In the rural heartland of Odisha resides a living workshop—rich in art, craft and cultural heritage. Home to just 140 families, Raghurajpur is perhaps India's only village where every household is involved in producing handicrafts.
Ten kilometres from Odisha's pilgrim town of Puri, the crafts village on the southern bank of the river Bhargavi is mostly popular for its vibrant "Pattachitra" or cloth-based scroll paintings displaying intricate details of Hindu mythological narratives and folktales.
The villagers, said to have settled there since the construction in the 10th century of the famous Jagannath temple, produce other handicraft items like "Talapatachitra" or palm leaf engravings, tassar silk paintings, stone carvings, paper mash toys and masks, wood carvings, wooden toys and cow-dung toys.
"No one can specify when these art forms came into being. We have been doing this for generations. My entire family is involved in making 'Pattachitra'. Me, my father, mother and younger sister... all of us do this," said Purushottam Swain, a young "Chitrakara" (painter), who recently completed his graduation.
Ten kilometres from Odisha’s pilgrim town of Puri, the crafts village of Raghurajpur on the southern bank of the river Bhargavi is mostly popular for its vibrant “Pattachitra” or cloth-based scroll paintings displaying intricate details of Hindu mythological narratives and folktales
Swain said the traditional Pattachitra paintings are associated with the rituals of Lord Jagannath, Orissa's presiding deity, as the art originated from these ritualistic activities. But with time the art has been given a contemporary flavour due to demands of buyers.
"Most of the buyers now-a-days hardly have any knowledge of, or regard for, mythological stories. They buy these paintings as mere decorative items. So, besides making the traditional Pattachitras, we also make scrolls based on contemporary incidents and sometimes give it a tribal touch," the artist explained.
With Pattachitra emerging as an internationally celebrated art form, Swain said many of the artists from Raghurajpur also attend exhibitions in cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai to showcase and sell their work to a larger audience.
Pattachitras are also unique because the five colours mainly used to paint the scrolls are natural and home-made. A piece of cotton cloth is first folded in multiple layers and polished with white chalk power and a paste of tamarind seeds to make it look like a shiny canvas.
"There are five basic colours for Pattachitra painting—white, black, blue, yellow and red. While the colour white is made from sea shells, the black is derived from kohl (an eye cosmetic). The rest of the colours are produced by grinding colourful stones," another artist explained.
An iconic scroll with a picture of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha of the Vaishnavism tradition at veteran artist Umesh Rajoi's workshop is particularly eye-catching, where the bodies of the two deities are decorated with several miniature paintings of their "leela" (divine play).
The artist said such Pattachitras are painted with a single hair brush and may take up to six weeks to complete.
The popular Talpatrachitra is made on a pair of palm leaves that are first stitched together and boiled with neem leaves and turmeric to protect them from insects. The leaves are then dried and curved with iron needles.
Other handicrafts, made on coconuts, beetle nuts and glass bottles, are vibrantly painted with acrylic colours and have both washable and non-washable variants.
“Our business is suffering because a lot of other villages have started replicating our work. However, most of their works are not handmade. So businessmen in parts of Odisha also produce items like Pattachitra and palm leaf paintings in a large volume using block printing technique,” said an artist in Raghurajpur
In an attempt to revive the ancient crafts of Odisha, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) chose Raghurajpur to be developed as the state's first heritage village and crafts village in 2000.
But some artists allege that the central aid of ₹10 crore for Raghurajpur's development has not been properly utilised. Though a crafts library, an interpretation centre, an amphitheatre and guest houses have been built in the village, some projects like building toilets for every household are still unfinished, they complain.
Terming the handicraft as their only occupation, a number of artisans claimed their livelihood suffers due to commercialisation, with many businessmen and inhabitants of neighbouring villages misguiding tourists by selling Pattachitras made through the block printing technique.
"Our business is suffering because a lot of other villages have started replicating our work. However, most of their works are not handmade. So businessmen in parts of Odisha also produce items like Pattachitra and palm leaf paintings in a large volume using block printing technique," Swain said.
Echoing him, artist Alok Ranjan Sahoo said letters have been written to the local authorities informing them about the malpractices but so far all complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
"We have lodged complaints with the local authorities but so far no substantial steps have been taken. Now the Odisha government has introduced identity cards for the Raghurajpur artists so that they can be authenticated while attending exhibitions and crafts fairs in other states," Sahoo added sitting in his humble workshop.
The author was in Raghurajpur at the invitation of the Odisha government