The Legend of Pattachitra Paintings

The meaning behind every Indian artwork has a significant story attached to it, sometimes they are religious, and sometimes they are social, either way, they tend to go hand in hand with the narrative that produces artworks capturing the attention of millions of people. Today, we bring you the story of one of the most sophisticated works of art - the story of Pattachitra. Whatever we might know about Pattachitra, already fascinates us but as we bring you interesting facts and the history of Pattachitra, we assure you - you’ll fall in love with this Indian artwork all over again. Pattachitra or Patachitra paintings celebrate divinity and manage to weave the viewer in an enchanting web of storytelling of timeless legends like Ramayana.

  • The History of Pattachitra

To begin with the story of Pattachitra, one must understand the meaning behind Pattachitra paintings. Pattachitra means paintings on cloth, patta means cloth and chitra means paintings and hence, they are also known as patta paintings. The history of Pattachitra art originated in two different parts of India - Odisha, and Bengal - and both evolved into different styles and patterns. People often get confused between Bengal Pattachitra and Odisha Pattachitra. The key difference between both the styles is that Odisha Pattachitra is used as a substitute for Lord Jagannath’s idol and partially used as souvenirs for deities, while Bengali Pattachitra is a form of narrative art where the patuas use each scroll to narrate epics like Ramayana and Mahabharat - these later culminated into the Kalighat painting style. While Pattachitra paintings in Odisha have different versions like Bhitti chitra (wall paintings), patta chitra (paintings on cloth), and tala Pattachitra  (paintings on palm leaves), Bengal Pattachitra has styles like chal chitra (used behind Goddess Durga’s idol), Durga Pot (Pattachitra used for worshipping), Kalighat Pattachitra, tribal Pattachitra, etc. The one we discuss today is Odisha Pattachitra.

Knowing about Pattachitra takes you back to the 12th century when Pattachitra artists, also known as chitrakars started making paintings that portrayed Hindu deities. Themes like Badhia (Jagannath temple), Krishna Lila (Lord Krishna as a child), Dasabatara Patti (the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu), and Panchamukhi (Lord Ganesha as a five-headed deity) were famously portrayed in the artworks.

  • The Story of Pattachitra – a royal duty

The history of Pattachitra paintings is deeply embedded in religious rituals. Odisha Pattachitra paintings act as substitutes for days when the deities have their annual ritual bath. For the customary bath, on Debasnana/Devasnana Purnima day, Lord Jagannath is given a ritualistic bath to beat the summer heat and because of that, the deities are believed to be sick for the next fifteen days. This period is known as Anasar and people aren’t allowed to look at the idols of the lord. These very idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, and Maa Subhadra are replaced with their Pattachitra paintings where they are depicted intricately and are equally celebrated by the devotees. 

If you ever read about Pattachitra paintings you will know that there is no such thing as an ‘easy Pattachitra painting’. Each painting takes weeks and sometimes months to complete, given the complexity with which the artists paint it. A painting so dynamic and celebrated has its own customs and rules. Pattachitra paintings are treated in a godly manner, hence the artist themselves follow some rituals before painting them. These artists are traditional chitrakars, who perform certain rituals and follow strict rules- women aren’t allowed to touch the painting, for the entire period that the chitrakar makes the Pattachitra art he sleeps on the ground and follows a vegetarian diet and puts on a new dhoti to paint. After the Pattachitra art is completed, they are blessed through the chanting of mantras and placed at the temple. Post the Anasar period they are carefully stored within the premises of the temple. The story of Pattachitra art is incomplete without the unwavering devotion of the chitrakar.

  • The creative process of making a Pattachitra painting

A fact about Pattachitra art is that it is a special kind of painting that requires custom-made mediums to paint on. These paintings are made on specially made pattas which are tirelessly made by the women of the chitrakar families. A piece of cloth is thoroughly washed and then laid out on a clean surface, then a special gum is made by mixing crushed tamarind seeds and water. This gum is evenly spread on the sheet with another layer of cloth covering it and a final layer of gum is spread out on the patta. It is then left out to dry. Once dried, a white stone powder along with the gum is applied on both sides to give an even white surface to paint on. Once the patta is dried for the last time, it is cut into desired pieces and polished for hours with a rough stone and then with a smooth pebble to make a desirable canvas to work on. Truly a loyal treatment in the story of Pattachitra painting!

Pattachitra paintings are true of divine nature given their strict adherence to the traditional practice of making authentic art. Throughout the years, paintings evolved according to the times and adapted to new methods but Pattachitra artists have always stuck to natural colors and never shifted to factory-made colors, unlike other painting styles. Artists to date use natural colors like powdered conch shell for white, indigo for blue, haritala, a type of stone, for yellow, burnt coconut shells for black, geru for red, and leaves for green.

Not only colors but chitrakars have kept their painting tools traditional as well. There’s a booming market for art tools where artists have access to a plethora of options, but to date, a lot of chitrakars have stuck to mostly three types of paint brushes – broad, medium, and fine which are made out of buffalo, calf and mouse hair. Even the accompanying tools are long-established and untouched – bamboo containers for holding the brushes, coconut shells for keeping the paint, ‘gaja’, a measuring scale, ‘matka’ a ring-like substance used for the base of coconut shells, thread for measuring distance, etc.

The history of Pattachitra painting is no less than an artistic dream - one that is wrapped in tradition, beliefs, ancient rituals, and people’s warmth. The story of Pattachitra painting is reflected in the artwork itself - clean, bold, meticulous, and colorful. Over the years, Pattachitra painting has taken a modern form and is now available to people in digital forms. As much as all painting styles have developed throughout the times, Pattachitra paintings have managed to maintain their divinity amongst people. If one did not take back a Pattachitra painting with them, then their yatra was not considered fulfilling. Hence, this also acted as a perpetual source of income for the chitrakars, who produced these ‘yatri pat’ in much advance. Along with this pati, people used to carry cane sticks, beads, and Nirmalya with them.

 The Bimba’s collection of Pattachitra paintings is an effort to reintroduce its original glory - the way it has been cherished by millions of people. Have a look at our extensive pattachitra collection here.

September 16, 2021 — Rahul Soni