The sea rumbles faintly as we walk down to the beach along Puri’s Chakratirtha Road. Day is yet to break. The red flag on the dome of the Jagannath temple flutters in the cool breeze as freshly bathed priests, devotees and tourists walk barefoot towards its enormous, arched entrance. Beggars, ubiquitous in all Indian pilgrimage towns, are waking up, wearily.
It is our third day in Puri, and we plan to spend the day in Raghurajpur, an ancient artists’ village. But I hope to relive a childhood memory before that.
The crimson arch appears suddenly on the horizon. The resplendent ball reveals itself slowly, reflecting a shimmering orange path that pierces deep into the sea. Hundreds of fishermen simultaneously push their boats into the water, set to sail the high seas.
I have added something more to that memory of a Puri sunrise; what, I am not quite sure.
It takes us just about 5 minutes to drive out of town. The road to Raghurajpur is lined on both sides with palm trees. As with most highways in Orissa, this is a beautiful, smooth road. Besides Jagannath, “development” seems to be the state’s new god.
Raghurajpur, home to artists who make Orissa’s famous patta chitras (patta, meaning canvas, cloth, screen or veil; and chitra, meaning picture), was upgraded to a cultural tourism site some years ago by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). It now has an interpretation centre, commissioned artwork on the walls of the artists’ homes and a rest house.
As we drive past a signpost saying Raghurajpur Artists’ Village, our companion, a project officer in the state tourism department, says: “Not many domestic tourists come here. Indians are more interested in the beach and other places like the sun temple at Konark or Chilika Lake.” He is a familiar face in Raghurajpur and helps us break the ice with the artists.
By the time we reach, the sun is ablaze. Faint sounds of what seems like a chorus of folk music and drumbeats waft through the air. “It is the goti pua artists, they live on the other end of the village,” our guide tells us. Raghurajpur is home to a few families that keep alive this almost extinct tradition of male temple dancers; no accident then that this is the village legendary Odissi dancer Kelucharan Mahapatra called home.
Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
We pass the newly built rest house and a community artist centre, and reach the charming hut of artist Sarat Chandra Swain, a leading patta chitra maker in this village of around 120 artist families and 500 artists. Squatting on the bare mud floor, hunched over a large patta, he painstakingly traces a pencil sketch with a thin paintbrush dipped in black ink. It will be days before the story he is painting comes alive.
Patta chitras tell stories. Episodes from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, from mythologies about Shiva and Durga and, of course, Jagannath, are etched out in miniaturist detail. But buyers and collectors go by the quality of a work rather than what it depicts, because some stories are obscure myths and legends. If an artist likes a story, he fills it with colour and brings it alive on cloth.
This art form originated between the seventh and 11th centuries, and went through a renaissance around the 13th century, under the patronage of the Ganga dynasty. The artists painted in the temple, decorating the seat of the deity. It was revived in 1917 by an American researcher named Halina Zealy, who set up an art and crafts centre at Puri, and an emporium to market the chitras.
The patta Swain is working on is for a client in Delhi. “It’s a raasleela painting,” he tells me, taking me through the lines—depicting Krishna and five gopis seated on a swan-mouthed boat. The artist wants the water beneath to be a burst of colours, with pink lotuses and bright green water plants. “You can stay here for a few days and I will make a painting of your choice,” Swain tells me. “Do you have another raasleela?” I ask. I wasn’t lucky. A day earlier, a British couple had picked up his only other raasleela painting, a 6ftx3ft work, for Rs35,000. Swain also travels for his clients. Last year, a Mumbai family invited him to paint a door with patta chitra motifs. “They paid me more than Rs35,000,” he tells me hesitantly.
Besides being an art form, it is also a way of life. Swain’s mother, in her 80s, still makes the pattas for her son. She boils tamarind to make a paste. When it cools, she smears it over her old saris, and then coats it with limestone powder. Once dry and hard, the patta is scrubbed and smoothened. Swain’s 10-year-old daughter makes some of his colours, mixing natural ingredients such as tamarind and coal with oil.
