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Encountering the Living Tradition of Pattachitra: Part 2

Author: Hannah Barnes

Associate Professor of Art, Ball State University

As with many Indian traditions, Pattachitra holds sacred the concept of parampara, or teacher-student lineage. Artists study for many years with a master painter in order to gain proficiency in their craft. While in Odisha I visited Raghuragjpur, a nearby craft village where Pattachitra techniques are taught and practiced widely. Raghurajpur is unique among craft villages, having been developed by INTACH in 2000 as a heritage craft village. It has since become a destination for increasing numbers of Indian and foreign tourists.

One can stroll down the main village lane of Raghurajpur and pass numerous small workshops. Artists sit in doorways hawking their colorful wares. In addition to paintings, they sell brightly colored papier-mache objects painted in Pattachitra style: strands of ornate birds, miniature temples with working doors and tiny Jagannath families inside. Upon entering a workshop, scores of paintings will be unfurled at one’s feet – Krishnas, Jagannaths, Trees of Life, in every size and color combination one can imagine. Many of the works are on tussar silk, a convenient ready-made alternative to the labor-intensive patta.

With modernization and a budding tourist market, recent Pattachitra painting exhibits some changes in style and, occasionally, I am told, quality. One example of this is pigments.

Traditional Pattachitra uses natural colors, hand ground and mixed with gums. But with the increasing availability of modern materials, some artists are exploring readymade options. In one artist’s workshop I was shown a small painting with bright vermillion shapes. The artist pointed to the vermillion with a furrowed brow. “Color is not good”, he explained. Apparently, new pigments had been used which were producing inferior results.

The aesthetic of recent paintings has also shifted somewhat. Unlike the subdued hues of older works, new Pattachitra paintings boast high saturation and strong contrast, favoring bubblegum pinks and hotel pool blues. In one artist’s workshop I leafed through a stack of older patta paintings on tussar. The artist pulled two large pieces aside, explaining that these were the work of an old master. Very expert work, I was told. Indeed, a difference was perceptible in the quality of color, line, and composition. A sense of restraint prevailed; colors tended toward neutrals, red-oranges and peaches; negative space dominated; line work was thin, varied, and lyrical.

Once our saree fabric has been coated thoroughly, Das announces it’s time for a break. “Finished?” I ask. “No, not finished,” Das replies. “Must dry. Then more layers.” While we wait, we sit back on the red concrete sipping chai. Narahari Bhoi asks for my sketchbook. I watch with curiosity as he takes a stubby pencil in hand. Before beginning to draw, he lightly whisks his fingers to his forehead, eyes closed. It’s a subtle gesture, but it piques my curiosity. It’s an invocation, he explains, a ritual to bring god’s blessing to his craft and a dedication of his craft to god. For Pattachitra artists, then, the act of making an image is more than an expression of creativity; it is an expression of devotion, a prayer.

While I sit baffled, pondering this contrast between the Pattachitra artist’s self-conception and that of the western ‘tortured genius’ trope, Bhoi begins to draw. Fine, curving lines unroll from his hand like strands of silk. A peacock. A fish. A woman’s profile. He fills page after page; as he works, he chats and jokes with us. He sings songs in Oriya and recites mantras in Sanskrit. Periodically he looks up at us from his work; his smile is huge, his eyes gleam through his wire-rims. There is a hint of mischief in his expression. His hair is long. When I visit him in his Jagannathpur workshop a week later, his head has been shaved. I come to learn that his guru has passed away. A rite of mourning has been completed.

The cloth is flipped, coated twice more, and left to dry overnight. The next day, we return to inspect our work. “Finished?” “Almost. Now we cut, then polish.” With ruler and pencil Das plots out a small oblong on the now-rigid cloth. He cuts it free with a blade, producing a painting-sized rectangle. From their supplies two flat-bottomed stones are produced. Das takes the patta piece and begins polishing it with the first stone, then the second. Small circular movements begin to produce a leathery sheen. He hands the cloth to me to feel; the chalky, porous surface has been transformed into a dense, fine-grained skin.

Finally, the patta is ready for painting. As a last touch, Das lightly pencils a border, creating a space for an image. Beneath the smooth surface hints of saree pattern are visible. I try to remember this pattern, what it looked like yesterday before it was transformed into a newly blank canvas. I think of the Italian word pentimenti. I think of palimpsest. Finished? Finished.

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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