The story of Pothichitra, engravings and paintings on palm leaves, is unlike its more famous counterpart from the same state of Odisha – Pattachitra, or paintings on scrolls of fabric. Why you ask? “Because Pattachitra got all the attention, not many people remembered Pothichitra in the process,” says Prasanna Nayak, a Pothichitra artist from the tiny village of Nayakapatna in Odisha, a state that’s a mine of artistic riches.
Prasanna is no ordinary man, nor is the story of his legacy an oft-heard one. Living in a village that takes from his family name, Prasanna’s father is an artistic giant who’s shouldered the responsibility of nurturing an entire village with the colours and wonders of palm leaves. Maga Nayak, the 74-year-old patriarch, sits quietly in a corner of his home under the winter sun, tracing images of Lord Krishna on a thin strip of palm leaf. “He suffered a stroke five months ago, so he doesn’t speak much any longer. But that doesn’t keep him away from his craft,” says Prashanta Nayak, Maga Nayak’s younger son and expectedly, a palm leaf artist himself.
While taking an auto, the only available local transport, from the beach town of Puri to traverse the 14 kilometres distance to the interiors of this dynamic state, one is invariably surprised at the difficult terrains inhabited by the artistes in this part of the country. To imagine art being born out of hardships is almost audacious, to witness a form so evolved and stunning is a privilege. But before you decide on which path to tread, the roads fork into two enticing alternatives, running almost as parallels. Despite the fact that we had initially set out to explore the more well known Raghurajpur and its Pattachitra, when we stood at the juncture, we almost gravitated towards Nayakapatana — which delivered on expectations that were perched quite high on the artistic ladder in any case.
The lanes unfurled to give way to a host of myriad colours on walls that carried hand-painted images of deities, next to names of married couples who inhabited the individual houses. A rather quirky way to break the ice with absolute strangers, one may say. On either side of the rocky lane were houses which mimicked a rainbow. You’d almost be fooled into believing the village had just gotten over with a round of festivities. This seemingly cheerful disposition of Nayakapatana happens to be a round-the-year affair. The neighbourhood is centered around a temple of a local Hindu god, behind which stood a building of unmistakable stature, shielded by majestic green walls that anchored it in the middle of all the eccentricity, almost like a rock. The iron grills of the entrance to the structure had been bent to spell the name ‘Maga Nayak’, the man with whom it all started.
Classes were in full swing as one made their way past the kitchen and bedroom on the ground floor, smelling of raw vegetables and well-cooked meat, on to the next level of untiled flooring and walls covered with Pothichitra. From young school going girls to married women and men, every student seemed unaware of the intrusion we caused and the ruckus made by our clicking cameras and snapping tripod stands. “They come here every day and train for almost eight hours each day. We don’t charge any money. We are helping them earn a living this way. This entire village does Pothichitra and my father has trained most of them. He’s been doing that for nearly 30 years now,” Prashanta says, betraying a hint of pride in his otherwise calm voice.
The village dwellers seemed unperturbed by the invasion of cameras and equipment, they are seasoned recipients of touristy attention from the looks of it. “People know of Pothichitra, but Raghurajpur has managed to market its art much better than us,” Prasanna says as he settles down to engrave on a palm leaf against a backdrop of not just their traditional art, but rolls of tussar cloth and colourful glass bottles. “We have to improvise nowadays. People won’t be interested in buying just palm leaves which is a very ancient tradition. So we have started painting on other objects and selling them at exhibitions and people who visit us here,” he says without taking his eyes off his canvas. A stunning floral motif comes to life out of nowhere, sparkling in jet black on what seemed like dry, mundane foliage a second ago.
As we walked past the humble homes — a mix of equal number of mud and concrete structures — our cameras took stock of pothichitra canvases being put on display in the balconies and courtyards, one home at a time. The paintings told different stories, some told the same stories differently, while some were painted on cloth lanterns with mirror work. Nayakapatana had suddenly transformed into something totally different. In the span of just two hours, it went from being a suspiciously ordinary agrarian settlement to an astounding gallery of brilliant art. The metamorphosis was almost seamless, working with the precision of a seasoned magician.
The artists’ village is almost modest in its claims of fame. One of their star students, Parbati Swain, a woman in her early twenties, has recently brought a coveted laurel home. Out of 200 students appearing for a state level art exam, she was among the few to have been nominated to undertake an advance training course in art, a first for the community. “We got a poster printed and put up at our workshop here. She’s been coming to us for nine years now,” Prasanna says as he points to the banner on the wall, boasting of the feat. Parbati smiles shyly from one corner of the room where she sits sharpening a pencil to start her day’s work. She whispers something in local Odiya to her neighbour, a 17-year-old Harapriya Swain, and they both burst into giggles at their inner joke.
It’s been a while since the Odisha government has been struggling to win a GI tag for Pothichitra, like Pattachitra that is native to Odisha and some parts of Bengal. Out of the few villages practising this age-old art form, Nayakapatana happens to be closest in proximity to Raghurajpur, a heritage crafts village. Consequently, it’s also closest to feeling the heat of the steep competition faced by the artistic entities in the race to not thrive but survive. “This art form will vanish soon if we don’t work to preserve it. My father took lessons from the great Pattachitra artist, Dr. Jagannath Mahapatra, and started to use his sketching skills on palm leaves. He used the art to make manuscripts and birth charts. If the new generation takes to it, it might even help them get rid of unemployment. The government does say a lot is happening to help us but it really isn’t. Most of the focus went to Raghurajpur and Pattachitra,” Prasanna says, not crestfallen, just matter-of-fact. As he rolls up a canvas of pothi and helps his father get up on his feet for lunch, he begins to plan for the evening classes with his brother Prashanta, thinking of newer ways to educate fellow village folk on how to carve gold out of a mere palm leaf.