Who are these men? And how does this delicate Tree painting connect them? The gentleman in suit is former French president Francoise Hollande (above) upon his 2015 visit to India. PM Modi gifted Hollande this beautiful Tree of Life
by Catterfly’s Pattachitra master artist Bhaskar Mohapatra. The gift was meant to show the French the “traditional societal respect for nature in India”.
Grand words. But as Bhaskarji (above) later said he didn’t paint to get awards but to celebrate lord Jagannath's Nabakalebra festival
(symbolic recreation of Jagannath idol). There is life, death and promise of rebirth in the ritual and his silk painting in natural colors was an artistic representation of that ethos. Certainly no politics in there.
Surviving Tough Times
Art is a way of life for artists like Bhaskar Mohapatra who lives with his family in the heritage village of Raghurajpur in Puri in Odisha. Their lives continue to revolve around the Jagannatha cult and the traditional rituals passed down generations of Mohapatras (Maharanas), the community of chitrakars who have been painting complex mythological stories on ‘patta’ or cloth canvas.
Change is not easy though Bhaskarji, like his counterparts, has been experimenting with various mediums to attract more buyers. Covid hit these artists hard and it took good Samaritans like IFS officer Dipika Bajpai to create @PattachitraP Twitter handle to facilitate sale of paintings during lockdowns. Catterfly teaching assignments have also come as a boon to Bhaskarji and his family.
Craft & Colour Times
After months of uncertainty, life seems to be looking up for Bhaskarji and his talented daughter Bandana (in pic) when we caught up with them for an ‘Open House on Pattachitra’
recently. Their modest home in Raghurajpur with pretty pink walls is filled with elaborate paintings featuring Jagannath
and tales from Ramayana
. Interspersing the traditional paintings were delightful craft items with Pattachitra motifs. The collection includes miniature Jagannath wooden temples with idols, brightly painted coconuts and betel nuts (supari), bottles, kettles, paper masks and a variety of animal figurines. (See More
The slow trickle of demand for natural colours have enthused the artists. “We set aside 5-6 days in a month to create colours in bulk,” said Bhaskarji, holding up a hingula mineral stone used to make red pigment. “It takes 2-3 hours to turn 100 gm stone to extract a small goli-sized red pigment,” he said.
While hingula, haritala (yellow) and Ramraj (blue) are procured from markets in Puri or Bhubaneswar, white is painstakingly made from conch shells procured from the local fishmonger. “It takes at least 45 minutes. Otherwise, the colour wouldn’t be mast,” explained Bhaskarji.
Ready To Ship
Black kajal is another key ingredient, especially when it comes to making detailed palm leaf engravings. The artists also make their own canvas – old saris stuck with tamarind seed-based gum and readied with chalk powder and rubbed smooth with stones. Now, Bhaskarji is ready to ship traditional gum, colours and canvas to those who are interested. (See More
“These canvasses don’t require any work once you finish it,” he said when asked about what gives the extra shine to the painting. For craft items, Bandana uses fabric colour. “For bottles, I paste cloth and then put a mixture of gum and chalk powder to ready it before painting,” she said.
Labour of Love
The artists make light of the labour that they do and the toll it takes on their bodies. A 2/3.5 ft Krishna Leela painting that captures each and every aspect of Krishna’s life took Bhaskarji around 25 days. He doesn’t do tala pattachitra or palm leaf engraving any more as doctors have warned him not to strain his eyes. “A tree design on tala takes around 15 days,” said Bhaskarji.
Many students seem aware of how Bhaskarji downplays his mastery over the art form. “The best part is when we ask him to make the lesson simple he would wonder how he is he supposed to simplify more. Then he would try to make it simple for us. I find it very cute,” recalled a student during the Open House.
For Bhaskarji art is not something that is done with deliberate practice any more. No wonder even his students were unaware that his Tree of Life now hangs at Élysée Palace. “I don’t have any reference for making paintings. I make from my mind,” he said.