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Encountering the Living Tradition of Pattachitra: Part 1

Author: Hannah Barnes

Associate Professor of Art, Ball State University

Whap! The sound of wet fabric snapping flat against cement punctuates a sunny November morning in Bhubaneswar. I am standing on a red half moon of concrete in the garden at Utsha Foundation. With me are master Pattachitra artists Narahari Bhoi and Dwijabar Das. They have travelled here from nearby Jagannathpur village to teach me the art of making patta. I am joined by Utsha staff. Together we observe as the artists begin to work, layering several meters of wet saree fabric on the concrete pad. They smooth the fabric methodically, pressing out air bubbles and tugging the edges of each layer into alignment.

When I first encountered the Odisha tradition of Pattachitra painting, I was struck by its characteristic bold, flat colours and exuberant decorative qualities. Although its origin dates back hundreds of years, Pattachitra craft is still practiced widely in Odisha today. Like much Indian traditional painting, its imagery centers on episodes from Hindu mythology and folklore; Lord Jagananth is of particular importance and his tales feature in many conventional compositions. Though an ancient practice, something about the aesthetic of Pattachitra struck me as oddly contemporary, and I wanted to learn more about its making.

Next comes the mud. Nearby, water has been heating in a metal pot. It’s time to make the magical gesso-like mixture that will be applied to the saree cloth, transforming it into the leather-like patta surface. I watch intently, notebook and pencil in hand, trying not to miss a beat. Das adds a fine white powder of ground tamarind seed to the hot water. After some soaking and stirring, the mixture congeals into a milky glue. He grabs a 5-gallon bucket, tosses in a handful of the tamarind glue and a roughly equal amount of rose-colored stone powder, adds water, and blends by hand to create a pale slurry. Bits of glue rise to the surface like tapioca strands. Das squishes the globules through his fingers, adding more powder, then water, mixing again. Occasionally he lets a fist-full run through his fingers, testing the viscosity, until the concoction begins to resemble fine earthenware slip.

Hoisting the bucket of slurry, we return to our saree cloth, which has been wicking moisture in the warm sun. Working quickly, Das and Bhoi spread handfuls of the rose-colored slurry across the patterned cloth. As I watch their hands spreading in even, confident circular motions, I recognize the expert ease of their movements. I have seen this quality in other makers: effortless, graceful exactness that makes a hard-won technique appear as child’s play. It’s a quality that comes with decades of experience, and it is beautiful to watch. I think of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. I think of Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off.

( To be continued..)

About the Author:

Hannah Barnes is an Associate Professor of Art at Ball State University , Indianapolis ,USA . As part of the Fulbright-Nehru program she has travelled to different parts of India exploring, practicing and experimenting with the rich art forms of the country. As part of this journey she completed her Utsha Residency in November 2017. You can see selected images of her Residency Open Day here.

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