I forgot about Raghurajpur for many years until a conversation with Tarek last night brought it up again. We were talking about dying art and handicraft heritages across the world and how it is inevitable with change. Thankfully, being an Indian, there is a lot I can boast about in this regard since we have somehow managed to preserve quite a bit of our art and handicraft legacy. Raghurajpur in Odisha is one such success story where special initiatives were undertaken to revive the beautiful painting style of patachitra.
Silk painters, palm scroll painters, sculptors, Raghurajpur has them all
I was in the seaside holy town of Puri for some time, when a day trip took me to this special artist village. It was around a half-hour drive from Puri and I remember the approach to Raghurajpur being lined with the colourful fabric parasols, a specialty of the region. The highly accoladed village was deceptively sublime and it had none of the looks of being an important milestone in the world of art and handicraft preservation. Scenic rustic surroundings of coconut, palm and jackfruit groves enveloped this village and it was an ideal day trip from Puri or Bhubaneshwar. Raghurajpur has about 120 odd homes and almost every villager is an artisan.
It is the home of legendary artists and ancient art forms
Many of these artists have won the prestigious National Awards for their exceptional work and they are an eclectic mix of patachitra painters, traditional mask makers, stone idol carvers, wooden toy makers and paper mache sculptors. It is also the birthplace of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, a renowned exponent of Odissi dance, who single-handedly revived this performing art from the brink of extension. Needless to say, Raghurajpur is like the holy site of arts and handicrafts and this lush little village is indeed the keeper of an ancient legacy. The highlight of Raghurajpur is Patachitra, an art form which dates back to the 12th century. It is a style of painting on cloth, which is said to have evolved under the Lord Jagannath cult and are still popularly used in religious rituals at the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri.
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The intricate process of patachitra of Raghurajpur
The word patachitra means exactly what it is. In Oriya, pata means cloth and chitra is painting and the traditional patachitra work is a time-consuming process. To begin with, the canvas or pata is prepped by binding two layers of cotton with a gum made of conch shell and tamarind seeds powder. Once dry, the surface of the canvas undergoes intense polishing by stone until a smooth base for the painting is formed. Vibrant colours are used in delicate lines to depict stories from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the end result is a beautiful storytelling canvas. Most Raghurajpur artists use natural pigments such as white from conch shells, and black from lamp black and burned coconut shells and this is another unique aspect of this artistan village. Each family of Raghurajpur dedicates to the practicing of a traditional handicraft, made entirely from indigenous materials. These are sourced from the lush coconut, palm, and jackfruit groves which grow abundantly around the village and on the banks of River Bhargavi.
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Raghurajpur is a victory of ancient art over the changing times
Walking down the cleanly swept dirt lanes of Raghurajpur is a very satisfying feeling. I was there in the evening when the ladies were blowing conch shells and lighting little lamps under their family holy basil bushes. Nearly all the homes were open and humming with activity with artists sitting cross-legged on floor mats and working on some kind of art. Many practiced painting delicate lines on pata, while others engraving folklore onto palm leaves, or making coconuts and betel nuts into miniatures of Lord Jagannath, Odisha’s most prominent deity. Their busy hands totally defied Raghurajpur’s recent past, when at one point, these artists were forced to give up their art to get into agriculture for fending livelihood. That was exactly when the INTACH (The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) chose Raghurajpur to be developed as the first heritage crafts village. This 1998 decision, changed the fate of Raghurajpur forever and the villagers underwent extensive training to relearn traditional techniques and implement them in their work.
The beautiful palm scroll painting, a lesser known gem of Raghurajpur
Though patachitra is the real show stopper, Raghurajpur artists also excel in the beautiful talapatachitra or palm leaf engraving. This style of painting is a real beauty and personally, I love it more than the vibrant patachitra. The process is equally tedious and the yellow-green fronds are stuck together to form strips which are then carefully stitched to form a canvas. Talapatachitra artists use an iron stylus to etch the paintings between the veins of the leaves. The scenes depict stories from the epics and the grooves are often filled with black natural pigment to get highlighted. It takes years of practice for a talapatachitra artist to make sure the leaf doesn’t crack and the result is a beautiful foldable scroll painting.
Raghurajpur is a quintessential Indian village with a difference
Raghurajpur, however, is not just restricted to fine art and the village is also known for its invaluable heritage of the classical Gotipua dance form. Though I did not watch a Gotipua performance at Raghurajpur, I could hear the rhythmic beating steps of the dance pouring into the twilight sky. The village at that time was filled with sounds and a whole lot of energy. Homecoming birds twittered nonstop, ladies tinkled with the religious bells, wayward naughty children played noisily and bullock cart drivers made the much forgotten ‘cluck-cluck” noise. Some farmers were returning home from work, as their herders dragged grazing cattle back home. The cows lowed mightily, big wooden wheels rumbled by and Raghurajpur artists continued working on their ancient art forms, without batting an eye.
Raghurajpur Travel Tips
Raghurajpur is located in the eastern part of Odisha. Conveniently situated around 11km/25min from Puri, and around 55km/1hr20min from Bhubaneswar, it makes a perfect day trip from both the cities.
The nearest airport is Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha. Though Puri has its own railway station, the Bhubaneswar railway station is more convenient as it’s connected to major metros in the country. Taxis and buses are readily available from Bhubaneshwar airport and railway station to Puri.
Raghurajpur is best explored on foot. Just walk around, see the artists home which double up as their studio-gallery, strike up a conversation to get an insight into their art and folklore. There are other neighbouring villages like Dandasahi, Nayakapatna, and Khasposak which are also involved in these work and one can rent bikes to explore them and the surrounding betel nut plantations.
Where to Stay
Raghurajpur does not offer accommodation, so it is best to stay in Puri or Bhubaneshwar, which offer luxury, budget, and homestays and go there on a day trip.
When to Go
One can visit Raghurajpur throughout the year, though the scorching summer months between April to June are best avoidable. The five-week art residency programme called The Raghurajpur International Art/Culture Exchange is hosted by the villagers annually and residency applications are open for international artists. It is a lovely get-together for artists and art lovers to exchange ideas and skills with the local craftsmen. Check on their website and facebook page for more information. Try timing your visit in late June-early July to enjoy the annual Puri Rath Yatra festival.
Things to See
One of the loveliest sights of Raghurajpur are the wall murals on its homes. The front wall of every house is decorated with brilliant artwork, paintings depicting folktales or mythologies like Mahabharata or Ramayana, wedding announcements, and graffiti gifted by some foreign visitor. Bits and bobs of art can be found all over the village, in various stages of preparation and you can see sheets of clay toys left in the sun for drying or freshly made pata being air dried. For bucolic village views, bike or walk around and you can see emerald green betel nut plantations.
What to Buy
Tussar silk painting, Patachitra, Talapatachitra, coconut and betelnut miniatures etc.
To know about Raghurajpur’s betelnut farming, check out this very interesting article.
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