Fine pigment of sacred depiction

On the full moon day of the month of Jyestha, something peculiar happens – a god falls ill. For the 15 days of his sickness, a painting substitutes him. Therein lies the origin of the ancient Pattachitra art of Odisha.

Published on 1 Jul 2018 in Swarajya Mag

On the full moon day of the Indian month of Jyeshtha, something peculiar happens – a god falls ill. The great triad enshrined in the Jagannath Temple in Puri bathe too much and are afflicted with fever. In the 15 days of their ‘treatment’ they are hidden away from public view. In this period known as ‘anasara’, they are substituted by majestic paintings that represent them. This is the tale of the origin of the ancient Pattachitra art of Odisha.

Ananta Narayana, old Pati Dian set of the Puri Temple.

A number of traditional painter families live in Puri and the surrounding villages. They are called chitrakaras in Odia, and in Puri, there is an entire street consisting of only chitrakara families. The nearby village of Raghurajpur has been declared a ‘heritage village’ because the entire settlement consists of only chitrakaras. At the helm of this ancient clan of painters are those who paint in the service of Jagannath, the beloved deity of Odias.

To paint for Jagannath is no small task; it is a service assigned only to the senior-most craftsmen of the chitrakara lineage. The Gajapati Raja would select three families for the three deities – Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath. The chitrakara masters would be initiated into the service of the temple in a formal ceremony called sadhi-bandha. The raja would tie their heads with the sacred fabric of Jagannath. It is after this that the painters would start their magnanimous task. Many researchers and chitrakaras trace the origin of Pattachitra back to the painting at the Puri temple. This forms an unbroken link with Jagannath, symbolic of their antiquity. This temple-service of painters, apart from being a very challenging task, is also an honorific one. They look up on the master, who has the experience and expertise to be engaged in the direct service of Jagannath himself. Due to the intrinsic socio-political importance of the temple, these masters enjoy high status within the community and respect in the town of Puri. As of now, only two families are in this service – one for Jagannath and one for both Balabhadra and Subhadra.

A fortnight before the bathing festival of Jyeshtha, the painters receive a note requesting them to make the revered ‘anasara patis’. With the commencement of their services, utmost cleanliness has now to be observed. The family would now sleep on the bare ground, abstaining from sex, intoxicants, meat, garlic and onion. The next day as dawn breaks, the chitrakara cooks with his wife the tamarind gum and chalk mixture for priming the canvas. A huge cotton cloth is cut into dimensions, which can be as large as 1.2 metre long and a metre wide. While he cuts the canvas to the required size, she painstakingly grinds stones to produce pigments.

Pigments play a major role in distinguishing the anasara patis. Only ‘traditional’ (which implies naturally obtained) pigments are used. Industrial oil-based paints are considered unclean. The master chitrakaras look down upon these ‘foreign’ paints. This is to be expected. The Puri temple, until this date, has not a single of its 56 dishes made using potato. Potato, like commercial paints, is ‘foreign’ and thus done away with in tasks related to the temple, a living institution of Odia tradition as it has been through the centuries. Moreover, the pigments are never mixed and are only used as they are, in their ‘pure’ forms.

Once the priming is done, the master painter takes over. We take a peek into the first workshop in the artist’s street. With a thin brush dipped in red hingula, he deftly outlines the figure of Jagannath in all detail. This is the base sketch, or what is known as the tipana. Years of practice have made this process so natural that he needs no reference. A small blotch indicates that the master intends every second flower in the garland to be a full-bloomed pink lotus.

His work done, the master now withdraws and lets his apprentices take over. This is the first big engagement in their internship and training, and the master keenly supervises each brushstroke. Nothing can be wrong; more importantly, how can he give a painting with the slightest fault to his beloved deity? The helpers begin their work of filling in the colours. First, they fill the red background, then the black body of Jagannath. Finally, the ornaments are painted in chrome yellow and other elements are completed. The master takes over again, this time for the fine black outlines throughout. Intricate parallel lines and foliate designs adorn the garments and jewellery. Two conch-shell like eyes, a nose and rather fleshy red lips emerge as the process progresses. A fashionable flame-like moustache rises from under his nose, and a trimmed beard frames the face. Since Jagannath is black, all detailing is done in white. The studio needs to hurry up, for there is only about a week left, and there is a lot more to do.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the road, the other workshop has double the work to complete. This is the bada bada workshop, where the elder brother’s work is being done. The elder brother is also the one for whom more work has to be done in the pigments department, because filling the entire body in bright white requires grinding a lot of conch shells. White has been the most difficult colour to produce in Pattachitra workshops due to the exhausting task of turning shell into fine-grain pigment.

Balabhadra wears a seven-hooded white snake. His figure resembles his brother’s. He holds a pestle and a plough in his hands, motifs of his association with agriculture. Typical of Puri is the respect mixed with a hint of fear towards Balabhadra, who has a reputation for getting angered easily. Nobody messes with him. People may pull off a joke on Jagannath, who is like an all-weather friend.

The youthful sister is not to be forgotten. Subhadra is painted in dazzling yellow. She wears a sari. She wears traditional Odia-womenfolk ornaments – notha, tarata jhumpa, hansaguna, bajubandha and khadu. Like the rustic lady, her feet are lined with bright red alta. Her left eyeball is slightly smaller than the right one – in this part of the earth it is considered ‘auspicious’ to be so.   In a matter of another week, the paintings will be complete, except for a small white hole in the centre of their eyeballs. That part is reserved for the master chitrakara. He fills in the black when life is infused into the paintings before worship. The paintings are now complete.

The next morning is special. The entire family wakes up early. They bid their goodbye to the lifelike painted deities born in their households while a delegation from the temple arrives to escort the gods to their palace. The ghantua beats the gong (ghanta) and the kahalia sounds his trumpet (kahali). After all, this is the deity to whom the Gajapati rulers of Odisha had willingly acceded subservience to. Under a silver-handled royal umbrella, the master chitrakara walks with the rolled-up painting cradled between his arms. The party moves through the lanes to the temple.

Late that night, when the fever-sick gods return to the inner chamber for rest, a bamboo partition is strung in front, blocking them from public view. On this partition, the three painted deities are displayed in order – Ananta Basudeba (Balabhadra), Bhubaneswari (Subhadra) and Ananta Narayana (Jagannath). A fortnight hence, the high-ceiling chambers of the temple shall remain in the light of a flickering earthen lamp. It is in this yellow light of the flame that one sees how the lifelike Pati Dian (the depiction of the deities) appear to be gazing intensely far into the darkness of the silent chamber.

When the deities recover from their fever, they will come out of their sanctum in the Ratha Jatra. The endless cycle shall recur as it has for centuries.

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