitra artist from Raghurajpur, spoke to us about the traditional forms of Pattachitra painting and explained the special process of palm-leaf engraving known as 'Talapatra Chitra'. He said that ‘patta’ is prepared using cotton cloth, usually old saris, which are starch-free. They are arranged in layers, one on top of the other, each layer stuck to the other by a paste made with tamarind seeds. The seeds are soaked in water for 2-3 days and then ground to obtain a gummy paste called niryas kalpa. Kaitha, wood apple gum, is mixed into the tamarind paste and more layers of cloth are pasted together. When the desired thickness is achieved, the cloth is sun-dried. This forms the pata.
Soft clay stone, locally found in Orissa and used for stone-carving and other architectural purposes, is also used in this process. It is ground into powder and mixed with the tamarind paste and then applied over the patta with a brush and dried. The surface of the patta is then rubbed with a rounded stone, sea-shell or a piece of wood. The long patta then forms a roll, from which pieces are cut for the chitras. Nowadays, tussar silk is also used in the form of a canvas.
The art of Pattachitra is exceptional, with its indigenous sourcing and application of materials. The colours used for painting Pattachitra are entirely natural. Sea-shells are powdered, soaked and heated to obtain a milky paste for the colour white. Black is prepared by holding an earthen plate over the smoke of a burning wick. The smoke thus collected is thickened to form the colour black. Kaitha gum, and bilwa fruit, wood apple or stone apple, are used as adhesives and mixed with the natural powders. The colour green is made from green leaves and green stones.
Red is prepared by powdering Hingula, a local stone found in Orissa. Another local stone Harital is used for yellow. Khandaneela is another stone used to make the colour blue. The five main colours have significance in the main painting of Jagannath and are also called Pancha-Tatwa. The colours also signify the Rasa of each character in a story. Hasya, or laughter, is portrayed in white; Raudra, or furious, is in red; and Adbhuta, or astonishment in yellow.
Likewise, Krishna is portrayed in blue and Rama in green. About 120 more colours are obtained by mixing these main colours. The colours are blended in wooden bowls made of coconut shells, another produce of nature. Fine brushes are made of mouse hair. Buffalo hair and keya root is used to make coarse brushes.
Palm-leaf engraving known as Talapatra Chitra is a special style of Pattachitra. Palm leaves are sun-dried for two to three months, then soaked in water and treated with a solution of turmeric. This ensures the longevity of the palm leaves. Sections of leaf in the required sizes are then tied together and made into a scroll.
An ancient tool, a special sharp, pointed, iron needle is used to etch the drawings onto the palm leaves. Pure lamp-black is then rubbed on the palm leaves which fill in the grooves where the drawing is engraved. The extra black powder is then washed off with soap and water, and this leaves the black to settle in the lines of carving. Mythological stories and scenes are depicted in Talapatra Chitras. Some have interesting variations such as a flip-fold, where a hidden image appears which is always an erotic, Kamasutra pose.
The main subject of Pattachitra paintings is the local deity Jagannath, and this art is mainly associated with worship and rituals. In the art, like in the temple, the Lord is represented in a totem-like appearance, along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. These deities are represented icononically in black, white and yellow, respectively. Pattachitras representing the Jagannath deity are known as Srikhetra Pati. The iconic face of Jagannath is also full of symbolism. The two large eyes represent the sun and the moon. Associated with the universe, he is regarded as Anandi, having no beginning, and Ananta, without end.
Since Jagannath is regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu, Pattachitra also covers many facets of Vishnu. The Dashavatar, or the ten incarnations of Vishnu, are depicted in the Pattachitras and offered to the Jagannath deity with musical recitation through fables. Gita-Govinda, a famous literary creation on Radha and Krishna's romance, is read and adorned through the palm-leaf manuscripts and Pattachitras in many villages in Orissa.
Episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita are also inscribed and painted. Some convey the ritual art of religious practices or vows, known as Bratas, and modes of worshipping the gods and goddesses of Odisha. Durga, Ganesha and Nartaki, a dancing girl in Odissi dance posture, are elaborately painted. Odia folklore is another fascinating subject painted and recited.
Interestingly, like elsewhere in India, there are close links between sculpture and art here too. For instance, mythological stories seen in the rock-cut caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri, near Bhubaneswar, like the incarnations of Vishnu as Varaha, or the sacrificial boar, is also depicted in Pattachitra.
Nature-based Pattachitras bearing the tree of life, birds and animals are beautiful versions of the art too. The Kama Kunjara and Kandarpa Rath are elaborate representations of damsels arranged in the form of an elephant and a chariot. Other themes include erotic subjects.
Indian art historian, O C Gangooly believes that Patta paintings are exceptional, not only in the history of Indian paintings but also worldwide, among any form of European painting, because of their uniqueness and ritual significance.
Apart from Odisha, this artwork is also widely practiced in West Bengal and both of the versions have been awarded Geographical Indication tags. Meanwhile Raghurajpur town, the home of this fascinating art, was declared as a ‘heritage village’ by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage in the year 2000.
The unfortunate Cyclone Fani that hit the coast of Odisha in 2019 caused loss of lives and a lot of damage to infrastructure, agriculture and along with that, also washed away many priceless pieces of the Pattachitra art in Raghurajpur. There have been many attempts to revive Pattachitra paintings over time.
It is a living art form practiced even today, yet villages like Raghurajpur need recognition by our own people, as well as those across the world.
Platforms like Peepul Tree are helping this wonderful art form reach a wider audience, while also preserving its story and legacy. Peepul Tree is working with Pattachitra artisan Niranjan Moharana, a National Awardee based in Puri district of Odisha. His spectacular Pattachitra artwork on Peepul Tree features mythological depictions of the local deity, Jagannath, Ganesha dancing in Krishna's pose, Radha & Krishna, and nature, and animals depicting the incarnations of Vishnu.
B Mohanty in his book Pata-Paintings of Orissa published in 1984 mentions an illuminating quote by Dr M Krasa, a Czech scholar with a remarkable contribution to Indian studies: "Strange is this world of the Orissa Paintings, a world in itself where every article and ornament keeps its unchanging shape, its place and importance, where every animal has its own stylized features, every personality its unerring marks of identification, defined by the ancient texts, religious myths and local tradition. It is a world of myths and gods, a world of folk imagination, the reflection of millions of Indian peasants, fishermen and craftsmen, their joys, their hardships, binding faith and exacting beauty. So the paintings speak the language of their creators, they give realistic expression, a clear symbol and humorous details. They are familiar to the eye, close to the heart, bringing joy, expressing life."