Monday, 1 September 2014

ARTISTS VILLAGE OF ORISSA — DANDASAHI


Art is everywhere. Even wedding invitations are painted on the walls of homes.
Dandasahi — it has an artistic lilt as it rolls out of your mouth. Apt!  Dandasahi is an artist’s village in Orissa. Lesser known than its famous cousin, the Raghuajpur artist village — the latter is prominent on the tourist-map of Orissa while Dandasahi is more of a dot on the map. 

Native art on the walls of an underpass. 

What's striking about Orissa, the land on the Eastern coast of India, is its natural beauty and ART. Native art follows you everywhere — starting from the airport arrivals. You cannot miss it. It is there on the walls of the underpass, on the sidewalks, on lanes and bylanes. People here seemed to have descended upon this earth with an extra artistic- gene. 
The wall outside Shilpa Guru Ananta Maharana's house

So, when I was told about Dandasahi, I wasn't surprised. An artist’s village conjures up images of pretty houses with painted flower boxes on the window sill, set in a beautifully laid-out environment — effects of Hollywood films! Unlike such stereotypical artist villages, which exist within a controlled-environment created by urban minds, Dandasahi is au naturel. It is a rudimentary village which is home to Pattachitra artists from eons — 12th century or before to be precise. And it is a mere half-a-kilometer drive from Chandanpur near Puri; tucked in the midst of coconut grooves on the banks of the Bhargabi River.
The homes are not extravagant, but the art is

Narrow tarred roads flanked by trees, shrubs and small houses on either side lead to what is essentially a one-road Dandasahi village. There’s more vegetation here than houses and more goats than people — or at least that’s what it seemed like. Total population: 150

Colours used are made out of natural materials 
On the day I went to Dandasahi, it was raining. I don’t know whether the grey weather made the village seem cloaked in gloom or it was the coat of impoverishment worn by the village. The houses that speckle the village are small, dark one or two room tenements. There are no signs of opulence in any form — maybe a two-storeyed house, with a looming embellished wrought iron gate, here and there. But...you find a different form of richness — in abundance — here. ART. It peeks at you from every nook and cranny.
The homes are decorated with native art.


A two-storeyed house.
A rare sight in the village
Art is everywhere —  on the walls, windows, doors, floor, on the threshold, on the footsteps and any space that can be turned into a canvas. Every aspect of the people’s lives in this village revolve around art. For example, a walk down the lonely road will reveal homes that has just celebrated weddings. How do I know this? The wedding invitation is painted on the walls of the home — ‘so and so weds so and so’. I found it to be utterly charming — not to mention eco-friendly and artistic. People here breathe art the way we Bangaloreans breathe in pollution — it is a way of life for them. And it has been like this for hundreds of years for pattachitra artists’ living in this village. (Pattachitras are paintings on cotton, silk and palm leaves).

My first stop was at the thatched-roofed house of Ananta Maharana, the famous pattachitra artist and recipient of the Shilpa Guru award. The dimly lit room, an artist's workshop of sorts, is occupied by a battered wooden table covered with precious paintings in various stages of completion. It’s the artist’s table  — there were a couple of artists sitting 'on' the table and around it — bent over treated paper and drawing painstaking lines and circles with brushes dipped in paints made out of natural materials  — just like how their ancestors had done before. Nothing has changed much in Dandasahi since the 12th century, except for the dim electric bulb hanging  overhead and the paved road outside the door; the technique used to create pattachitra today is the same as it had been hundreds of years ago.


Artist at work in Shilpa Guru Ananta Maharana's house
First, for the base of the painting, two cotton fabric pieces (“Used cotton saris are the best,” says Vikram Singh, grandson of Maharana) are prepared by coating it with glue made out of tamarind seeds and white chalk powder. This is allowed to dry for a few hours. Then it is coated again with soft white stone powder and tamarind gum. This gives the cloth tensile strength; it is then smoothened with round pebbles making the surface smooth and a semi-absorbent surface, allowing it to accept the paint. The paint is made out of natural materials — vegetables, earth and mineral sources. The colours used predominantly in pattachitra are are black, red, yellow and green. Black colour is obtained from the black of wick-burning lamps; yellow from haritali stone and red from the hingal stone. White colour is obtained by crushing, boiling and filtering shells. Earlier, the artists didn’t use pencil or charcoal for the preliminary drawings, but now some of them do. Still, most start by making a rough sketch directly with the brush using light red or yellow colour. The borders are painted first. The artist finishes the painting with fine strokes of black brush lines, giving the effect of pen work. Then the painting is held over a charcoal fire and lacquer is applied to the surface. This makes the painting water resistant and durable, besides giving it a glossy finish. The subject matter of the pattachitras are mostly religious, mythological, and folk themes. Krishna leela and Lord Jagannath are recurring motifs.

Shilpa Guru Ananta Maharana
The one-room workshop led to the residence of Maharana  — a humble tenement with a rich intricately painted doorway. Maharana, now well into his seventies, is a frail but extremely skilled man. Sitting in the corner of the room, framed by an artistically embellished window frame, he seemed to be weighed down by dreams unfulfilled.


The room was filled choc-a-block with pattachitras and painted wooden boxes, bottles, coconut shells and others. Maharana’s sons proudly displayed the traditionally painted playing cards or Ganjifa and Chitra-pothies, a collection of painted palm leaves stacked on top of each other and held together between painted wood covers by means of string. The theme was mostly mythological. The life of Krishna has been an inspiration to these artists for eons. They  never tire of showing the works to the visitors. And the guests can never tire of such artistic works. One can buy pattachitras directly from the artists in the village or one can go into town and buy rip-offs for a much lesser price. But even the rip-offs are beautiful. Such is the character of pattachitras.  

Mythology is a recurring theme in Pattachitras.
After spending some time at Maharana’s I walked down the street. Most of the homes are similar to Maharana’s, beautifully painted outer walls, thatched roof, intricately painted doors and window frames; beyond which is darkness punctured with flickering light and the men of the house bent over painting an ancient art. Women help in preparing the canvas, but it is the men who paint — women are not allowed to paint pattachitras. 


The women of Dandasahi 

A regular house in Dandasahi. See the painted walls and door frames

If the art was inspiring enough, the hospitality of the villagers was even more so. They readily open their doors and invite strangers in to share their legacy and livelihood — the patachitra, which is a way of life for them. The only life they know.