Odisha’s ancient art of Pattachitra struggles to find its feet after Cyclone Fani
The day Fani hit his village, Raghunath Das was not home. He was at the village’s sole two-room guest accommodation interacting with “guests” who were there to learn pattachitra. Raghunath is among the 817 residents of the 142 homes wrecked by Cyclone Fani on May 3, in Odisha’s Raghurajpur.
Das, 38, could return home only by afternoon. “It was difficult to enter the village, uprooted trees and fallen electricity poles lay all over. Families were trapped. Bit by bit we cleared it.” His house was filled with knee-deep sea water, and his mother, wife and two-year-old daughter were holed up on the terrace. Everything else was ruined, from groceries, furniture, to their only means of livelihood — the pattachitra paintings.
Last month, he boarded the train to Delhi, leaving the last Rs 50 note he had with his wife for his ailing daughter, who developed pus-filled boils from mosquito bites and dirty sea water. Leenika Jacob of the art non-profit The Kala Chaupal, which she runs with her artist-mother Premila Singh, had reached out to him. She had designed the #Rise4Odisha campaign to help rebuild lives in the heritage crafts village of Raghurajpur. The campaign’s first event, Gotipua Project, brought Raghunath and three others to The Quorum, Gurugram, and provided a free-trade space for them to sell art. She is now in talks with the DLF group to organise a golfing event to raise funds.
The cyclone damaged pattachitra worth crores of rupees, says Kanhu Charan Behera, 31, leaving only about 400-odd pieces. He, along with Das and his artist-brother Kirtan Das, 35, and Anil Kumar Swain, 24, went about collecting the remaining artwork from 212 families. These include patta, Tussar and dried palm-leaf (talapatra) paintings and scrolls, painted bottles, kettles, coconuts and betel nuts, papier-mache birds, masks, cow-dung toys.
A teary-eyed Das lifts his head from the dried palm-leaf scroll (cured with neem and haldi) he’s engraving with likkhan, an iron pen, and says in a muffled voice, “Yeh humara zindagi hai. Cyclone aaya, sab khatam ho gaya (This art is our life. The cyclone took away everything).”
Pattachitra dates back to the 12th century, and its development is linked to the Jagannath rath yatra, says Anita Bose, author of Patachitra Of Odisha And Jagannath Culture (2018). “Inside the Puri temple between Snan Yatra (auspicious bath of the trio Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra) and Rath Yatra, the gods are said to fall ill and devotees are not allowed to see the idols, which are replaced by pattachitra painting, but the customs and rituals continue,” she says. Pattachitra is known for its storytelling — from myths, Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Radha-Krishna tales, and, over the years, from tribal art, too.
Raghurajpur, the birthplace of Odissi doyen Kelucharan Mohapatra, is 15 km from the Puri beach. Every household is an artist’s workshop. It was declared a heritage crafts village in the early 2000s after Intach’s documentation which boosted the villagers’ livelihood as Puri-bound tourists began stopping by to buy art. Tourists will start coming around the rath yatra. “A lot of hotels in Puri have been renovated,” says Bijay Kumar Jena, assistant director, tourism.
Kirtan picks up a painted glass-bottle lid and says this is all that was left in the home of Gauranga Das, a single father to two daughters and a mentally challenged son. Then he picks up a papier-mache parrot made by the widowed single mother of two, Renubala Maharana, who had to take shelter in another house. With the annual Rath Yatra days away, the artists are grasping at straws.
“People are in great need of help. The cyclone has washed away Aadhaar, ID and ration cards, so it will be difficult for everybody to have access to government compensation,” says NM Prusty, president-mentor, Humanitarian Aid International, which is surveying the region using drone technology to “ensure the assessment can be in real-time, accurate and free from any bias”. Besides the immediate relief, the Naveen Patnaik government has also promised Rs 4,100 to every artisan for replacement of their tools and Rs 4,100 for loss of raw material. “It will take a while before it reaches us,” rues Das.
Artist Biswajit Panda is also curating a “Art for Odisha #FightingFani” exhibition-cum-sale in late July to raise funds. Most artists are putting the proceeds in the CM’s Relief Fund, but that money may or may not reach the artists, says Jacob, who says she has persuaded Jagannath Panda to give the money to the Raghurajpur artists directly. Panda, who hosted the four Raghurajpur artists at his home studio in Gurugram, says his Bhubaneswar-based Utsha Foundation for Contemporary Art volunteers will be collecting fallen trees for a large installation project over the next few months that will see contemporary artists from India and abroad, along with local artists, carve sculptures out of the uprooted trees.
“The money from the sale will partly go to the local artist community and partly in massive tree plantations. The ecological impacts will be long term; hence, we have to engage the rural communities, and, do it on a war-footing within the next five years,” says Panda. Jacob adds, “It’s going to be a long, long journey.”
This article appeared in print with the headline : The Remains of the Day