Odisha’s rich tradition of handicrafts add colour to the landscape that is dotted with beaches on one side and forests on the other. Often centered on Hinduism and Islamic lore, these craft traditions have been an integral part of the State’s heritage offering an insight into its culture and geography.
Silver sparkles bright in the narrow, dusty bylanes of Cuttack, a 1000-year-old city with a heady history. Ruled by the British, Marathas and the Moghuls, this ancient city has seen the rise and fall of several dynasties and emperors, each of whom have left their mark on its heritage. It was the Moghuls, who patronised the delicate silver filigree or ‘tarakasi’ as it is known in local parlance.
At the workshop of Nirakar Das in Mansinghpatna, I see young artisans creating silver wires that are as thin as a spider’s web. Some others are meticulously shaping the wires into flowers, trinket boxes, jewellery, chariot-shaped souvenirs and much more. As I look around the shelves layered with green and red velvet sheets with silver showpieces, idols of deities and jewellery items on them, Das begins to explain the process. He picks up a long silver thread that has been created manually and cuts it into small pieces. With expertise gained over 25 years of creating filigree, he twists and twirls the wires into intricate floral designs with the help of a sharp knife. The final product is then fired in the furnace, glazed and polished with reetha (soap nut) for that pristine white sparkle.
Like Das, Cuttack is home to 1,000 filigree artisans who have inherited the craft from their ancestors. Visit Cuttack during the Durga Puja to witness the silver splendour. Cuttack sees around 150-odd pandals housing 20-feet-high idols of Goddess Durga accompanied by Goddesses Laxmi and Saraswati, Lord Ganesh and Katikeswar. The idols are set against 30-feet-high gorgeous backdrops that are entirely done is silver filigree, embellished with precious stones and gold at some places.
How to Reach: Cuttack is around 25 kms away from Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s Capital, and can be approached by road.
Where to buy: Apart from Mansinghpatna, silver filigree can be purchased from jewellery shops at Shaikh Bazaar, Naya Sadak and Dolomundai.
You know you have arrived in Bhubaneswar if you see temples and stone sculptures everywhere. In fact, Bhubaneswar was once home to 2,000 temples of which, 700 survive today serving as the connecting link between the present and a bygone era. A craft that started here in the 13th century AD, the technique and subjects of stone carving remain very much the same today. Traditionally, the sculptures are carved using red sandstone or granite.
I take the Bhubaneswar-Puri road, dotted with shops selling sculptured statues of deities in different postures and sizes on both the sides, to reach Raghunath Stone Crafts Museum to see how a sculpture takes form. Spreading over a sprawling two acres of land at Sisupalgarh, on the outskirts of the city, an ornate gate opens up to the museum. Its beautifully decorated garden comes alive with lively sculptures of dancing celestial deities. “Stone sculptures have been an indispensable part of Odia culture,” says Raghunath Mohapatra, a pioneer figure in sculpting who has set up the museum. “As red sandstone is easily available here, sculpting prospered under the patronage of the Eastern Ganga dynasty rulers, who built several temples not only in Bhubaneswar but also in Puri,” he says.
Interestingly, none of the stone artists in Bhubaneswar have yet given a modern touch to their designs. Subjects in their oeuvre are traditional, often drawn from Indian mythology. In the workshop at Raghunath’s museum, artists painstakingly chisel out small strips of stone from a large block that is going to take the shape of Lord Buddha in meditation. While small statutes can be completed within a day, the more complex figures sometimes take months to finish. Watching these sculptors work is an experience in itself as every stroke of their hammer and chisel immortalises tales from the local milieu and history.
How to Reach: Bhubaneswar is well connected by air, rail and road.
Where to Buy: Travellers can purchase sculptures from hundreds of stone craft shops on Bhubaneswar-Puri Highway besides, the Raghunath Stone Crafts Museum at Sisupalgarh and Sudarshan Craft Center at Jaydev Vihar. Almost all the shops have an attached workshop where travellers can watch artisans sculpt the stone.
PALM LEAF ENGRAVING AT RAGHURAJPUR
Raghurajpur is not always about Pattachitra scroll paintings. If you want to explore Tala Patra Chitra or the delicate palm leaf engraving, head to this idyllic village that lies on the banks of river Bhargabi, which is around 16 kms from Puri town through National Highway 203. Surrounded by coconut and palm trees, Raghurajpur has around 50 identical and uniformly coloured houses, arranged in two neat rows. There are around 100 artisan families in the village who are preserving this ancient art style in all its originality. So far, modern designs have not made inroads into the design bank of the artists.
As I walk down the colourful village, an elderly artist, Banamali Mohapatra invites me to his house to show his miniature paintings in thick and thin sheets of palm leaves. He shows me the Dashavatara (10 incarnations) of Lord Vishnu. While the deity rests in the centre of the painting surrounded by flora and fauna, Mohapatra opens circles on the corners of the painting that contain each of His Dasavatara motif. These circles can be folded back into the richly detailed painting that took him six months to complete.
