We have all seen contemporary artists in action. We have seen them splash paint on giant canvases. But there is another way to make great art. And that is through the rigor of practice and the perfect control over one’s fingers. In the world of traditional artists – practice marks out the best from the rest. Through eyes that can barely see, and through the strength of their frail fingers – the older generation of indigenous artists, create art that simply tantalizes the perfectionists.
Patachitra art has been around for a long time. However the alienation of indigenous art forms has made it difficult for the enthusiast to find out the techniques and methods which produce a great Patachitra. Conversely some of the traditional techniques require upgrading to the latest available materials and tools. With the intention to understand how authentic Patachitra is made, I traveled to Raghurajpur in Orissa to get a first hand view of some of the best Patachitra artists.
So how is good Patachitra made? There a number of steps in the traditional style. The first is of course the preparation of the materials required for the painting. Tamarind seeds are soaked in water in an earthen pot and then boiled to get a gummy solution. Rice powder may be added to give a stiffer feel to the canvas. This process knows as ‘Niryas Kalpa’ takes a few days.
After this, two course cotton cloth pieces of the same dimensions are selected and pasted together using this solution. This forms the ‘Pata’ or the base canvas for the painting. Chalk, clay or stone powder is then mixed with the tamarind solution and applied on both sides of the canvas to give it a semi-absorbent surface coat. After canvas has dried it is burnished first with coarse grain, and then with polished stones to give it a smooth surface. The process of polishing involves many hours of careful work. The result is a canvas with high tensile strength and an excellent surface coat for the intricate lines that are to be made on it.
‘Chitrakarita’ or the process of painting begins once the canvas has been polished. The first step called ‘pahili ranga bhara’, involves painting a red background and the borders and outlines of the composition. The central solid colors are then painted in. The main colors used are red, brick red, yellow, white and lamp black. Many different types of brushes are used to make the different details on the painting. For fine lines, brushes made of the hair of a rat or mongoose is used. For thicker lines buffalo hair is the traditional choice. Kiya plants have been used to make the bolder lines, in the past. However in the last few years some of the artists have started using standard painting brushes made of synthetic materials.
The painting is finished with a coat of lacquer, applied using a soft cloth. After the lacquer has dried completely, the edges are clipped down to the decorative border. The lacquer layer is called ‘jausala’, and is glazed in the final step. In earlier times the lacquer layer was made by sprinkling resin powder on the painting and then holding it down with a hot bag of sand. Synthetic varnish has been used as a substitute in recent times with mixed results. A fallout of the varnish is the brown tinge to the painting.
In the past the themes of the Patachitra paintings belonged to a few major categories
- Pictures of the god Jagannath
- Hindu epics and episodes especially “Krishna Leela”
- Stories from Folklore
- Worship of various gods and goddesses
- Animal and bird themes
- Erotic themes
In recent times modern themes have started appearing on these paintings, even including themes from other religions. However the newer themes are mostly secular and center around modern day events and stories. The depictions however are not uniform and the structure of the paintings can vary from circular paintings to long rectangular panels.
The Patachitra artist also paints on a variety of mediums other than the ‘Pata’. ‘Talapatachitra’ is a variation of the style done on dried palm leaves stitched together to make a canvas. The design in this technique are primarily made with a needle head and etched on to the surface of the dried leaves. This is an extremely difficult and time-consuming process requiring many hours concentration at a time. The older artists develop eye problems mainly due to the extremely detailed designs they make using this technique.
Other mediums that have been used are wooden boxes, tassar silk apparel, coconut shells, wooden doors and panels and even traditional playing cards called ‘Ganjifa’. Compendiums of mythological stories called ‘Chitra-pothies’ are made from many palm leaf paintings stacked together between decorated wooden covers and held by strings or silk threads. These form interesting and memorable gifts, especially desired by the discerning tourists visiting the state of Orissa.
In a following article we are going to examine what differentiates a good painting from an average one. Also on the cards is a an indepth look at the life of a Patachitra artists and the hardships which have made most of them abandon this most delectable art form.