Barfi pink, bright blue, deep ochre, violet and saturated orange; etchings and paintings of gods and goddesses; green parrots flying on a wall; home of the Odissi dance; lush greenery — welcome to Raghurajpur in Puri district, home to over 300 artisans who practice various traditional art forms handed down over generations.
Artist families live in each of the 100 or so painted, yet modest, houses that face one another. A series of temples dedicated to local deities occupy the lane between the homes. Here, in Raghurajpur, worship and art are one — each breathes life and gives meaning to the other.
The chitrakars (painters) are the most famous and numerous among Raghurajpur artists. They paint brightly coloured mythological stories about Lord Jagannath and other deities, especially Krishna. Derived from the Sanskrit word patta (canvas) and chitra (painting), pattachitra originated in the 12th century.
In Raghurajpur, worship and art are one — each breathes life and gives meaning to the other.
Men and young boys portray dramatic mythic themes and flamboyant processions. Traditionally, women have painstakingly prepared the canvases. Today, men and women learn the art of designing and executing pattachitra paintings from their parents and grandparents, and proudly display numerous national awards for their excellent workmanship.
This artists' village is also known for intricate palm leaf folded pictures etched in black with cutouts, delicate brushwork on tussar silk, stone and wood carvings. The stories are ubiquitous, revealed in colourfully painted coconuts, painted birds, papier-mâché toys, masks and painted boxes that are displayed on meticulously clean stone front porches. Fashioned from local materials — palm leaf, coconut, local dyes, mouse hair, stone and wood — the artworks possess unique beauty and guileless charm. They add to Raghurajpur's lustre and colour.
The front room of each house serves as both, a studio and an exhibition space. Surprisingly non-commercial in their approach, the men and women artisans speak in Odiya, keenly showing their work and explaining the tradition, narrative and the techniques they apply.
This artists' village is also known for intricate palm leaf folded pictures etched in black with cutouts, delicate brushwork on tussar silk, stone and wood carvings.
Surprisingly non-commercial in their approach, the men and women artisans keenly show their work and explain the tradition, narrative and the techniques they apply.
Home to performing artists
Raghurajpur is also home to performing artists, most notable being the late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. His father was a painter and mridangam player. Kelucharan trained in the Gotipua dance tradition in Raghurajpur and became renowned as the leading proponent of Odissi dance. He is credited for reviving this ancient dance form. For Guru Mohapatra, dance was worship. Today, there is a dance studio in Raghurajpur where young students still receive training in Gotipua, an acrobatic dance form that is a precursor to Odissi. Students from Raghurajpur also participate in national dance festivals and public events.
This dense concentration of skilled artists, keeping alive several Odissi art forms, is truly unique. Not surprisingly, Raghurajpur was recognised as a Heritage Village in 2000. Since 2000, in addition to the Government of India, institutions such as INTACH, ICCI, NORAD, and the India Foundation for the Arts, have worked in tandem to develop Raghurajpur as a craft's village.
They have trained artists to relearn traditional techniques and apply them in their artworks. For instance, they were retaught how to apply plaster made of lime, jute, molasses, lentils, curd, casein and local herbs such as trifala and bel. To boost rural tourism, the artists were encouraged to paint their homes to showcase and display their art.
Kelucharan Mohapatra trained in the Gotipua dance tradition in Raghurajpur and became renowned as the leading proponent of Odissi dance
Dance teacher and artist Guru Gangadhar Nayak spoke about his efforts to pass on Gotipua. No longer able to see well enough to do any artwork — in which he had excelled — today, he trains young boys to perform this local dance tradition. This is his passion. In the Gotipua dance tradition, young boys dress as females and also sing devotional songs while performing the dance. The tradition is embedded in the Sakhibhav movement, where devotees consider themselves to be consorts of Lord Krishna. The songs that are sung to accompany the dance are generally compositions of Vaishnav poets.
Nayak recounts how Raghurajpur evolved as an artists' haven. "A Chaitanya bhakt from Bengal came and settled here, which was a jungle then. He made a representation of Jagannath. He coloured the face of the Lord with coal, which is why Jagannath is still represented with a black face. This sage was the first artist of the village. In pursuit of the divine he experimented with limestone and then colour, and this was the way our village evolved and became an artist's village," he told VillageSquare.in. "The art form Chitrakala developed here."
Nayak also recalled that Helen Jerry, an American woman, was among the first to recognise the artistry of the community. She worked to publicise their art, bought works herself and had a lot of the works sold abroad.
Ever since Raghurajpur was chosen as a heritage village, tourists in greater numbers from India and abroad come here to admire art and purchase it directly from the artists. Some visitors also come to learn traditional art techniques. On the day we visited, we were the only tourists here.
Helen Jerry, an American woman, was among the first to recognise the artistry of the community. She worked to publicise their art, bought works herself and had a lot of the works sold abroad.
This year, Raghurajpur was adopted by the Bank of India as a digital village and 20 Points of Sale machines have been installed by the bank. The bank also facilitated the opening of 200 savings bank accounts. There is an ATM machine in the village and a few artisans also accept payments via PayTM.
Raghurajpur has been included in the ideal crafts village scheme and as per online sources, Government of India has sanctioned ₹100 million for the village's overall development. None of the people we spoke with knew much about this development scheme, though, apparently, three crore rupees have already been released by the government. As part of this initiative, the state government is planning to design the doors of every house and strengthen water and sanitation facilities in the village. Reportedly, plans for a guest house are also in the works.
Over time, the government has called Raghurajpur a Crafts Village, a Heritage Village, and now, a Digital Village. The changes in nomenclature have not affected the artistic effervescence or the pace and style of life, which still seems idyllic when compared with the material and physical poverty of many of our villages and the commercial, mass produced quality of so many of our traditional arts. Here, as Guru Mohapatra had once said about dance, art not only gives purpose to one's life but is life itself.
Spending time in Raghurajpur provides a glimpse into a world that holds art as its organising principle.
Spending time in Raghurajpur provides a glimpse into a world that holds art as its organising principle. It structures daily life. With some intervention from arts and cultural organisations, the skills of artists and artisans have been refined, a market is being developed for their work, and the artists can interact directly with customers to maximise the proceeds from their works. As Nayak told VillageSquare.in, "Today we show and sell our works across the world. People abroad appreciate our talents and traditions, and are ready to pay to acquire our creations."
Raghurajpur is truly a national treasure. Making it a part of the rural tourist map, while safeguarding its artistic integrity, demands deft and delicate handling.
Jael Silliman is a women's rights activist. She has authored several books including 'Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice', and 'Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women's Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope'.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.