Painted Walls

The art of Pattachitra

Just off the main highway to Puri, a place where almost everyone on that road heads to, is a narrow road that leads to Raghurajpur. A sleepy little town to the outsider, the beautiful painted walls are about the only things that give away the wonder that lies inside each of them. 

Raghurajpur is a cultural melting pot. With its status as a craft heritage village, every house boasts of highly skilled artisans, some of whom are winners of prestigious awards. While there is a lot of art (including the dance form Gotipua, a precursor to the classical form Odissi), the one craft that stands out is the intricate and detailed Pattachitra paintings.

Pattachitra when translated literally means “painting on Patta cloth or dried Palm leaf.” The style of painting is  intricate with forms of gods and goddesses drawn in great detail.  Every bit of the process is eco-friendly. The base sheet is made of multiple layers of old fabric treated with a concoction that consists of tamarind seed paste. A final coat of a limestone mixture is spread on this canvas, which is then polished to provide a smooth surface. The basic sketches are drawn on this with a chalk made of lamp soot and rice paste. The colors that are used are also derived from natural sources like conch shell (white), soot from lamps (black), soil (red), and so forth. Going that extra mile in this sustainable process, the colors are also stored in empty coconut shells. The brushes are hand-made with discarded animal hair based on the thickness required for the painting process. While the filling in and shading is done with buffalo hair, the outlines are done with the fine ones made from squirrel and rat hair. 

The trained pattachitra painters draw all their inspiration from mythology.  The paintings are largely based on the local deities Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Maa Subhadra.  Everywhere in the region, the images of the trinity in black, white and yellow respectively are painted on paper mache masks, wooden toys and even on betel nut and coconut shells.  Along with this, the life of the various Hindu Gods is represented in the form of a storyboard.  In the each of these paintings, the central figure is flanked by tiny circles or squares depicting the course of events. 

The origins of pattachitra are mired in myth. These paintings are an integral part of the rituals at the Puri Jagannath temple. On the full moon day of the Jyestha month that falls during the summer months, the main deities of the temple have a ritualistic bath to beat the heat. As a result, the deities are believed to fall sick for 15 days. During this period, known as Anasar, the deities are removed from their main shrine for recuperation. In their place, three pattachitra paintings of the trinity are installed for the devotees to worship. This tradition has been followed for generations. This practice is key to the reverence given to pattachitra paintings, the painting of the Gods. During this season, the Pattachitra artisans work round the clock to stock up for the Rath Yatra, the annual procession.

As the rains begin, business peaks as devotees throng to the temple in huge numbers. With the main deities restored in their rightful place, the festival comes to an end. It will be another year before the pattachitra takes center stage. 

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