He explains that sun dried palm leaves are stitched together in two-leaf thick panels and mythological tales and subjects are drawn on the front surface with pencil. A needle is used to engrave the design into the surface with utmost care lest, the process damages the leaf. The painting is then stained with black lamp soot that enters the engraved area and highlights the designs.
Apart from palm leaf painting, artists here practice other art forms like cow dung toys, wood carving, paper masks and coconut shell paintings. The artists’ village is also the birthplace of doyen of Odissi dance, late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.
How to Reach: Travellers can hire a cab to reach Raghurajpur from either Puri (10 kms) or Bhubaneswar (30 kms).
Where to Buy: Almost all the houses in Raghurajpur sell the craft.
It’s a riot of colours in the small town of Pipili. Lanterns and umbrellas in the most vibrant colours embellished with small mirrors hang outside craft shops on the main road, gently swaying to the slightest breeze. Counted among one of the most vibrant crafts of Odisha, Pipili’s appliqué work or ‘Chandua’ can be seen on the giant chariots of the divine Trinity of Odisha – Lord Jagannath, Devi Subhadra and Lord Balabhadra – during the annual Car Festival, also known as the Rath Yatra in Puri.
Kings of Puri, who were ardent followers of Lord Jagannath, promoted the craft and decided to resettle all the ‘Chandua’ artisans in one village, which is the present day Pipili.
The craft is also an example of communal harmony. Among the rows of houses selling appliqué in the town, every second house belongs to a Muslim. “The Hindu and Muslim families produce and sell Chandua together. Yet the designs have remained the same. In every large piece of Chandua, Lord Jagannath’s face finds place in the centre,” says Devi Nanda, a master craftsman, who is trying to bring in modernity to this traditional art form. Colourful patches of cotton, jute and silk fabrics are cut in the form of decorative motifs and sewn onto a contrasting fabric with special embroidery techniques.
While the colours were limited to white, red, yellow, blue and black earlier, artisans these days are experimenting with new shades. The most commonly found products in the town are lamp shades, bed covers, bags, umbrellas and cushions. However, artisans like Nanda are integrating motifs from Pattachitra, Warli and Saura tribal paintings into the appliqué work to enliven it. For its sheer artistry, Pipili’s appliqué has also earned the Geographical Indication (GI) tag.
How to Reach: Pipili can be approached by road from both Bhubaneswar and Puri. It is around 16 kms from Bhubaneswar and 20.6 km from Puri via NH-316.
Where to Buy: The approach road to Pipili town has crafts shops on both the sides where visitor can purchase appliqué and also see them being prepared.
DOKRA OF DHENKANAL
A common thread connects the handicraft culture of Odisha and Mohenjodaro, the hub of Indus Valley civilisation. Remember the bronze figurine of a dancing girl from the ancient civilisation, considered the earliest example of Dokra or metal casting craft? The 4,500 year old art form continues to thrive in a small village of Dhenkanal district in Odisha. Located near the Saptasarjya Hills, Sadeibareni village has just about 60 thatched houses inhabited by Situla tribals. Each of the houses is a repository of Dokra and every villager, an expert artisan in the art form. Apparently, most of the artisans are recipients of National Shilp Guru Award, instituted by the Ministry of Textiles, but none of them have had any formal training in metal casting.
As we walk down the kutcha road in the village, I see tribal women preparing black wax strands from refined oil, bee wax and resin that they collect from the Saptasarjya forest. These strands are dissolved in water for sometime before they are ready to use. At another corner of the village, Golap Gadtia, a National Shilp Guru awardee in 2002, is busy applying naturally made glue onto the sculptures that are prepared with cow dung and red clay. These sculptures are unevenly framed with two ducts, one on the top and another at the bottom.
“After the glue is applied, the wax threads are layered around the figurines which are again covered with clay and cow dung mixture,” she explains. Golap then takes a dozen of these sculptures to burn them in a furnace that is located at the centre of the village. Apparently, the village has two large furnaces that are used by all its 126 artisans. When the wax drains out from the bottom duct after being heated, molten brass is poured through the top duct and it takes the shape of the metal structure. Unlike Chhattisgarh where Dokra artisans polish the final product to give it a shiny golden hue, their counterparts in Sadeibareni like to retain the unpolished charm of Dokra. “International craft lovers prefer the raw look,” Golap says.
How to Reach: Visitors can hire a cab to reach Sadeibareni, which is around 80 kilometres from Bhubaneswar. One can also take a train to Dhenkanal from Bhubaneswar and proceed to Sadeibareni in a car.
Where to Buy: The entire village is an open air gallery and crafts can be purchased from any household. Interestingly, Dokra handicraft is sold in the village in kilograms, the intricacy of work notwithstanding. A kilogram of the crafts would cost you Rs 800.
(The story first appeared in April, 2017 edition of National Geographic Traveller, India)