It’s an art form that the new generation has embraced, at least in this village. Most artists, in their 70s, have passed on the mantle to their children and students from other parts of Orissa, some of whom live in the village with artists.
A second-generation artist applies finishing touches to papier mâché decorative items painted with patta chitra motifs.
The family of Banamali Mohapatra, besides making patta chitras, also makes ganjappa cards. Ganjappa is a dice game which was common in Orissa in the 14th-18th centuries—it’s played with a pack of 144 cards painted with mythological human and animal figures. Nobody plays the game now, but ganjappa cards are fancied as quaint, pop-craft objects (I later discover ganjappa cards are for sale on eBay for Rs470-800. The pack I bought from the Mohapatra family cost Rs200).
Like Swain and Mohapatra, Gopal Maharana and his sons also make palm-leaf carvings and sketches, and papier mâché works with motifs similar to that of patta chitra paintings. All the artists of this village sell their works through state emporiums across the country, and some have their own clients.
By sundown, some families walk towards the home of Maguni Das, a goti pua guru who breathed his last a few days before our visit. A congregation of male villagers sings religious hymns. We are ushered into the house next door, where Lakshmana Maharanna and his children live. They are goti pua performers, rehearsing for a performance in Europe.
It is a dance form that has found little appreciation in India and is now patronized mostly by European dancers who approach performers to collaborate with them. We spend an hour at their home—Maharanna sings a rhythmic paean to Jagannath, as the children coordinate acrobatic movements with graceful expressions. Like so many other temple art forms, Odissi is a homage to a religious idol—in this case, Jagannath. Goti pua can be described as Odissi performed by men.
The hymns of the congregation fade as we prepare to leave Raghurajpur. In the evening light, the artwork on the walls of the artists’ homes looks muted, and more dense. On my next visit to Puri, I hope to spend a few days here, watching my raasleela painting take shape, line by line, arch by arch, in front of my eyes.
TRIP PLANNER / PURI
Fly to Bhubaneswar with Kingfisher Red from Mumbai (upwards of Rs9,000, round-trip tickets), from Bangalore (upwards of Rs8,000, round-trip tickets) and with Air India, Kingfisher Red and JetLite from Delhi (upwards of Rs10,000). Take a cab from Bhubaneswar airport to Puri. A 2-hour drive of 62km costs around Rs800. Make Puri your base and hire a cab to travel to Raghurajpur, about 25km from there (cab fare for the whole day starts at around Rs600).
Mayfair Beach Resort
(www.nivalink.com/mayfairbeachresort) is one of the city’s most popular resorts. Located on Chakratirtha Road, about half a kilometre from the Chakratirtha Beach, it has a number of restaurants, a gym and swimming pool. A deluxe room for two (sea-facing or not) costs Rs5,000, inclusive of breakfast. Z Hotel (www.zhotelindia.com), on the same road, is a charming, colonial-style hotel of just 16 rooms. Sea-facing double rooms cost Rs700. Pay extra for meals. Hans Coco Palms (www.hanshotel.com/puri) is another popular beach resort where a deluxe room for two costs Rs5,000, inclusive of breakfast.
Puri has numerous small eateries along its beach. Most eateries are excellent for seafood; grilled fish, grilled prawns, crab curry and lobster. Xanadu is a small, shack-like intimate restaurant in a private garden. Ask for the fresh catch of the day, be it their excellent grilled red snapper or king prawns (Tip: Go past the outside seating area into a small area with three tables under a thatched roof, surrounded by trees and flowering plants of all kinds.) Mayfair Beach Resort has everything from seafood to Chinese on its menu. For the best Oriya vegetarian ‘thali’ in town, go to The Grand, near the Jagannath Temple. It is owned by the maharaja of Puri, Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb. If you want to spend the whole day in Raghurajpur, take a packed lunch. But since it’s less than half-an-hour’s drive from Puri, meals are recommended in the beach town.