Few regions of India retain as rich a diversity of traditional art forms as Odisha. While a browse through the bazaars and emporia in Puri and Bhubaneswar provides a good idea of local styles and techniques, a trip out to the villages where the work is actually produced is a much more memorable way to shop. Different villages specialize in different crafts – a division that harks back to the origins of the caste system in Odisha. Patronage from the nobility and wealthy temples during medieval times allowed local artisans, or shilpins, to refine their skills over generations. As the market for arts and crafts expanded, notably with the rise of Puri as a pilgrimage centre, guilds were formed to control the handing down of specialist knowledge and separate communities established to carry out the work. Today, the demand for souvenirs has given many old art forms a new lease of life.
With modern temples increasingly being built out of reinforced concrete, life for Odisha’s stone sculptors is getting tougher. To see them at work, head for Pathuria Sahi (“Stonecarvers’ Lane”) and the famous Sudarshan workshop on Station Road in Puri, where mastercraftsmen and apprentices still fashion Hindu deities and other votive objects according to specifications laid down in ancient manuals.
Patta chitra, classical Odishan painting, is closely connected with the Jagannath cult. Traditionally, artists were employed to decorate the inside of the temples in Puri and to paint the deities and chariots used in the Rath Yatra. Later, the same vibrant colour schemes and motifs were transferred to lacquered cloth or palm leaves and sold as sacred souvenirs to visiting pilgrims. In the village of Raghurajpur near Puri, where the majority of the remaining artists, or chitrakaras, now live, men use paint made from the local mineral stones. Specialities include sets of ganjiffa – small round cards used to play a trick-taking game based on the struggle between Rama and the demon Ravana, as told in the Ramayana.
Palm leaves, or chitra pothi, have been used as writing materials in Odisha for centuries. Using a sharp stylus called a lohankantaka, the artist first scratches the text or design onto the surface of palm leaves, then applies a paste of turmeric, dried leaves, oil and charcoal that, when rubbed off, emphasizes the etching. Palm-leaf flaps are often tied onto the structure so an innocent etching of an animal or deity can be lifted to reveal Kama Sutra action. The best places to see genuine antique palm-leaf books are the National Museum in New Delhi or the State Museum in Bhubaneswar.
Distinctive textiles woven on handlooms are produced throughout Odisha. Silk saris from Brahmapur and Sambalpur are the most famous, though ikat, which originally came to Odisha via the ancient trade links with Southeast Asia, is also typical. It is created using a tie-dye-like technique known as bandha, also employed by weavers from the village of Nuapatna, 70km from Bhubaneswar, who produce silk ikats covered in verses from the scriptures for use in the Jagannath temple.
The village of Pipli has the monopoly on appliqué, another craft rooted in the Jagannath cult. Geometric motifs and stylized birds, animals and flowers are cut from brightly coloured cloth and sewn onto black backgrounds. Pipli artists are responsible for the chariot covers used in the Rath Yatra as well as for the small canopies, or chhatris, suspended above the presiding deity in Odishan temples.
Tarakashi (literally “woven wire”), or silver filigree, is Odisha’s best-known metalwork technique. Using lengths of wire made by drawing strips of silver alloy through small holes, the smiths create distinctive ornaments, jewellery and utensils for use in rituals and celebrations. The designs are thought to have come to India from Persia with the Mughals, though the existence of an identical art form in Indonesia, with whom the ancient Odishan kingdoms used to trade, suggests that the technique itself may be even older. Tarakashi is now only produced in any quantity in Cuttack and is dying as an art form.