Home to over 52 craft skills, the state of Odisha is a powerhouse of talent and takes great pride in its vibrant arts and crafts. Its streets, bylanes and villages throb with the constant tinkle and toil of artisans. From sculptures in its beautiful temples that are proof of its ancient mastery to wide ranging classical forms and folk or tribal techniques – Odisha has it all.

The state’s heritage crafts include paintings, textiles, embroidery and tribal jewellery, with artefacts made from diverse materials such as stone, wood, metal, coir, clay, animal horns, feathers, sisal fibre, sabai grass, lacquer and more.

Each region in Odisha has something unique to offer to the intrepid traveller. Not only do these crafts provide sustainable livelihood to marginalised craftsmen, they also keep these glorious traditions alive and provide the avid shopper with an opportunity of a lifetime!

Appliqué work

While appliqué or patchwork is seen the world over, the small hamlet of Pipli between Bhubaneswar and Puri has become synonymous with this craft as it has been practiced here for centuries. Some of the earliest examples of this unique textile handicraft were seen in the umbrellas and temple chariots of deities. Vibrant bits of cloth are cut into various shapes and laid out in geometric designs or human, animal and bird forms before being stitched on a contrasting sheet and made into wall hangings, lampshades, umbrellas, letter holders or stationery. The sight of Odisha’s rainbow-hued appliqué work, embellished with glass, makes it an irresistible souvenir.

Colourful appliqué work never fails to draw attention
Colourful appliqué work never fails to draw attention

Brass and Bell Metal Work

Metal artefacts, especially those made of brass, have always found an important place in Odiya society, with use at homes and temples – from finely-etched pots and vessels, to lamps and decorative objects. There are several areas known for their bell metal craftsmanship like Rathijema and Bainchua in Balakati, Bellaguntha, Kantila, Remuna, Bhatimunda and Bhuban.

Coir Craft

Coir craft is another interesting artistic tradition here. Light-weight coir fibre is wound around a mould and fashioned into toy animals like deer, horses, crocodiles, dinosaurs, giraffes and monkeys, besides flowering trees and home décor pieces. These seemingly simple creations, beautified with bits of coloured thread, capture the playful and cheery symphony of nature.

Golden Grass, Sabai and Cane Handicrafts

There’s a rich weaving tradition in Odisha and the craft extends beyond textiles to hand-woven baskets, fans and mats, for which craftsmen use wild grasses that grow abundantly in the region. Golden grass (kaincha) grows in swamps and marshes and the stem of the reed is collected, dried and woven into beautiful objects. Sabai grass (bobei dauda) is plentiful in the forests of Mayurbhanj, which is used to make wall hangings, gift boxes, bags, dustbins, table mats and chatais (floor mats). The weavers also use cane to make baskets and furniture such as tables, chairs and sofas.

Dhokra handicraft items
Dhokra handicraft items

Horn craft

Odisha craftsmen are adept at fashioning decorative pieces and everyday objects like vases, pen stands and combs out of horns from cows, bullocks or buffalos. Creatures of the living world form a recurrent theme with cranes, lobsters, scorpions, birds being popular depictions on these pieces. The best known area for horn work are the wild tracts of Parlakhemundi in Odisha’s deep south on the border with Andhra Pradesh.

Lacquer work

Lac, a gum collected from the kusum tree, is used to make fashionable lacquer boxes. Birds and foliage are painted on these boxes, which are sometimes studded with mirrors. Traditionally, the boxes were used to store valuables in rural homes. Ordinary toys are also transformed into objects of desire after a colourful lac coating. Nabrangapur in the Koraput district has several karkhanas (warehouses) that produce these beautiful products.

Lanjia Soura Paintings

The ethnic art of the Lanjia Soura tribe, also known as Idital paintings, features their folk deities and everyday village life of feasts, festivals, hunts, marriage rituals and symbols of fertility. Even the borders of the paintings bear decorative designs and imagery that blends seamlessly with the artwork. Originally drawn on the walls of tribal homes, this art has found its way on to handmade paper and silk scrolls, greeting cards, apparel and utilitarian products.

