The Lord is not well. He is recuperating behind a bamboo curtain in the company of Balavadra and Shubhadra. Frenetic activities are going behind the curtain to make the Lord well and ready for the grand annual festival of chariot. But the temple can not be kept void of deities; lakhs of pilgrims can not be denied their ‘Darshan’. So a painting showing Balavadra as Balaram, Suhbhadra as Bhubaneswari and lord Jagannath as Krishna on a specially made cloth canvass is consecrated and displayed in the sanctum for the pilgrims to pay their obeisance. This painting is the famous ‘Pat Chitra’ of Orissa.
Pat-Chitra’ of Orissa originated from the ‘SnanYatra’ (bathing ceremony) of Jagannath, some thousand years back. Every year on the full moon day of ‘Jaisthya’ (mid June) the images of Jagannath, Subhadra & Balavadra are brought out of the temple for the bathing ritual. The bathing ritual goes on for a month till the full moon day of ‘Aasarh’ (mid July). Then the images are brought back to the sanctum. But by this time the images are discolored due to the month long bathing. So they are kept behind a bamboo curtain. Pilgrims are not allowed to see them. This phase is called ‘Anasar’ when it is believed; the gods are ill and taking rest. In reality, the images are repaired, colored and prepared for the grand ceremony – ‘Rath-Yatra’. A ‘Pat Chitra’ with painting of the deities is displayed on the bamboo curtain instead of the wooden idols, for the pilgrims. This painting on a cloth canvass is worshipped for fifteen days till the ‘Rath-Yatra’. The art of ‘Pat-Chitra’ developed from this religious necessity. Since it originated from the ‘Anasar’ phase, it is called ‘Anasar Pat-Chitra’. The Pat Chitra, probably the most famous folk art form of Orissa, is fighting for survival. A few painters of Puri, Dandashahi and Raghurajpur are still engaged in this profession and fighting a loosing battle.
Sitting prettily on the bank of river Vargabee, half an hour’s drive away from Puri, Raghurajpur is just like any other village of Orissa. But its uniqueness hits squarely when one sees the villagers sitting on their mud-plastered porch busy in work, not with the mundane daily chores but with brushes and paint. Welcome to the village of ‘ Pat-Chitra’, the world famous folk art of Orissa. Unlike other villages, seeing our car, no child came rushing in. A car is no news here. This small and obscure village has seen many car-borne visitors- Indian as well as foreigner. Instead of children, Sudarshan Mahapatra came out of his school to greet us. His school is the only private school that teaches the art of ‘Pat-Chitra’.
Sudarshan seated us on the courtyard of his ‘Gurukul Ashram’ (School). ‘Pat-Chitras’ of various sizes were brought out and spread on the mat. Suddenly, the surrounding bathed in the late afternoon glow, turned into a mystique world of exquisite beauty resplendent in color. We were entranced. The vibrant colors, the simple yet exquisite drawings and the minute attention to the details had us fumbling for words to praise. Sudarshan had a mischievous glint in his eyes. He had anticipated such a reaction from gullible like us.
It all started in the 12th century. King Anantabarman of ‘Ganga’ dynasty (1087A.D. -1147A.D.) constructed the Jagannath temple and his heir Anangabhim Deva (1190-1198) engaged thirty-six orders for the ‘Seva’ (service-worship) of the idols. ‘Chitrakars’ were one of such orders. Having had their origin in the rituals of Puri temple, the ‘Chitrakars’ in later periods moved to the other parts of Orissa. From this professional ‘Chitrakars’, a branch of ‘Pat-Chitrakars’ evolved and spread out to Dandashahi & Raghurajpur. Some also stayed back in Puri. Later Raghurajpur become the main center of ‘Pat-Chitra’ though initially Dandashahi was in the forefront. In the later period ‘ Pat-Chitra’ spread as far as Midnapore of Bengal.
From the very beginning, the main problem area of the ‘Pat-Chitra’ was marketing. Only one shop in front of the temple used to sell ‘Pat-Chitras’ and it was owned by a middle man-Ananda Mohanty. The painters had no direct means of selling their ‘Pats’ and consequently no control over marketing. So Mohanty exploited the artists to the hilt and soon the artists began to leave the profession, as it could not sustain them any more. They were in debt, up to their neck, to Ananda Mohanty. These artists took up work in the betel-fields, started acting in ‘Jatra’ (local Plays) and some took up masonry. The art of ‘Pat-chitra’ was gasping and dying slowly.
