A trip to Raghurajpur is your cue to go beyond beaches and temples in Odisha. It is home to artists keeping alive the legacy of Pattachitra paintings on walls, leaves and stones.
The afternoon sun had already started to dissolve in the sky, and I still couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to go next. I had already spent half a day watching the sunrise from behind the Konark Sun Temple complex, strolling through a museum, and having a hearty lunch of aloo potol rasa (potato and pointed gourd curry), besara (mixed vegetable in mustard paste), maccha (fish) curry, and bhaat (rice). But in my defence, the next choice was tough. I was in Puri in Odisha, and I had to pick between driving to Satpada to catch the sunset cruise on time and watch the Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika Lake with a hundred others, or to take a shorter drive to a nearby quaint artist village, away from the crowds. The chances of getting a glimpse of the elusive species that day were rather thin, I was told by my driver. Half-heartedly, I picked the latter.
En route to Raghurajpur, I noticed how breathtakingly beautiful and untouched this part of India is. Clean beaches, pristine lakes, lush farms—the 30-minute drive from Puri gave me the much-needed dose of dopamine, as our car sped fast on the silken roads lined with swaying trees. Soon, we arrived, and some 120-odd homes arranged in neat rows welcomed us in. One step into the village and you know how close folk arts are to the people living here. The homes here double up as studios: their walls are adorned with murals and folk paintings, trinkets and hand-painted décor items hung at the doorsteps.
Simply put, the heritage village is an open-air museum of the traditional arts of Odisha practiced here. Pattachitra, the most revered artform of Raghurajpur, goes as far back as the 12th century and has been passed on from one generation to the next in the families here. In the local language, pata means cloth and chitra means painting. The canvas is prepared by binding layers of cotton cloth with an adhesive made of ground conch shell and tamarind seeds. Once stiffened, the seven-layer cloth is polished and smoothened to perfection using stones. These traditional scrolls are then turned into visual stories as artists paint intricate details of mythological narratives and tribal folklore with natural dyes from plants, lamp black and shells.
I sat down with Prakash Patraa, a local artist in his late twenties, in his veranda as he carefully unrolled scrolls of paintings in front of me, passionately talking about how his great grandfather had received a National Award for his illustrations. Patra’s family, just like every other household in the village, also deals in talapatrachitra (palm-leaf engraving), papier-mâché toys, masks, coconut handicrafts, and paintings on tussar silk.
I ran my fingers over the intricate detailing and beautiful carvings, listening to these artists, how the younger generation is now wanting to abandon these artforms in search of a better life in the city. It took me back to the potters’ community in Maharashtra’s Amravati and Shilpgram in Udaipur, where I’ve had similar conversations with the locals. Back in 2000, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) declared Raghurajpur a ‘heritage village’, which has helped the artists reach a wider audience. The Pattachitra paintings can be found in museums across the world, but there’s still a fairly large number of artists here who are struggling to make ends meet.
Soon, it was time for me to take leave. I stuffed my bag with lots of souvenirs and my heart with happy memories, promising Patra to come back to Odisha someday. Back on the road, as I watched the sky take up a shade of lilac and the sea running along the road turn into liquid gold, I couldn’t help but thank myself for keeping my trip to meet the Irrawaddy dolphins for another time. That way, I will come back to Raghurajpur, too.