Framed palm leaf art
Framed palm leaf art

Metal & Bead Tribal Jewellery

The jewellery of Odisha reflects the distinctive styles, ethnic identity and cultural nuances of various tribes. Tribal jewellery like necklaces, bangles, pendants, earrings, anklets, hair accessories are often made of metal and colourful beads in fascinating geometric designs with unique knots in the cords, woven reeds or cane. Some metal pieces often bear complex etchings. A good place to procure tribal jewellery are tribal haats (local weekly markets) like Chatikona near Bishamcuttack, north of Raygada or Onukudelli near Machkund, south of Jeypore.

Pattachitra and Palm Leaf Engraving

Pattachitra, the indigenous traditional painting style of Odisha, is practiced by an artist community called chitrakars. A canvas is prepared using a paste of ground tamarind seed and chalk on a patta, which is a strip of cloth or tussar silk. This lends a pale yellow background to perfectly contrast the vibrant images that retell legendary tales from the Puranas and epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. A brush of squirrel hair is used to create the art work. Miniature versions of pattachitra also feature in bookmarks, greeting and playing cards.

The chitrakars have also evolved a style of engraving Puranic stories and themes onto palm leaves. These are arranged into foldable strips to create scrolls that can be strung on a wall or framed. Some of the palm leaf engraving also have flaps with hidden layers of etched scenes and characters!

Sculptors busy at work
Sculptors busy at work

Silver Filigree

Cuttack is legendary for tarkasi or the art of silver filigree, and objects handcrafted here have been much sought after as gifts to royalty and distinguished guests. The process is quite tedious – the craftsman melts silver in a mould, which is poured into a narrow tray, beaten on an anvil and elongated into a taar (thin wire) by passing it through a steel plate wire gauge. The wire is so thin that two are welded together, pressed and flattened, ready to be twisted into fantastic shapes – flowers, leaves, peacocks, decorative boxes or the chariot of the Sun God drawn by seven horses!

Stone carving

Driving past Bhubaneswar, Puri and Lalitagiri, it is not uncommon to find clusters of stone carvers chipping away at stone blocks to shape them into exquisitely carved idols. Images of Buddha and deities like Ganesha, Krishna, Laxmi, etc, and miniatures of important shrines like Lingaraj, Mukteswar, Jagannath Puri and the Sun Temple are quite popular. Artists also carve ashtrays, vases, lamp bases and soap dishes, besides animal forms and beautiful garden landscape accents.

Terracotta & Pottery

Pots of various shapes and sizes, besides terracotta figurines of elephants and horses, have long been used in religious ceremonies and rituals. This tradition of offering animal figures ranging from six inches to over 3ft to the grama devata or village deities continues to this day. The pots, plain or adorned with lines, fish and flower motifs, have widespread use in weddings and social events.

Striking lacquerware toys come in a variety of shapes and colours
Striking lacquerware toys come in a variety of shapes and colours

Wood Carving

From wooden toys, god and animal figures and pen stands, to bangle holders, flower vases, lamp stands and treasure boxes, Odisha’s wood carving is a prominent craft. Smaller, simple wooden forms of birds and animals are enlivened with colourful paints and speckled with patterns. Sometimes, they are used as statuettes and pencil tops, strung onto wooden frames or stuck on reed mats to create wall hangings, room dividers and screens.

Dhokra: Waxing Eloquent

The 4,000-year-old craft whose earliest and most well-known example is the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro takes its name from the Dhokra Damar tribe. Distant relatives of the Gadabas and Gonds of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau (present-day Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh), they once roamed Central and Eastern India exchanging their wares for food and grains. With royal patronage, the artists managed to achieve exquisite and intriguing lace-like detail in their designs. The casting of idols in wax is well-documented in Chapter 68 of the ancient Sanskrit text Manasara Silpasastra, titled Maduchchhista vidhanam, or the ‘lost wax method’. The painstaking process has remained unchanged for thousands of years and is practiced by nine different communities in Odisha.

Arts-&-Crafts6_TI

Arts-&-Crafts7_TI

It all begins with a clay core; then the craftsman heats beeswax or resin from the damara orientalis tree mixed with mustard oil in a vessel. The paste is sieved to form slender vermicelli-like threads, which are wound on the contours of the core. A thick coat of fine clay obtained from termite mounds is applied, followed by two more coats of a mixture of cow dung, hay or paddy husk, black soil and red river soil. Drain ducts are created for the wax to melt away when the clay is baked. The vacuum between the core and the clay layer is filled with molten metal, usually brass scrap or bell metal, an alloy of copper and tin in a 3:1 ratio. The liquid metal is made to flow uniformly through the mould so that no gaps or bubbles remain. This is allowed to cool and solidify. The outer layer of clay is then cracked open to reveal the final figure, which is given a final polish.