Halina Zealey- an American lady, resurrected the dying art literally from the sand-bed of the Puri beach. Her chance meeting with Panu Maharana, a ‘Pat-Chitrakar’ of Dandashahi, selling his drawings on the beach, blossomed into a strong friendship. Halina became immensely interested in the art and in trying to promote this folk art among her American friends, she realized that marketing is the main problem. So she arranged a competition cum exhibition of the paintings and exported a batch to America. The export and the exhibition met with resounding success.
The first prized picture, allegedly drawn by an artist of Raghurajpur, was in reality, drawn by Panu Maharana of Dandashahi. So the artists of Raghurajpur became the laughing stock of the community. The insulted artists went to Jagannath Mahapatra, a master artist of Raghurajpur and begged him to give a fitting reply. He was then working as a mason in the day and in an opera in the night. On hearing the insult meted out to the artists of Raghurajpur, the master brought out his brushes, dusted them and began to paint. Raghurajpur won the next round of competition; the artist was Jagannath Mahapatra. Since then Raghurajpur had not looked back. But the master had to pay the price of fame. A rumor was spread that the master is dead when actually he was kicking alive. The heart-broken master tried to leave the village but could not do so completely. He only shifted his house to the out skirts of the village and just had enough time to start his ‘Gurukul Ashram’ before he died.
History lesson done, we were interested in the finer points of the making of ‘Pat-Chitra’. Two pieces of white cotton cloth bounded by special glue from tamarind seeds is used as canvass. Making only the canvass can take 10 days. Stone dust was used as colors and the primary colors were mixed to create secondary colors. Hair of cow, goat, squirrel were used to make brushes. But now, ready made paints and brushes are used. The canvass is called ‘Pat Astra’. First, the border is demarcated and then a senior artist draws the sketch, head first, followed by the body. Hands and legs are drawn last. Next job is coloring. First the outer, then the figures and the inner parts. Drawing of the various parts of the body- nose, eyes, forehead etc- are pre-determined by the books (Shastras); so are the cloths, jewelry and even the beard and the moustache. Then the junior artists paint the borders with various motifs, most popular being the entwined snakes, flowers and vines. At this stage, the picture is retouched and lacquered. The finale is the roasting. The picture is held over a charcoal fire, face down and a mixture of lac & resin is applied to give the picture luster. The ’Pat-Chitra’ is ready for sale.
The colors, the contours of the body of the gods & goddesses, cloths, jewelry, back grounds, the flora & fauna in the ‘Pat-Chatra’ –all are pre-determined by the ‘ Shastras’. It’s a very regimented art form. But surprisingly, quite vibrant & fresh. Some innovations in the form of peculiar animals like an animal with head of a tiger, tail of a peacock, with a deer in its beak, a two headed deer and a female headed ‘Kamdhenu’ (heavenly cow) are also seen. Nose ring in the female figures is a specialty of the ‘Pat-Chitra’ as it is very rare to see nose ring on the female figurines in the temple sculptures of Orissa.
As the ‘Pat-Chitra’ evolved from the ‘Jagannath-cult’, the deity and various stories associated with him are the main theme of the paintings. But the Lord changes his dress seven times a day. So the artists were in a great dilemma on the choice of the cloth of the Lord. ‘Jagannath’ wears the most majestic dress along with jewelry of flower at the end of the day when he goes to sleep. ‘Gitagobinda’ (the poetic work of Jaydeva) is written all over that silk dress. This dress is called ‘Bara Shringer Besh’. The artists of ‘Pat-Chitra’ took up this image of the Lord for their painting. Later, Vishnu with his ten forms (Dashabatar), Krishna & his famous exploits on the bank of Jamuna and even Buddha (Orissa was a big Buddhist center) became the subject of these paintings. During the bathing ceremony the idols of Puri wear a special dress in the form of an elephant called ‘Gajanan Besh’. So Ganesh (the elephant God) became a popular subject of the ‘Pats’. Later elements of tribal culture crept in and the themes became secular.
In the history of Oryan painting, ‘Pat-Chitra’, probably, is the most ancient form of painting. But despite government patronization (the Govt. craft college teaches ‘Pat-Chitra’ from 1969) and occasional private help, the ancient problem of marketing is still there; so are the middlemen and the exploitations.
There’s an ancient belief among the artists of ‘Pat-Chitra’. To give permanence to the colors on the ‘Pat’, the painting along with images of the gods and goddesses had to be roasted on the charcoal fire. The painters believe, for this forced sin they are cursed to remain half fed through out their life.