The themes of these metal figurines range from everyday scenes of rural life – musicians, hunters, fishermen, rituals, folk deities besides birds, animals and nature. Jewellery, geometric-patterned cups and vessels, traditional lamps, decorative hooks and animal curios can be created with this method. Simple designs can be done in a day, while intricately handcrafted items can take months to finish.

In Odisha, one can visit the artisan village of Sadeibereni or Khajuriakata of Hindol Block near Dhenkanal to watch craftsmen churn out objects of great beauty in the simplicity of their mud-plastered homes.

Rajesh Thakur
The intricate pallu of a Sambalpuri silk sari
The intricate pallu of a Sambalpuri silk sari

Tribal Art & Textiles

The ethnic diversity of Odisha is also visible in its tribal textiles. Most homes possess looms and each tribe is famous for its distinctive style, colour combinations and patterns. The earthy hues of vegetable dyes make the textiles of the Dharuas stand out from the standard maroon and neutral tones. Some tribes, like the Dongria Kond, enhance the weave with deft needle work. They believe that that their embroidery unites the pining hearts of young boys and girls.

Textile Traditions

Handloom weaving in Odisha goes back to 600 BCE. For centuries, an exquisite piece of silk fabric woven in Nuapatna, embellished with inscriptions from the Gita Govinda, has been used to dress the idols of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra at the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Generation after generation, weavers of Odisha have clattered away at their looms to clothe gods and mortals alike. From saris and dhotis to garments in silk, cotton or tussar, they toil relentlessly to churn out a dazzling array of fabrics in diverse styles.

Odisha is most famous for its bandha design, a tie and dye technique better known by its Indonesian term – ikat. The two most well-known styles of this art are the traditional Sambalpuri tie-dye and the Nuapatna bandha (Khandua). An indigenous method of weaving silk and cotton called Bapta is also popular. Be it the Khandua of Cuttack, Habaspur and Bomkai of Kalahandi, Kotpad of Koraput, Parda of Khurda, Kusumi of Nayagarh or Saktapar and Bichitrapar of Bargarh and Sambalpur, each weaving region has its own subtle specialty. The Berhampur pattu, the jala (Bomkai) and varieties of silk saris from Sonepur and the Kataki (Cuttacki) saris of Jagatsinghpur are noteworthy.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
Weavers display a sari, Sambalpur
Weavers display a sari, Sambalpur

Nuapatna near Cuttack houses many co-operatives of weavers, who are masters of their craft. They weave in silk, tussar and eri silk and are happy to explain the warp and weft, and the entire process of creating the saris from cocoons to the finished fabric.

Sambalpuri saris are known for traditional motifs like shankha (shell), chakra (wheel) and phula (flower), inspired by local Vaishnava tradition. Rudraksha beads, temple borders, paisley prints, fish, elephants, peacock and the mango seed also feature prominently. The designs in the sari are derived from epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Jagannath cult and the folk tales of Odisha. There’s Panchabati, which represents the Panchavati Forest, where Lord Rama spent his exile; Konark Chaka is a tribute to the chariot wheel at the Sun Temple of Konark; Nandighosha symbolises the chariot of Lord Jagannath during the Rath Yatra; Aasmaan Tara resembles twinkling stars; Bichi-trapuri alludes to the variation of ikat on the borders. Passapalli, Taa-poi and Boita Bandana derive from Odisha’s rich folk culture. Paintings on tussar saris owe their origin to the patta paintings of Raghurajpur.

Walk into the home of a weaver in Barpali, one of the biggest weaver villages in Odisha and he’ll explain how silk, cotton and tussar are woven. At Sonepur, learn about the natural dying process, ingredients, traditional designs and jala work. At Kotpad, traditional methods of natural dyeing are still used, with cow dung and castor oil to give the cotton yarn a rich tone. At Nabarangpur, visit tussar silk farms to trace the journey of the silk sari from inception – the breeding of silk worms.

Today, nearly 5 lakh weavers in the state are employed in the trade. No matter where you go in Odisha, narrow bylanes in weaving quarters bustle with activity. Take a textile tour of Odisha into the homes of weavers, buying directly from them or visit any of the city showrooms of Utkalika, Boyanika and Sambalpuri Bastralaya.